by Ken Parish
A student in Introduction to Public Law posted a discussion board topic under the heading “Responsible government is dead?”. It referenced an article about former Queensland anti-corruption Royal Commissioner Tony Fitzgerald GC’s reactions to senior public service appointments by the new Coalition government in that State:
Mr Fitzgerald said the Westminster system was a flawed and outdated model of representative democracy and political parties had learnt to exploit its weaknesses.
“A choice between abuse of power from party A or party B is not a mandate to abuse power,” he said.
“Statements of the premier [Campbell Newman] are encouraging but much has been left unsaid and the jobs for the boys gravy train has already started – that’s a shame.”
Mr Fitzgerald said the “current toxic political culture” could be altered by an infusion of public-spirited talent.
He said that could “counteract the mediocrity and venality of those power brokers and professional politicians, whose life experience is limited to learning and practising the dark arts of misinformation, secrecy and character assassination”.
“Self-interest makes it unlikely that political parties and politicians who benefit from the current system will initiate real change – their likely mindset is that it’s their turn,” he said.
I can certainly see what Tony Fitzgerald QC is saying but I think it’s something of an overstatement.
The politico-legal doctrine of responsible government was never terribly plausible as a check and balance to ensure open and accountable government in the Australian political culture with its rigid party discipline. It was made slightly more plausible by Egan v Willis and the crucial conclusion that responsible government required responsibility to both houses of parliament not just the lower house. The development of a sophisticated Senate committee system at federal level has also put some flesh back on the bones of responsible government, but neither of these developments apply at State level in Queensland because it abolished its upper house many years ago.
In the modern evolved Australian Westminster system, checks and balances like independent merits review, Ombudsman, FOI, Auditor-General, independent anti-corruption commissions and legislative “whistleblower” protections are arguably more important for ensuring open and accountable government than fondly imagining that Ministerial accountability to Parliament will in itself do very much to enhance transparency or accountability.
There’s also another side to the pejorative “jobs for the boys” label. The old UK comedy TV series Yes Minister (which some will remember) satirised the former entrenched career public service, impervious to political influence and pursuing its own agenda sometimes irrespective of government policy. It was an exaggeration but contained a germ of truth. Since that time both the UK and Australia have been through major restructuring of the public sector, with implementation of “managerialist” strategies (which we will look at in week 10 when we start admin law merits review), outsourcing and privatisation of some functions, and an “incentivised” contract-based senior executive service. The idea of the latter is to ensure that senior public sector executives are highly responsive to the need to implement government policy and working constructively with the government of the day.
To some extent this inevitably means the senior ranks of the public service will be “politicised”, although wise senior public servants nevertheless ensure they maintain their professional integrity and independence. There are plenty of examples of senior executives who have succeeded in doing so, and whose careers have flourished under successive governments of opposite political colour, although there are also numerous examples where executives have been hopelessly partisan lackeys of the current government.
Labor was in government for 20 years or so in Queensland, so it’s hardly surprising that Campbell Newman and the Libs would want to do a fairly significant clean-out of senior executive ranks to get rid of any blatantly pro-Labor lackeys. The fact that they appoint some replacements with evident Liberal links doesn’t necessarily make it “jobs for the boys”. You need to examine whether the appointee has appropriate qualifications and experience for the position. I think Michael Caltabiano, for example, is an appropriate appointment to head Department of Transport and Main Roads. He is a very experienced and well qualified civil engineer as well as having experience in management and local and State politics.