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Will a Cabinet Reshuffle Appease a Dissatisfied Electorate? - Email sent 20/7/14

Steven Wardill

Re: Massacre sends a clear message of action not words, Sunday Mail, 20/7/14

Your article suggested that the result of the Stafford bye election indicates that Queenslanders want real change in government – such as reversal of some controversial decisions or reshaping cabinet. I would like to suggest that much more fundamental changes are needed to create a reliable and effective system of government in Queensland.

My interpretation of your article: Labor effectively annihilated the LNP in the Stafford bye election. This means that the LNP after 2 years in power is held in the same low regard as the Bligh Government was at the end of Labor’s long period in government. This can’t be dismissed as a mid-term protest. Committing to listening and doing things differently as the Premier did after the losing the Redcliffe bye election can’t be enough. The electorate now wants action (eg reversing some controversial decisions or reshaping cabinet). The Premier now needs to make tough decisions.

When the present government was elected it seemed likely to take a ‘gung ho’ approach (ie ‘just get on and do things’) - see Can the Commander Do? (2012). This was hardly a formula for success because of the lack of informed advice about what ‘things’ it should do (see Queensland’s Next Unsuccessful Premier, 2012) and the further damage to Queensland’s system of government that would be likely to result from more ‘gung ho’ reform.

Over 20 years ago the Fitzgerald Inquiry proposed reforms to Queensland’s machinery of government, which were implemented in a ‘gung ho’ fashion by the Goss Government. The problem was that the well-intended reforms were based on only a superficial diagnosis of the sources of problems in the state’s machinery of government (see Journey Towards a More Effective 'Fitzgerald Inquiry', 2009). And they were implemented with a self-righteous ruthlessness that ensured that sources of weaknesses in Queensland were simply compounded (eg see Toward Good Government in Queensland, 1995). This laid the basis for the limited accomplishments and the crises that have characterised subsequent state governments (eg see Evidence of Dysfunctions, 2001+ and Reform of Queensland Institutions - or a Rising Tide of Public Hypocrisy?, 2004) even before the Beattie Government’s ‘gung ho’ approach to public spending compounded the Queensland’s problems with a debt crisis (see Recovering from Queensland's Debt Binge, 2012).

Queensland’s machinery of government has never been strong and has been further damaged in recent decades. The civil institutions in one of the luckiest states in the Lucky Country suffer from a shallow understanding of the nature and functions of government (eg see Governing is not Just Running a Large Business) and do not invest sufficiently in acquiring informed and up-to-date information about the strategic issues and environment that Queensland and its state government face. And, as noted above, the ability of the state public service to provide ‘reality checks’ on advice from those civil institutions (based on accumulated knowledge and experience) has been eroded by naïve ‘reforms’.

Some years ago it was suggested that changes to parliament (eg the creation of an upper house) might make a useful difference. However improving the way in which Queensland’s political system processes the inadequate advice that is all that it is now likely to have access to could not really help (see The Upper House Solution: A Commentary, 2006).

The changes required to create a foundation for more effective government are arguably more fundamental. It cannot be sufficient just to ‘listen’ more carefully to available advice. Rather it is vital to strengthen the community and public service institutions that provide advice to make it more likely that the latter is up-to-date and relevant.

Suggestions about achieving this (eg about building on the capabilities of existing institutions – rather than over-riding them in frustration) were referenced in Reversing Queensland Institutional Decay (2013). The latter was written in the context of the potential damage to Queensland’s judiciary that could result from a ‘gung ho’ approach to outlaw bikie gangs.

Reversing a few controversial decisions and reshuffling cabinet might (or might not) create a public perception of ‘action’ to deal with the electorate’s manifest dissatisfaction. But it would certainly not be enough to deal with the cause of the repeated and justified bouts of public discontent that Queensland Governments have experienced in recent decades. 

John Craig