'Can-Do' shies away from the principled path of government
One-man band: Queensland Premier Campbell Newman with his newly appointed ministry. Photo: Glenn Hunt
We all know the result of Queensland's recent election. The Bligh Labor government was swept from office by the amalgamated Liberal National Party, led by Brisbane's former lord mayor, Campbell Newman. The LNP now holds 78 of the 89 seats in Queensland's unicameral legislature; Labor was reduced to just seven.
It's not just the magnitude of the win that makes the Queensland election such a watershed. Labor's loss marks the end of an era in Queensland politics. The ALP held office in the state almost continuously since 1989, except for the brief Borbidge Coalition government that last from February 1996 to March 1998. The issue now is how the LNP transitions to government after such a long period in opposition, and what this tells us about how transitions to office now operate in Australia's version of Westminster government.
Transitioning to office offers numerous challenges for any political party, especially those that have been in the wilderness for a long time. Establishing new administrative arrangements to reflect changed policy priorities, allocating portfolios among the range of party interests and abilities, learning new processes and dealing with budget realities are just some of the issues all new governments must manage. If winning government is hard, learning to wield the levers of power is even harder.
These challenges are even greater in Westminster democracies. Unlike the United States, where presidents-elect have three months to plan and prepare before taking up the formal reins of power, thus giving time to consider appointments, processes and policy priorities, in Westminster democracies it is a case of being in opposition one day and in government the next. Hence the pressure for rushed decision-making and the potential for mistakes that will affect the new government's future. These problems are compounded in democracies such as Queensland's, where the government remains highly partisan and the public service's contact with the opposition has been severely limited.
Other developments in Australian public administration over the past two decades have also made transitions to office more difficult. Upper levels of Australian public services are now less permanent and more politicised. The resulting inevitable exodus of senior staff after a change of government creates a loss of continuity, experience and knowledge. New governments must cope with this while also deciding who in the bureaucracy goes or stays, whom to trust and whom to appoint. It is an added strain.
The relative rarity of changes in government - especially in the states and even more so in those with unicameral parliaments - also means that, when they do take place, it is a novel experience for both the incoming government and the public service.
All of these issues are relevant to the transition now taking place in Queensland.
The LNP's long time out of office has meant that only three of its 78 members have served as ministers, one of whom was in a junior portfolio for a very short time. Then there is the Premier, Newman himself, who has not even served in state Parliament, let alone held a ministerial position. While Newman was twice elected lord mayor of Brisbane City Council, Australia's largest local government, it is neither as large nor as complex as any state government.
Also, the new LNP government is confronted with a public service that has long been seen to be highly politicised at senior and not-so-senior levels. ''Weeding out'' political appointees and appointing new officials based on merit and due process are key challenges facing the LNP if it is to avoid the criticisms it often made of the Labor government.
Further, the LNP has inherited a public sector that has grown dramatically over the past decade, been through major machinery of government changes and is weighed down by an $89 billion debt and a poor budget. The LNP must also decide how to honour the $4 billion of new spending it promised during the election campaign. In relation to the public service, something must give.
Newman's promise to Queenslanders was to implement his ''100-day plan'' immediately and with far-reaching effects. It took him less than 100 hours to begin restructuring the Queensland Public Service, with a series of dismissals, moves and new faces at the top.
The new administrative arrangements that came into force on April 3, 10 days after Newman's electoral victory, replaced the Bligh government's 13 ministers with 19. Newman also instituted a drastic rearrangement at the top of the bureaucracy. Six departments' directors-general and three heads of statutory bodies kept their positions. Eleven departments found themselves with new directors-general or chief executives from elsewhere in the public service. Nine of the directors-general who were promoted from within the service are acting in their new roles, which will be reviewed after six months. Six people were brought in from outside the service to head high-profile departments. Significantly, the departments that hold most power within the public sector (for example, Treasury and the Department of the Premier and Cabinet) are now led by newcomers.
While Premier and Cabinet's new director-general, Jon Grayson - an investment banker who had previously worked for Queensland's Treasury - appears to be a merit-based appointment, what is striking about most of the other new appointments is the close Brisbane City Council and, in some cases, overt partisan connections. For example, the council connections include:
- The new under-treasurer, Helen Gluer, who was chief executive of power generator Stanwell Corporation and, previously, Brisbane City Council's chief financial officer.
