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25 January 2005
Mr Jamie Walker,
Queensland's Worst Government
I should like to offer a belated comment on your review article of 27/11/04, 'Labor in power'. In that article (which is briefly outlined on my website) you suggested that:
I must congratulate you on highlighting the importance of strengthening Queensland's political system.
However, contrary to the tone of your article, the Goss administration needs to be recognised as a symptom of Queensland's weak political institutions rather than as an effective reformer. It is undoubtedly the worst Queensland government in living memory in terms of practical outcomes and has left chronically dysfunctional government machinery as its enduring legacy (see 'Identifying Queensland's worst Government?' below).
Moreover I should like to suggest for your consideration that the best way to overcome such problems is to develop apolitical institutions that are able to provide more realistic inputs into the political system (see Queensland's Weak Parliament). Given the traditional lack of leading-edge information within the community about public and economic policy issues:
While the effectiveness of such apolitical institutions has improved over the past few years, this has been painfully slow.
Identifying Queensland's Worst Government?
In the Bjelke Peterson era, Queensland had poor (at times even incoherent) political rhetoric and various maladies that your article highlighted - which were compensated for by a fairly high quality (though badly neglected) Public Service.
Queensland now has trendy political rhetoric (eg about becoming a Smart State) which is undermined by appallingly bad public administration - and various indications of quite dubious practices (eg see Reform of Queensland Institutions: or a Rising Tide of Public Hypocrisy?).
As your article pointed out Queensland's current administrative situation is largely the legacy of 'reforms' made by the Goss administration (because the Borbidge Government had little time to change anything, and the Beattie Government had other goals).
A reasonable case can be made that the AWU-dominated Goss government was the worst government in terms of practical accomplishments that Queensland has endured in living memory (see Towards Good Government in Queensland). Through the blatant abuse of power, the Westminster tradition of a professional and credible Public Service was ruthlessly demolished - and the best talent of a rising generation was destroyed in the search for a quick (political) fix. Then almost every function of government was mismanaged until eventually popular support was lost - much to the surprise of political observers who had not understood that effective government requires more than stylish policy rhetoric.
A flavour of what happened can be gained from the view that 'Joh was better' privately expressed by a strong ALP supporter (a few months after the Goss Government's election), while another politically-neutral observer labelled the Goss Government as simply 'bad' on the basis of its apparent concern for little but building a political power base.
It is the Goss Government's 'reforms' that remain the basis for the paralysis of effective administration that the Borbidge and Beattie Governments have in turn demonstrated - and which, your article points out, business now sees as the Beattie Government's 'inertia'.
Without this setback Queensland might well have made great practical progress in what the present Government has labeled a 'smart state' transformation around 10 years ago, and have long since moved on to new goals. And in terms of dealing with other current public priorities, there is no doubt that 'reform' under the Goss administration:
Even the most blinkered supporter needs to see the Goss administration as a classic study of reform failure and that it is quite inappropriate to venerate (and breathlessly quote the opinions of) the persons responsible.
Though Queensland's Public Service has 'settled down' - it has not recovered from the damage that was done (see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service - which includes indicators that government is struggling in almost all domains). Moreover the Public Service:
Your article pointed out correctly that there is now a 'new Queensland'. However this results from trends that were obvious twenty years ago when something like 'smart state' goals were first endorsed. For example, in 1985 I undertook an informal survey of firms / individuals involved in innovative activities, and this revealed that they were almost invariably interstate migrants. Queensland is 'new' for many reasons - such as interstate migration . However most government efforts to promote change have been amateurish (eg see Commentary on Smart State; and SEQ Regional Plan 2004).
It was also valid to note that people are better off than they were 15 years ago, but:
Furthermore the endorsement of Public Service politicisation by the current Opposition and the Beattie Government (see Politicisation Lowers Public Service Standards and Performance, and Opposition's Approach to Senior Public Service Appointments) and also their unwillingness to seriously question blatant abuses under the Goss administration, have left Queensland's whole political system with little moral credibility.
Government in Queensland seems likely to be constipated / ineffective / inert until there is a serious effort to overcome the legacy of the state's worst government - by restoring a system of professional accountability and credibility to the Public Service.