Queensland public servants cowed by ‘high price’ of speaking out, Peter Coaldrake says

Queensland’s public servants have become fearful of providing frank and fearless advice to government because of the “high price” paid by some who do, according to the man who led a landmark review of the sector.

Prof Peter Coaldrake handed down his 131-page report on Tuesday, citing a “culture too tolerant of bullying” and making 14 recommendations including reining in the access and influence of lobbyists.

Speaking to ABC radio on Wednesday morning, Coaldrake said the public service needed to feel comfortable standing up to politicians.

“The general message that came through … is … that the benefits of that frankness are outweighed by the potential risks that are associated with people not being happy or taking action against you, or isolating you,” he said.

“There are unhealthy things that are clearly present.”

Coaldrake’s report, titled “Let the Sunshine In”, provided recommendations “for a culture that, from the top down, is not meeting public expectations”.

Its author told ABC there were no “quick” fixes to solve integrity issues and emphasised the concerns were not unique to Queensland.

He said there needs to be a “cultural shift” towards accepting the community has “a right to know what’s going on inside government”.

“For the vast bulk of things, there is no need for that shield of secrecy,” he said. “And as I said, I think the sun should shine in.”

Recommendations made in the report include that Queensland’s auditor general be granted more independence and there be an explicit ban on the practice of “dual hatting” where professional lobbyists have also worked on party election campaigns.

The report called for cabinet submissions, agendas and decisions papers to be released and published online within 30 business days, instead of the practice of waiting 10 years.

The premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, has committed to implementing all 14 recommendations “lock, stock and barrel”.

But the LNP and the Greens are calling for a royal commission to ensure people are held accountable for past actions.

The LNP opposition leader, David Crisafulli, said the review revealed a “rotten culture” but had been limited by the fact Coaldrake was prevented from investigating any individual accusations.

“A royal commission will hold people accountable,” Crisafulli said. “This review identifies a number of crimes, but it doesn’t point to a culprit.”

He questioned the premier’s decision not to immediately front the media on Wednesday morning after the handing down of the report.

“Until there is accountability in government, the state government will continue to see this as a political issue rather than a transparency and governance issue,” Crisafulli said.

The Greens MP for Maiwar, Michael Berkman, accused the government of a “piecemeal” approach to integrity issues.

“Given only four months to conduct this review behind closed doors … Coaldrake’s findings just reinforce the public’s mistrust of this government and demonstrate how political interference is corrupting the good work of our public service,” he said.

“Everyday people will continue to distrust their government unless we have a wide-ranging commission of inquiry with public hearings.”

Queensland’s attorney general, Shannon Fentiman, said while she was aware that bullying complaints were made “from time to time”, the extent of the findings was a surprise.

“Like any review … you learn things, and we have said it’s unacceptable,” she told 4BC radio Brisbane on Wednesday.

The health minister, Yvette D’Ath, urged politicians against “attacking public servants, whether it’s behind closed doors, or open in the public at press conferences, or in the chamber in parliament”.

“Public servants should be acknowledged for the great work they do,” she said on Wednesday. “And there should be processes in place to make sure that they’re respected, and there is a good culture.”

On Twitter, Palaszczuk said the report will go to cabinet on Monday.

“Once they’re implemented, Queensland will have the most transparent and accountable government in Australia,” she said.

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