CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

Email sent 22/5/12

Dr Noel Preston,
Griffith University

Making Queensland's 'Can Do' Government Ethical

Re: “Can do and ought to do”, Online Opinion, 22/5/12

Your article highlighted the risk that Queensland’s current government may fail to learn from others’ past mistakes in relation to political ethics.

My interpretation of your article: There are continuing problems with ‘political ethics’. Machiavelli warned about the dangers of making change. Wayne Goss once said that politics is morally ambiguous. There is thus a need for a regime that encourages propriety in public life – even though this can only be partly effective. Politics is always an influence. Politicians often feel that registers of interest, codes of conduct and ethics advisers will entrap them – though they should support ethical behaviour. There is scope for a more enforceable Ministerial Code of Conduct in Queensland. Anna Bligh deserves credit for progress in this area – though her government was consumed by a political tsunami. Queensland’s new parliament recently met - with most MPs (including the premier) being novices. Thus there is little experience, knowledge or memory in Parliament of Queensland’s integrity and ethics regime, which evolved from the 1989 Fitzgerald report. Premier got off to a wobbly start. Fitzgerald noted in the first week that there was again a ‘gravy train for cronies’. The premier also seemed willing to dodge accountability to Parliament – asserting that measures had been accepted by the electorate did not need scrutiny by the Parliamentary Scrutiny of Legislation Committee. This seems like a return to the Joh era, when opposition within Parliament was marginalised, and real opposition had to come from outside. Does ‘Premier Can Do’ understand what he can’t do? There is more to government than engineering projects, just as ethical scrutiny involves more than processes. An ethical government will be about more than the bottom line – ie there is a need also to consider social justice, the environment and the arts. The ethical use of power is related to public trust. It is too early to see how the Can Do Premier will perform, though in Canberra it is already too late.

There is little doubt that a ‘gung ho’ approach to government (eg immediately appointing apparent cronies to senior positions, and assuming that electoral support justifies by-passing established processes in implementing desired initiatives) is likely to lead to problems. However those problems may not simply related to a lack of ‘political ethics’. Queensland’s experience under the Goss administration shows that they can also lead to administrative incompetence, and to an inability to actually ‘do’ anything much at all.

The Goss Government apparently believed that a ruthless approach to changing government machinery was justified by strong electoral support for its apparently-desirable reform agenda, which included implementing the Fitzgerald reports’ recommendations to promote political ethics. The Westminster tradition of requiring that public service appointments be based on professional merit was by-passed, because the then government assumed that they (and their advisers) knew it all. The result was:

  • an across the board erosion of the hard-won experience, knowledge and memory that had been embodied in the public service – and the emergence of a public service dominated by politically-rather-than-professionally-skilled ‘yes men’;
  • an inability to actually achieve much (see Toward Good Government in Queensland, 1995 and Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002); and
  • virtually unworkable machinery of government that has caused subsequent administrations to be ineffective and crisis prone (see Queensland’s Worst Government, 2005).

The Newman Government seems to be headed down a similar path (see Can the Commander Do?, 2012), though the goals that are seen to justify disregarding processes that had been established in the past to ensure effective government are different.

[Note added later: It also seems to be headed down a similar path to the crisis plagued Beattie Government in adopting a 'can do' approach in the absence of reliable internal or external machinery for developing or implementing policy]

Queensland’s core problem seems to be that the community has little realistic understanding of the nature and functions of government or what is required for effective government, because of:

Making simplistic assumptions about what is required (and insisting on unquestioning compliance with those assumptions) is not a formula for success (eg as seems to be illustrated by the financial bind in which the present Queensland’s Government now finds itself because its predecessors apparently ignored traditional fiscal constraints on infrastructure spending – see Recovering from Queensland's Debt Binge, 2012).

Unless the competence of government is dramatically increased, efforts to ensure ethical behaviour by politicians and other public officials are likely to be a waste of time, because politicisation and incompetence facilitate and encourage abuses of power (see Journey Towards a More Effective 'Fitzgerald Inquiry', 2009). The latter includes reference to suggestions about how this might be achieved in Queensland. Australia's Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building (2003+) and Australia's Next Successful Prime Minister (2012) present similar suggestions in a national context.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig