CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary
Email +

"Nip corruption in the bud": Good idea, but Fitzgerald didn't go far enough
Email sent 12/8/09

Professor Ken Wiltshire,
University of Queensland

Re: 'Nip corruption in the bud', The Australian, 7/8/09

As you implied in this article (which is outlined below), 'nipping corruption in the bud' is the way to go, and the Queensland's Government's current proposals (effectively trying to micromanage relationships between ministers and citizens) would simply treat symptoms.

However the Fitzgerald inquiry's proposal for dealing with the systemic causes of political corruption in Queensland was not the 'textbook' answer that your article implied, because it did not recognise administrative incompetence as a key systemic factor in abuses of power.

Comments on the issues raised in your article follow this email. In brief it is suggested that:

  • your suggestions (eg a vibrant Parliament, 'frank and fearless advice' from public servants and an independent 'grandparent' watching over the whole system) would undoubtedly be desirable. However, a vibrant Parliament requires that civil society provide relevant raw material for Oppositions to challenge the Executive;
  • incompetent / ineffectual government universally provides an environment in which abuses of power can germinate and flourish;
  • because of the lack of competent support to the political system Queensland has often suffered from 'populist' governments, ie those with policies that (though apparently plausible and perhaps even intellectually appealing) would not really benefit the community for reasons that are not obvious to the man in the street;
  • even in its attempt to create an electoral / administrative environment in which political 'weeds' would be unlikely to germinate, the Fitzgerald inquiry did not go far enough - because it failed to recognise the need for, and difficulties of achieving, practical competence and effectiveness in government administration;
  • only entities with an 'on-line' role in government (eg the Head of State and Public Service) can help ensure competence, and constrain abuses at their genesis;
  • widespread politicisation of Public Services (and of Heads of State to an extent) have thus had a major role in undermining governments' competence and probity;
  • the Beattie Government doesn't deserve all the blame, as widespread Public Service politicisation / deskilling was primarily a legacy of the Goss administration;
  • the key institutions the Fitzgerald inquiry endorsed (ie CJC and EARC) were unable to deal with the effect of politicisation on government competence / probity;
  • Queensland's community itself (through appropriate civil institutions) must now become the 'grandparent' that watches over the whole system of government.

I would be interested in your views about these matters.

John Craig

Outline + Detailed Comments

Outline of Wiltshire K., 'Nip corruption in the bud', The Australian, 7/8/09

There is a need to treat causes not just symptoms of unscrupulous practices. Political corruption must be nipped in the bud, yet governments are addressing the symptoms (eg cash for favours) not the causes. The Fitzgerald report was a textbook on how to address systemic sources of corruption. Fitzgerald inquiry was an iterative process. Lurking behind police corruption was a whole system of political intrigue - so he sought wider terms of reference. He found problems linked to a government entrenched in power (with a gerrymandered electoral system; media manipulation, unrestrained ministerial conduct, poor accountability / transparency mechanisms; disrespect for parliament; exploitation of public works; interference in police powers; attempted interference with governor; public service politicisation). Many public servants nationwide now operate in a politicised / demoralised coma. Fitzgerald argued that the beginnings of corruption were in place when public servants gave ministers the advice they wanted to hear - thus killing frank and fearless / evidence-based policy-making. Fitzgerald is right in suggesting that a former premier (Peter Beattie) is trying to rewrite history - as his government had deliberately followed Bjelke Peterson formulas (eg abused FOI, treated parliament with distain, over-rode local government, broke election promises, politicised the public service, muzzled watchdogs (eg Auditor General, Ombudsman and CJC). This contrasted with premiers Ahern and Goss who had both understood the importance of Fitzgerald prescriptions - which still point the way out of the maze (ie focus of government on parliament; new bodies (ie CJC and EARC - each driven by a bipartisan parliamentary committee) to watch over the whole system of government to ensure systemic accountability. This did not work because of corroding effect of party politics and political lack of understanding of their importance. EARC was abolished with bipartisan support - assuming its job was done. The CMC struggles along - like other anti-corruption bodies given only token government support. Research into international practices shows that corrupt linkages can only be stamped out with full public funding of elections and banning of donations. The causes of political corruption can only be addressed through systemic accountability and transparency, with a vibrant parliament at the centre and an independent grandparent body watching over the whole system of government. Incentives for high calibre people to enter parliament and decent civics education are also important.

