Governments losing their way

Jul 5, 2022
Parliament House - Queensland
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Professor Peter Coaldrake’s review of a Queensland public administration which has been losing its way since the Fitzgerald reforms of thirty years ago should be compulsory reading for politicians, for public servants, particularly senior executives, and for citizens sick of the way that modern government has let accountability and integrity slip by the wayside.

I had to read it several times. But this was not for being challenged by the novelty of its exposition or of the recommendations it made. It was for the patient and very firm reiteration of classic words about the duty of governments and officials to the public interest. These are concepts that have seemed novel in Canberra in recent years, particularly in the unlamented days of Scott Morrison. His poor leadership may have set the example, but ministers were quick to copy, and so, I regret to say, did many administrators in the public service.

Now that we have a new government, claiming to be determined to restore value and integrity into public administration, many public servants will be fervently declaring that they had always believed in the classic values, but were restrained by the politicians. Alas that is untrue, or, if it is, those unable to carry out their duty were not – are not – of a calibre worth retaining. The truth is that many senior leaders in the public service think openness, accountability and the overriding duty of stewardship of public assets is an unnecessary burden. A bit like equal opportunity, distaste for bullying, or being frank in estimates committees – something for lip service, but hardly core business, and mostly an unnecessary distraction from it.

The words of the Coaldrake review could have been taken from Fitzgerald himself, or from any number of the excellent reviews by the Queensland Electoral and Administrative Review Council about the remaking of Queensland administration following the collapse of the Bjelke-Petersen government in a sea of corruption in the late 1980s. Some of the phrases were written by Coaldrake then and could have been cut and pasted into this week’s report. He could further cut and paste a good deal of it, substituting the word “Commonwealth” for the word “Queensland”, if his old mate and colleague in arms, Professor Glyn Davis, now head of prime minister’s puts him on a consultancy.

Right now, most public servants discussing reform are focused on the Thoday review of the Commonwealth public service, commissioned by Malcolm Turnbull. It was dismissed out of hand by Morrison, who said public servants were there to do things and follow orders, not offer advice. He claimed to have received a report from a committee of senior mandarins each frankly and fearlessly dismissing the trust and worth of its recommendations. Oddly, many of these same mandarins are now personally, as much as professionally, enthusiasts for the report. This contradiction (or was it a case of Morrison verballing senior officials who, as usual, lacked the guts to contradict him?) is one for which no explanation has been offered.

The Thoday report is very weighty, and often righ, if overfull of slogans that could mean anything. But if it mentions any of the practical ideas contained in Coaldrake’s report, other than about the general idea of revitalising the public service, I must have missed them. Its defenders will insist that concepts such as integrity, probity, accountability and openness are to be assumed, and do not have to be spelt out. One might well ask why then departments have ignored courts and administrative tribunals, made a conscious farce of FOI legislation, and have presented such rich pickings, on basic issues, for auditor-general’s reports.

Systems and standards deteriorate without watchdogs

I don’t think that modern public administration in Queensland is under anything like the stress it has been under in Commonwealth administration. But there is no denying that there has been a lot of slippage from the noble intentions of 30 years ago, and that this has been reflected in some poor administrative outcomes, and some deplorable practices, at both the public service and political level. Every organisation needs regular, searching, external and independent review – if only so that the public can be sure it is on the right track and has not come to believe its own public relations.

We read that some senior Queensland public servants have considered the duty to protect and shield their minister, or premier, as a role that overrides a basic duty to the public interest. Some have been involved in suppressing documents, punishing public servants who kept records, and doing a lot of bullying. Ministers have taken this sort of “protection” for granted – even if sometimes being careful to avoid having their fingerprints on improper examples. The public service is run down, not well arrayed to face many modern policy and program challenges and may no longer be attracting the best and the brightest. It needs reform.

Quelle horreur! Queensland ministers have been making decisions and doling out money with partisan purposes in mind, with the passive acquiescence of senior public servants. Politicians have been too involved in important contracts. Public money has gone to mates, cronies and party donors. A revolving door of mates move from politics into private sector consultancies and lobbying and, sometimes into public service positions. Some lobbyists openly boast of their inside connections. Some work on election campaigns even as their firms are still receiving money from clients. There are not enough controls over post-separation employment. Many offenders are incapable of shame. Non-disclosure agreements have been required by government agencies to conceal their own poor management, not to protect the privacy of citizens they have treated badly.

After the report came out, I heard Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk denying that anything said reflected on her. She reminded people that she had asked for the report. This is special pleading, on a par with the claim by Morrison that he stood up to the banks, and established the Haines royal commission, or with the claim by Eddie Maguire that the Collingwood racism report was a great day for the club because it provided a platform for addressing the (and his) problem.

Coaldrake has a host of recommendations for drawing fences to keep politicians away from appointments and grant schemes. He wants supervision of the integrity of tenders. And publication, after a month, of the agenda of Cabinet, and of the appointment diaries of ministers, particularly including their meetings with lobbyists. Much of this would have been regarded as anathema by the Morrison government, and in some cases, for example of appointment diaries, ministers went to court resisting it.

We must take it for granted that Anthony Albanese and his government have no intention of behaving as the Morrison government did. And that, even if one tried, loyal minders and public servants, and the Commonwealth Integrity Commission would quickly expose, denounce and punish it. Yet those with experience of the temptations of government know that even politicians with good intentions weary of the scrutiny, and sometimes harbour unworthy thoughts about securing some private benefit, doing a favour for a mate, or doing some dodgy deed for a noble purpose.

One need only look at the corruption hearings in Victoria involving Labor party branch stacking, or That included insider access to old party functionaries now prostituting their knowledge, access and influence for the benefit of Labor’s traditional enemies. In NSW and Western Australia, Labor has had scandals over dodgy land deals, the transfer of public assets into private hands, and the illegal receipt of developer cash, in shopping bags, into party funds.

None of these prove the whole party is corrupt. But they show the temptations that some will find difficult to resist, unless there’s a good chance of getting caught.

Such scandals have involved party faction leaders, and a traffic in seats. Some have not been about genuine disputes about politics or philosophy, but about the determination of people in the system to secure improper favourable outcomes for mates, cronies or themselves in political decisions made at local, state and federal levels.

This is not to say that one side is as bad as the other. Or that a change of government makes no difference. Labor, from opposition, has seen how public confidence in government has declined with poor administration. It realises that the public is sick of the rorts, the weasel words and the prevarications. The public wants politicians to behave with honour and decency. And they want the system policed to make sure they do.

We need effective checks and balances, financial accountability legislation, Ombudsmen, judicial and administrative review, FOI, and public watchdogs such as the Auditor General. We have learnt that integrity cannot always be taken for granted. People of integrity in public life should expect and accept the obligation to show that the public interest has been their only consideration. The culture of this needs continuous reinforcement.

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