Political leadership will be critical to overhaul Queensland’s public sector after Coaldrake review

Queensland’s premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, has enthusiastically welcomed Peter Coaldrake’s review into public sector culture and accountability as “bold”, “comprehensive” and “exactly what I want”. But the hard work of achieving change has only just begun.

Certainly Prof Coaldrake has identified many impediments to good government in Australia: a loss of public sector capacity, capability and confidence; a tendency to rely on consultants and contractors; and concerns about lobbying and about the relationship between ministers, their staff and public service departments.

But the challenges of implementation are formidable. Coaldrake anticipates resistance, but the complexity and interdependence of his recommendations, the potential for unintended consequences and a lack of bipartisan agreement are other likely impediments.

The greatest threat is the extent to which political commitment to systemic cultural change can be gained and sustained. Here, as in the commonwealth and other jurisdictions, a lack of agreement about the constitutional role of the public service looms as the persistent challenge.

The Coaldrake review highlights issues similar to those canvassed in frequent reviews of career public services across Westminster-style systems – most recently the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service chaired by the businessman David Thodey. Its recommendations were largely ignored by the Morrison government, although are now firmly on the Albanese government’s agenda.

Politicians’ failure to embrace their obligations as stewards of the health and capability of our democratic institutions, and to respect governance traditions and conventions, accounts for the ructions that cumulatively and over time have produced the culture of fear that Coaldrake documents.

Despite a rise in talk of integrity issues at the recent federal election, there are few votes or political rewards in the hard graft of improving public sector capability, integrity and performance. Yet these are fundamental to governmental competence and public confidence in democracy. They underpin current and future governments’ capacity to deliver their policy commitments and to address the challenges their communities face now and in decades to come.

The “permanent revolution” in the public sector is an international phenomenon reflected across all levels of government for over 40 years. Coaldrake himself assesses the cumulative impact of decades of almost constant disruption to Queensland’s public sector, as successive governments have sought to make it more efficient and more responsive to ministerial direction. Each new initiative adds another layer to the accreted sediment of past, overlapping and usually incomplete reforms.

But there is hope. Prof Glyn Davis, previously head of Queensland’s public service, now secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has traced the trajectories and legacies of three reviews of the Australian Public Service that he has been involved with, over 40 years. His 2021 Jim Carlton Annual Integrity Lecture argued that each review, decades apart, “sketched the dominant ideas of its moment, offered new possibilities and shaped the next steps”. Even if rejected or neglected in their implementation, the ideas and recommendations eventually make their way into practice.

New Zealand, which inspired the recommendation to proactively release cabinet submissions, agendas and decisions after 30 days is a case in point. There, electoral reform and the imperative to govern from the centre has tempered the tone of national politics over the past quarter century. So too have recent reforms to its Public Service Act, which confer obligations on senior public servants to act as “stewards or caretakers” of their departments over the medium and longer term. This includes responsibilities to ensure long-term sustainability, organisational capability and capacity to offer “free and frank” advice to successive governments. Their capacity to do so is bolstered by security of tenure for agency heads – which Coaldrake and Thodey also recommended; and by the statutory requirement (introduced in 2020) that agency chief executives must provide a “long-term insights” brief for their portfolio every three years. These must be produced independently of ministers and tabled in parliament, underscoring the public service’s constitutional role in providing administrative continuity and supporting good government.

It remains to be seen whether Queensland’s political culture, which has been locked in a cycle of performative, ritualised point-scoring and conflict, can summon the maturity needed to adapt to a more open system of government and to support a well-performing and highly valued public sector.

In Queensland, in particular, the unicameral parliament, its tradition of executive dominance, the inevitable tensions that flow from the public service’s primary focus on delivering essential public services; and its historic experience of entrenched corruption that sparked the Fitzgerald Inquiry – makes political leadership the critical success factor.

Coaldrake is right to note that the administrative domain takes its lead from parliamentarians who have been elected to serve their communities. His review focuses mainly on the administrative side of the relationship, but as in the decades after the landmark Fitzgerald Report, resetting the culture of integrity and accountability in Queensland rests firmly with politicians.

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