- The Coordinator-General, an important statutory office-holder who reports to the Deputy Premier, is Barry Broe, who had been the council's divisional manager of Brisbane infrastructure since 2008.
- The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection's new director-general is Andrew Chesterman, who was previously the council's divisional manager of city planning and sustainability.
- Another council connection is Margaret Allison, who moved from being public service commissioner to head the Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services.
The extensive recruitment of people who had worked for Newman at Brisbane City Council is understandable but a concern. The Premier obviously knows and trusts them. While the council has a population of over 1 million and its senior managers could hence be expected to have a high level of skills and experience, it is not, as noted, a state government. It also smacks of bringing into government, if not mates, at least close associates or ''camp followers'' from a narrow source.
Two partisan appointments also stand out. The Department of Transport and Main Roads' new director-general, Michael Caltabiano, had been a Liberal state MP and even led Brisbane City Council's Liberal opposition. The second is the Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning's new director-general, David Edwards, who had been a mid-level, not senior, public servant in the department under Labor before he left to become chief of staff to then Nationals leader and now Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney. Edwards is also the son of former Liberal state leader and treasurer Sir Llew Edwards.
Newman initially justified the Edwards and Caltabiano appointments on the basis of their skills and experience. However, he later added that they and Grayson ''were integral to the planning and implementation of his election-winning agenda''. They were part of the group, with Newman, Seeney and Treasurer Tim Nicholls, that had planned to restructure the public sector immediately after they won the election.
However, these appointments, most specifically that of Caltabiano, are too partisan and biased. They send the wrong message to the public service and to the public. Can there really be frank and fearless advice in the Transport Department with such an obviously politically charged senior appointment? There are other problems, too. If the Transport Minister disagrees with his director-general and overrules him, will the matter rest there or will Caltabiano, given his party connections and power base, seek to resolve it elsewhere?
In other areas, Newman has followed other new non-Labor administrations, such as the Kennett, Borbidge and Howard governments, in appointing a commission of audit to investigate the state's finances and propose policy changes, recommend ''reforms'' to the public sector, and justify cuts. To be successful, politically and in policy terms, audit commissions need independent and expert membership. Here, the Newman government has only partly succeeded, with partisanship again too evident. The chairman of Queensland's new commission is former federal Liberal treasurer Peter Costello, who can be regarded as neither truly expert nor independent. Costello's partisanship is only partly moderated by the other members: the vice-chancellor of James Cook University, Professor Sandra Harding, has a strong academic background in public administration; but the other key member, the Queensland Investment Corporation's retiring chairman, Doug McTaggart, though highly regarded, headed Treasury in the Borbidge era and thus has clear links with non-Labor parties.
Despite the long time the LNP spent in opposition, the Newman government's transition has been more haphazard than that of other governments. Certainly, the flurry of new appointments and departmental changes suggests the government is off to a flying start. Perhaps too flying, given the rushed nature of many appointments, the appointees' limited backgrounds and partisanship, the ad hoc nature of the new administrative arrangements and the superficiality of ''Can-Do'' Newman's ''100-day plan'', which is supposed to guide his government's actions.
That numerous senior appointments are on a trial basis, and that many public servants on temporary contracts are unsure of their future, has created an atmosphere of uncertainty with a consequent loss of morale and productivity. There has been no clear enunciation of principles concerning machinery of government changes. There was no due process in senior departmental or ministerial appointments, and no advertising or independent appointment mechanism to present even a semblance of merit, let alone scouting for talent. That the public service appointments were made before the ministry was announced says much about Newman's decision-making style and where power now lies in Queensland: in the Premier's office.
The Kennett government's policy direction in Victoria was underpinned by some detailed work from right-of-centre think tanks, such as the Institute of Public Affairs and the Tasman Institute. Labor governments in Queensland had close connections to universities such as Griffith. In contrast, the Newman government does not appear to be well served by taking its advice from a small clique of people close to the Premier who have limited senior policy and management experience.
The new LNP government has missed a golden opportunity to re-establish an independent public service that places merit before partisan connections and personal links. Its policies may be different from the former government's, but the ''now it's my turn'' approach permeates too many of the Newman government's decisions in this initial phase of its transition. This does not bode well for the future, and highlights the limits of Australia's current Westminster conventions.
Dr Kate Jones is a research fellow and Professor Scott Prasser is the executive director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University