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Michael McKenna and Sarah Elks
The Australian

Reversing Queensland's Institutional Decay - email sent 2/11/13

Re: Its Newman versus judges as bikie row grows, The Australian, 1/11/13

Your article highlighted disputes between Queensland’s institutions about appropriate responses to the threats posed by organised-criminal bikie gangs.

My interpretation of your article: A judge has refused to hear a bikie bail case in a challenge to Campbell Newman over his criticism of the judiciary. And Tony Fitzgerald condemned the premier’s move. The premier had drawn parallels between his crackdown on bikies and the Fitzgerald inquiry into corruption in Queensland. This followed the premier’s insistence last week that the judiciary must protect the community – a call that a judge demanded that he withdraw on the grounds that it risked compromising judicial independence. Tony Fitzgerald warned the premier, and supposedly independent statutory office holders, not to treat the community like fools. This followed support for the government’s legislation by CMC’s chairman (Ken Levy). Fitzgerald suggested that the CMC will have outlived its usefulness if it loses independence. Earlier Mr Newman said he was cracking down on bikie gangs in the same way that the Fitzgerald inquiry targeted corruption in the 1980s – and that there was a need for government, courts, police, the CMC and all Queenslanders to work together to fight back against gangs that threaten social safety / stability.

I should like to suggest for your consideration that ‘gung ho’ political action which takes little account of the need for effective machinery of government has done a great deal of damage in the past. For example under the Bjelke Peterson Government this created a foothold for official corruption. And under the Goss administration a ‘gung ho’ approach contributed to: disastrously ineffectual government administration; the frustration of Fitzgerald inquiry ambitions about containing official corruption; budget blow-outs in the longer term; and the emergence of dysfunctional social environments in which organised crime could find a stronger foothold.

Alternatives are available – but these would require a somewhat different approach (ie an emphasis on using current policy priorities to build on existing institutional capabilities rather than over-riding them politically in frustration).

More detailed suggestions about the nature of the problem and possible solutions are developed further on my website.

John Craig

Detailed Comments

Detailed Comments

The premier is correct in comparing his Government’s efforts to control outlaw bikie gangs with the Fitzgerald Inquiry’s goal of reducing official corruption in Queensland in the late 1980s.

The potential threats to the political independence of the judiciary (and the CMC) that some now fear closely parallel the historically-real damage to the independence and competence of Queensland’s public service that resulted from the Goss Government’s ‘gung ho’ implementation of machinery of government ‘reforms’ in the early 1990s. Those ‘reforms’ were partly to give effect to the Fitzgerald inquiry’s anti-corruption agenda, and also based on Peter Wilenski’s theories about the ruthlessness needed to overcome bureaucratic ‘resistance’ to change.

The effectiveness of the system of government that Australia / Queensland inherited from UK depends (amongst other things) on a balance between the powers of executive government (drawn from the elected legislature) and an independent judiciary which adjudicates in specific cases (including those in which the executive is a party) on the basis of enacted legislation and common law. The effectiveness of that system of government also depended on the existence of an independent and professional public service to competently provide the executive with advice about policy issues and support in implementation (eg see Why Politicisation Matters (2001) and On Populism (2007) which suggests what can go wrong in the absence of a ‘reality check’ on populist political aspirations).

However in the early 1990s overly simplistic assumptions about Queensland’s challenges and a desire to ensure unquestioning public service compliance (a desire which apparently had bipartisan political support and parallels the apparent current desire for unquestioning judicial support) seriously damaged the effectiveness of Queensland’s system of government – see (for example) Toward Good Government in Queensland (1995); Evidence of Dysfunctions (2001); Defects in Infrastructure Planning and Delivery in Queensland (2002); Decay of Australian Public Administration (2002); Evidence of a Problem (2005); Intended Submission to Queensland Health System Inquiries (2005); Is Our System of Government in Queensland Working? (2007); Structural Incompetence and SE Queensland's Water Crisis (2007); Brisbane's Transportation Monster (2008); and Recovering from Queensland's Debt Binge (2012).

Increasingly ineffective government in turn contributed to the emergence of:

Suggestions about how a more solid base could be created for effective government in Queensland have been put forward at various times – see for example Toward Good Government in Queensland (1995); Renewal of Queensland's Public Service (2000); Australia's Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building (2003+); Improving Public Sector Performance in Queensland (2005); Queensland's Next Successful Premier (2007); Journey Towards a More Effective 'Fitzgerald Inquiry' (2009); and Curing Queensland's Myopia (2011).

However to date Queensland’s political establishment has preferred ‘gung ho’ actions in relation to specific priorities that can undermine Queensland’s institutions. This did not start with Queensland’s Goss administration (see The Lessons of History) though that Government was certainly Queensland’s worst in this respect. And it seems unlikely to be ended by the Newman administration (eg see Queensland’s Next unsuccessful Premier?, 2012).

Sustainable success requires using current priority issues to strengthen (by building on) existing institutional capabilities (eg as Queensland had attempted to do in the 1970s) rather than overriding them politically in frustration to try to achieve Goal A almost immediately and then later finding that the ability to achieve Goals B, C, D …etc has disappeared. A professional / independent public service is arguably the key ingredient required to organize collaborative / practical rather than divisive / political action. One must wonder what sort of crisis will be needed to get a change of approach.

And one must wonder how much worse Queensland’s exposure to organised crime must become before those who merely object to ‘gung ho’ government actions because of its effect on themselves start to recognise that there are real problems that they need to understand and do something about. 

The institutions that Queensland inherited involve independent / complementary centres of authority (eg the Legislature / Executive / Judiciary - as well as many others). This potentially works for the same reason that liberal legal and government machinery can work well for 'free' citizens - ie as a corollary of the West's Judeo-Christian heritage it is presumed that individual initiative / independent authority will be exercised with a strong sense of responsibility for the well-being of others (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength). If that broader sense of responsibility is not present or properly exercised, independent authority / individual liberty will be much less constructive and institutions like those Queensland inherited will cease to be effective.