CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

Email 16/9/07

Mr Steven Wardill,
Courier Mail

Queensland's Next Successful Premier

In a recent article you highlighted the pressure on Queensland's new Premier, Ms Anna Bligh, to be more successful than her predecessor, Mr Peter Beattie, in 'delivering' on state functions that are currently in a state of crisis.

My interpretation of your article: Incoming Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, has been told to deliver on water, health, transport and ambulance services. In an effort to shake the crisis-ridden tag of the Beattie Government, Ms Bligh said that she had learned from past mistakes. She wants government to be better prepared - instead of only reacting after crises emerged - as the Beattie Government was seen to do. AMA (Ross Cartmill) said that Queensland’s health system was still failing, and bed numbers were inadequate. RACQ (Gary Fites) is concerned about continually worsening traffic congestion in SE Queensland. (Wardill S. ‘On notice to deliver’, Courier Mail, 12/9/07)

I should like to submit for your consideration that Queensland's next successful premier will probably be the person, who may not yet even be in Parliament, who finally addresses the structural / institutional factors that generate crises and cause political leaders to become victims of a defective operating environment. Brief suggestions about the nature of those problems and what might be required to overcome them are outlined following this email.

Your article quoted Ms Bligh as suggesting that lessons have been learned from past mistakes and will not be repeated. There is considerable scope for doing so. The most recent attempt to reform Queensland's institutions (ie by the Goss Government) was a failure (see Queensland's Worst Government?, 2005), and my considered analysis of this which was submitted to the ALP in 1995 (Toward Good Government in Queensland) has yet to receive any acknowledgment. Moreover, as a public servant at the time I had pointed out defects in the proposed approach to reform that were obvious on the basis of experience, and then (despite making a professional breakthrough) was subjected to an abuse of natural justice when the then Premier's Department refused to allow merit to be considered in relation to making a senior policy R&D appointment.

Will the new Bligh Government be more open-minded and less autocratic than its predecessors? Perhaps, but I'm not holding my breath. I note that Ms Bligh's senior policy advisor, in a recent response to suggestions that institutional incompetence was a significant factor in SE Queensland's water crisis, made claims about unprecedented drought as the cause of the crisis that seemed inconsistent with the source that was quoted as justifying them.


John Craig

Overcoming Structural Obstacles to Effective Government in Queensland

An attempt to identify the general structural defects that have led successive Queensland premiers to failure was presented in Structural Incompetence and SE Queensland's Water Crisis. The latter referred to:

  • weakness of Queensland's civil institutions in providing (a) apolitical leadership to the community, and (b) competent / up-to-date ideas for debate and implementation by their elected representatives. Their weakness arguably:
    • reflects the 'curse' of natural resource wealth (ie leads to the false assumption that success can be intellectually effortless); and
    • leaves the community and its representatives with unrealistic perceptions of what is required for successful governance;
  • federal fiscal imbalances that distort operations, and have made it almost impossible for states to take serious responsibility for their nominal functions;
  • neglect of public administration machinery in the 1980s, as Bjelke Peterson Governments focussed on support for major investment projects;
  • unworkably centralized and politicised machinery of government created by Goss Governments in the early 1990s;
  • attempts since then to improve performance by applying market and business-like methods to the primarily non-business-like functions of government.

Until such institutional obstacles are addressed and overcome, Queensland's record of unsuccessful Premiers is likely to remain unbroken. Real success will be anything but as easy as the community assumes that it ought to be.

The first requirement may be to create a more realistic public understanding of the nature of government, noting that:

The second key requirement may be to overcome public prejudices against the idea that their elected representatives need competent professional support (both from civil institutions and the Public Service) to govern successfully. Some indicators of the need for this are outlined in The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service.

The final requirement is renewal of government machinery, arguably including:

  • recognition that centralized strategic planning can't work, and that just as the core role of government is to create an environment in which the community can successfully 'plan and do', the core role of central government must be enabling other agencies to successfully 'plan and do' . While there is a vital need for competence in operational tasks, the more that those at the centre try to control outcomes, the worse the outcomes will be - as the many crises confronting Queensland's Government and Australia's federal system now clearly demonstrate (Why?);
  • a system of real professional accountability for the Public Service, and creating an operating environment in which career success depends on professional competence rather than political game-playing or unquestioning political compliance;
  • review of corporatization and commercialization practices, and clarification of the respective roles of the public and private sector;
  • initiative in proposals for reform of Australia's federal system of government, to balance financial capacity and functional responsibilities;
  • methods for managing change which build off, rather than demolishing, existing capabilities. Brief suggestions about such a process were outlined in Changing the Queensland Public Sector (1990) - based on methods the then Coordinator General had used in the 1970s to build a purposeful and cohesive public sector and give Queensland the reputation of being the easiest government in Australia to deal with. [It can be noted in passing that this broke down in the 1980s when the Coordinator General was required to concentrate on facilitation major projects - see The Lessons of History].