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25 January 2005

Mr Jamie Walker,
c/- The Courier Mail

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:

  • political parties tend to be in opposition in Queensland for long periods, and the present Opposition is very weak (as oppositions usually are);
  • Labor has had effective power for most of the past 15 years - and current machinery largely reflects reforms by the Goss Government - noting that the Beattie Government argues that it has focused on setting new directions for Queensland rather than on machinery reform;
  • the state government's agendas for changing (say) the economy and patterns of development do have substance;
  • people are better off than they were 15 years ago, and the economy has diversified;
  • the Bjelke Peterson Government built industries (largely with foreign investment support) - but based its power on a distorted electoral system;
  • the Goss Government adopted a technocratic / corporate style;
  • the Beattie Government has elements of this, but faces widespread perceptions of inertia. On the other hand the Government argues that its economic performance is sound;
  • others, including the Opposition, give the Government credit for its Smart State strategy and for various other policies;
  • the Public Service has settled down, though the Opposition sees it as politicised / ineffectual.

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:

  • public debate about such matters must often be out-of-date and / or simplistic - creating room for the rise of populist political opportunists;
  • oppositions must flounder;
  • Parliament must be weak in its efforts to oversight the Executive;
  • attempts to 'reform' public administration can easily be misguided; and
  • Queensland can make little real progress in any economic transformation that governments endorse.

While the effectiveness of such apolitical institutions has improved over the past few years, this has been painfully slow.


John Craig


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:

  • must remain resting on a perpetually insecure foundation of injustice and ineptitude because of its history; and
  • can never recover as long as it remains politicised (ie obliged to be more sensitised to political concerns than to practical accomplishments).

An internal view: There is no 'content' in what the Public Service now does. Staff move papers that have nothing on them. In interfacing with the private sector, there is no real idea of what is involved. When a very large government contribution was sought for a project, there was no understanding of what the 'game' was. Staff are explicitly told to 'dumb down' their proposals - nominally because politicians would otherwise not understand it, but really because senior staff would otherwise not understand. [Comments by an experienced mid-rank public servant added March 2005]

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 [1]. 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:

  • Queensland's per capita incomes still remain well below the national average (which is a statistic that Queensland governments studiously ignore). This arises, in spite of faster aggregate economic growth, because the state's population growth is also well above the national level;
  • other major states, who are under intense financial pressures, have become very concerned that the Commonwealth transfers something like $2bn pa from their taxpayers to Queensland (see Review of Grants Commission Arrangements). This is a form of 'protection' for Queensland's relatively unproductive economy which arises mainly because the Grants Commission's horizontal equalization principles compensate Queensland for the weak tax base that results from the character of its economy;
  • any claim the long economic boom (bubble?) which has increased prosperity can continue indefinitely seems super-optimistic (see The Potential for Economic Instability). For this and other reasons (eg more intense competition), some real accomplishments will eventually need to accompany rhetoric about Queensland's 'smart state' and the activities of the Department of State Development (see The Need to Do Better).

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.