Jobs for the boys in Queensland?

Tony Fitzgerald QC

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Mr Fitzgerald said the Westminster system was a flawed and outdated model of representative democracy and political parties had learnt to exploit its weaknesses.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.

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3 thoughts on “Jobs for the boys in Queensland?”

  1. Your arguments are indeed well-balanced Ken and no doubt many of the new Qld appointees are well qualified in their own right. However, given the ever-present and cynical snooping abilities of our media, I have a feeling that regardless of who is appointed to whatever job when a new political party takes power that somewhere, somehow, a political link will probably be discovered and the label ‘jobs for the boys’ will stick like the proverbial faeces to a blanket.

    And perhaps the ‘lessening’ of checks and balances normally available from an Upper House in a bicameral system may tend to make us all become a little more cynical of such appointments under a unicameral system?

    Peter Whellum

  2. I think the danger in politicising senior appointments to the public service is that we end up with quasi-ministers who are appointed to lead government departments, like the US model. That is to say, the new appointee to the public service will also be there to fulfil a political agenda.

    I remember being amazed as a student finding that a ministerial reshuffle meant a minister moving from (say) health to defence, and wondering how a person could conceivably be qualified to be competent in 2 such diverse subjects.

    The answer of course is that they are not. They are supposed to make policy decisions and leave the real work of the department to the professionals, ie the public service. The difficulty to me of a government appointing not just a minister to figurehead a department but also the senior manager to run it, is that it constitutes a double layer of government direction.

    I would not be surprised to learn that by and large the key appointments made in this manner are actually competent, but I don’t think that’s the point. I think if we’re going to have a new system, whereby heads of departments will be appointed by an incoming government as a matter of standard practice, someone should come clean and say it, not impose it by stealth.

    A couple of things on “Yes Minister” – first it’s touring Australia t the moment as a stage show – I’m going to see it in a couple of weeks. The other is that Jim Hacker was minister for Administrative Services, a UK joke in so far as no-one could imagine the absurdity of having a government department for administration – isn’t that what they are all supposed to do? So I was surprised when I emigrated to Australia to find we actually have such a thing in real life…

    Simon Rowell

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