Detailed Comments

Undoubtedly, a vibrant Parliament, public servants who give 'frank and fearless advice' and an independent 'grandparent' watching over the whole system of government would be desirable - as the above article suggested.

However Parliament can't be vibrant without an effective Opposition to call the Executive to account, and Oppositions can't do this unless they receive support from the community through well developed civil institutions. For example, it isn't enough for the Opposition to be able to ask questions, they must have some way to find out what questions need to be asked. Unfortunately up-to-date / advanced understanding of the nature and functions of government has been scarce, arguably because of the state's small business / branch office economy and ability to exploit natural assets as a relatively easy source of wealth (see Queensland's Weak Parliament).

And ineffectual / incompetent government seems universally to create an environment in which abuses of power can germinate and flourish (see Boosting Accountability through Enhancing Competence in The Upper House Solution: A Commentary). The opportunity for individuals to profit politically or financially from abuse of power can't be eliminated (as the above article implied it might) simply by (say) public funding of electoral campaigns. Political patronage might (for example) be rewarded through well-paid post-retirement careers or given effect through the success of a close relative's business [Added later].

Because of the lack of competent support to its political system, Queensland has often suffered from populist governments (ie those, at times be little more than confidence tricksters, who advocate policies that are suspect though they sound great - perhaps even intellectually appealing - to the uninformed). The phenomenon of 'intellectual' populism (which has parallels with false claims to advanced medical qualifications by doctors which general managers can't assess) can be illustrated by:

  • the arrangements for 'strategic planning' that were set in place under the Goss Government in the early 1990s - the problem being that such techniques, which had been widely adopted in the 1970s as a means for organisations to respond to rapidly changing environments, had apparently been found by the 1980s to be impractical so that alternative methods were needed (see Strategy Development in Business and Government, 1997);
  • current claims about the importance of 'evidence-based' policy. This sounds like an unquestionably 'good thing'. The problem is that the core role of government is to manage 'complex' situations - both by creating a regulatory framework for social and economic transactions and by providing goods and services subject to market failures (see Governing is not just running a large business). One can seldom usefully reduce complex systems to clear 'evidence', as the latter necessarily relates only a small number of parts of those systems and misses 'n' other elements and relationships. Intuition based on experience has to be a major factor in most policy (ie what works, what else is going on) rather than formal 'evidence' - and much of the knowledge acquired from experience is tacit (ie never formalized or able to be clearly defined). Certainly 'evidence' needs to be considered, but experience is at least as important. [Another observer suggested that there has always been a commitment to using evidence (eg statistics) as the basis for policy, but that the key requirement is that the goals of policy be good, not that evidence is used [1]: Added later]

In the absence of solid advice to the political system from civil society or a professional Public Service, intellectual 'populists' prosper by endorsing plausible new techniques / policy options that have been proposed before any practical limitations have been publicly recognised.

Even in its 'second iteration' the Fitzgerald inquiry did not go far enough. Institutions were proposed to 'pull out weeds' in government machinery (the CJC's intended role) and to review electoral and administrative practices (EARC's intended role - presumably to design government machinery in which 'weeds' were less likely to sprout). These could not be adequate or successful because they were controlled by a political establishment that continued to lack access to up-to-date practical information about what was needed for competent and successful government (see Reform of Queensland's Institutions: A Bigger Picture View).

