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Poor Government in Queensland: A Rich Field for Senate Inquiry

Poor Government in Queensland: A Rich Field for Senate Inquiry - email sent 1/10/14

Gene Tunny
Queensland Economy Watch

Re: Victoria beating Qld in budget management and other policy areas, Queensland Economy Watch, 1/10/14

Your article identified both the severe deterioration of Victoria’s budgetary position under the 1982-90 Cain Government, and the fact that Queensland’s budgetary position is now even worse than Victoria’s and that Queensland’s budgetary problem is compounded by policy weaknesses in various areas. I should like to provide an historical perspective on that problem.

Queensland's Budgets (2001+) has been an ongoing attempt to monitor the deterioration in Queensland’s budgetary position. The problem seems to have arisen from stripping the assets of GOCs to fund increased levels of recurrent and capital spending in the late 1990s (initially under the Borbidge Government) and then gone on to even worse capital accounting malpractices to fund the infrastructure binge of the Beattie / Blight administrations. An attempt to provide an overview of what went wrong and of the inadequacy of the methods that the Newman Government used to try to correct the problem was in Auditing the Commission (2012).

However the source of the problems in Victoria’s Cain Government and those in Queensland have been almost identical – see Comparison’s with Victoria’s 1980’s Experience (1996) which was based on The Fall of the House of Cain (Murray R., and White K., 1992).

Introductory Comment: “There are parallels with Queensland's 1990s methods for Public Sector change. There was the same: managerial emphasis on government being a business; ill-informed belief that the existing system was heavily politicised; and ignoring of prior reforms. The result in both cases was a decline in the substantive understanding by senior administrators about areas they were supposed to administer, and thus an emphasis on 'paper shuffling'. Furthermore, the emphasis on compliance with, rather than counterbalance of, political policies turned the senior public service from the conscience of politicians into their unthinking accomplices. In Victoria those methods led to major problems.
Queensland will not suffer in the 1990s the same financial consequences as Victoria did, because Queensland did not eliminate its 'bean-counters' or divert its sinking funds to boost expenditure. But the initiative which was vital to improved economic performance was disabled. The most probable outcome in Queensland is that little will happen at all. Furthermore: dis-organisation similar to Victoria could occur in major functions such as transport, education and health; expensive 'white elephants' could be built; corporatised Government enterprises exposed to competition could suffer losses due to excessive or insufficient constraints, and a lack of skills; and corruption could prosper in the vacuum created by the displacement of competent experience from the public sector.” (From present author's submission to Queensland MLAs, 8 May 1993)

The fact that the latter prediction was born out in areas other than the state budget is indicated by Evidence of Dysfunctions (2001+) and Reform of Queensland Institutions - or a Rising Tide of Public Hypocrisy? (2004+). Reasons to suspect that the Newman Government would be unable to remedy the chronic problems in Queensland’s government were outlined in Queensland's Next Unsuccessful Premier (2012).

The proposed Senate Inquiry into problems in government in Queensland will have a rich field to explore.

John Craig



The following feedback was received from an observer with long public service experience who wishes to remain anonymous

"Comments on Poor Government in Queensland  1 October 2014

Public  administration  is generally said to be affected not only by political decisions but by what the bureaucracy particularly thinks that it can manage effectively and efficiently. Unfortunately the emergence of “Manageralism” particularly  management by objectives and “bean counting” while neglecting  outcomes in all bureaucracies in Australia , seems to be the root cause of a national malaise.

This then coupled with  the appointment of contracted “outsiders”  to top positions, often with little or no knowledge  of how really big systems work,  touched off with a barrage of “consultancies”, has resulted in an approach to public administration that is flawed in the extreme. The outcome of all of this is that we are now seeing a plethora of “inquiries” into “whatever “ with no really better result than the allocation of blame.  

What then is the cause of this.  I would suggest that it has been the desire to bring a style of decision making that is best suited to situations where the result is known before one commences the task  into a massive system where all factors are invariably never known . The pink batts  inquiry into Commonwealth Government  national home insulation delivery problems causing deaths has highlighted how difficult it is to get it all right. This is an extreme example but it is the millions of minor decisions made every day within this flawed approach  that ultimately take their toll.

There are a number of  critical points that emerge from any analysis that have led to the parlous state of public administration in Australia  and Queensland in particular :–

First is the fragmentation of the public service Into “them and us” eg  high flying , highly paid, temporary contractors versus the vast bulk of the lifetime public service employment pool.

Secondly  a university  education system delivering public policy operatives with little real knowledge of how to handle the people that they are required to serve. I would call it  the ivory tower syndrome. In many cases it is a case of the blind leading the blind.

Thirdly  the general lack of knowledge amongst political aspirants as to what government is all about leading to the bureaucracy having to “baby” new and often senior elected representatives. The point is that  “they don’t know what they don’t  know” is more the rule than the reverse. This is where the experienced, thoughtful, merit based career public servant can make a considerable difference. As one career top public servant used to say after the minister spoke in public “the minister would like to add” and then deliver the real message himself.  Contractors and politically appointed types with little capacity and knowledge are in the main incapable of this tough work.

The emphasis in public administration of late from my observations has been to delve into the nitty gritty of perceived problems whilst not recognising that the real problem is one of human resources at all levels.  Delving into matters of Treasury, industrial relations, the environment , statutory authorities etc to improve outcomes must still continue but the emphasis needs to be shifted ultimately to the human dimension.   There are lots of dedicated, competent, technically bright public servants who are under employed and lacking leadership within the public service, not only of Queensland but elsewhere  due to this flawed approach and they deserve better."