'Off-line' institutions such as the Fitzgerald inquiry or EARC could not make government competent - because they had no operational involvement or influence. They can produce reports which must be generalizations about desirable practices which are potentially misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted. Effectiveness is only possible by, and through, the ongoing operations of the machinery of government itself.

Under the system of government Queensland inherited, 'on-line' checks against abuses of Executive power were able to be provided by both the Head of State (ie the Governor) and an independent professional Public Service (which was also expected to provide a competent source of policy advice) .

Thus politicisation of the Public Service (which the above article noted is now endemic) has been a major contributor to political misconduct. Domination of government machinery by cronies and 'yes-men' means that: (a) government is likely to be ineffectual and crisis prone - as Queensland's now is; and (b) those who are most likely to have access to detailed information provide no real obstacle to dubious political actions. Moreover, pressure has increased to politicise Heads of State, thus further eroding the effectiveness of the other major 'on-line' oversight of Executive actions.

The above article implied that the Beattie Governments has been mainly to blame for Queensland's current predicament, because it turned its back on Fitzgerald's reforms. However the situation was not so simple, because:

  • the Ahern and Goss Governments may, as the article suggested, have understood the importance of Fitzgerald's systemic reforms - but this did not help them govern competently as both suffered from top-level politicisation, and in the case of the much-longer-entrenched Goss administration abuses of power occurred that seemed systemic rather than simply a product of ineptitude (see Warning signs were there at the very start: Too true);
  • while there had been some partisan politicisation and general neglect of the Public Service under Bjelke Peterson's governments, widespread politicisation was primarily a legacy of the Goss Government. Despite problems in its environment, the 1980s Public Service had generally been a professional body desperately hoping for reform and modernisation. However 'reform', when it happened, involved across-the-board restructuring and restaffing under the control of political appointees with very limited knowledge or experience of practical public administration or the actual functions of government. The result was ruthless suppression of 'frank and fearless' advice from anyone who had such knowledge and experience, and the rise of 'yes men' to career successes they had previously only dreamed about. The 'reform' formula followed by the Goss Government was apparently responsible for the now-pervasive politicisation of Public Services Australia-wide (see Decay of Australian Public Administration). Alternatives, based on experience of earlier reforms, were ignored though this might have protected the State Government's intellectual and experiential capital;
  • the Borbidge Government apparently tried in 1995 to restore practical competence to government administration by reversing the Goss administration's top-level partisan politicisation - but was out of its depth in terms of forward-looking policy issues;
  • the Beattie Government, after initially reinstalling much of the Goss Government's 1995 regime, apparently found this to be useless in actually achieving anything and decided that Bjelke Peterson had been right in assuming that autocratic disregard for due process was the best way to get things done in Queensland;
  • in 1999, politicisation had bipartisan support (see Politicisation Lowers Public Service Standards and Performance), and few seemed concerned about the likely corrosive effect on government's competence and probity (see Toward Good Government in Queensland, and Evidence of Dysfunctions).

Neither of the key institutions endorsed by the Fitzgerald inquiry were able to deal with the effect of politicisation on government's competence and probity. EARC had reported on merit in Public Service appointments, but when notified in the early 1990s of a department's abuse of that principle, EARC said that there was nothing it could do. [The Ombudsman's Office then pointed out that because the Goss Government had legislated to prevent appeals against SES appointments, there was no real requirement to seriously consider merit in 'senior' appointments]. The CJC expressed interest in the problem in 1999 - but could not do anything because cronies and yes men appointed to key positions tended to have rudimentary knowledge and skills in the functions they were supposedly responsible for - and non-specialists with even less knowledge and experience in those functions would be unable to expose their deficiencies (see The Effect of Public Service Politicisation). 

Queensland's community has 'passed the buck' for far too long. To stop the rot, the community itself (through well developed civil institutions) must become the 'grandparent' that watches over the whole system of government. Unless and until the community has access to up-to-date and practical information about the nature and functions of government, it will remain vulnerable to political con-men with potential criminal connections [Added later]: