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The state of democracy in Queensland

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 24 December 2007


In 1985, at the height of National Party ascendancy in Queensland, Professor Ross Fitzgerald commented that “just as South Africa runs like a sewer through the conscience of the world, so Queensland runs like a sewer through the conscience of this nation”.

This dominant view - which exaggerated the flaws of Queensland democracy at the time - has now given way to a rosy interpretation not far from the Smart State rhetoric of the Labor government.

But have things really changed so much? To answer this question we need to apply the same standards and criteria to assess democratic practice regardless of who is in power.

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It is essential we have some criteria for assessing democratic governance. Without being too philosophical it is suggested that good democracies have three prime criteria:

  1. the electoral system should reflect reasonably accurately the will of the people and there are widespread voting rights;
  2. there are adequate means to assess the performance of government and processes of accountability are working; and
  3. there are means to check, hold governments to account, and to recall and change them if necessary.

The basic perceived flaws of Queensland’s democracy have been taken as those identified by the 1989 Queensland Fitzgerald royal commission into police corruption and other commentators of National Party government. These perceived deficiencies also serve as a point of comparison to assess whether any progress has been made by subsequent regimes.

  1. poor parliamentary practices (lack of sitting times, poor scrutiny of executive government, lack of opportunities for the Opposition to influence legislation, rushed legislation);
  2. executive dominance of the legislature and all aspects of government;
  3. corrupt police as evidenced by bribery and ineffective crime fighting especially in relation to drugs and organised crime;
  4. distorted electoral system that is designed to keep governments in power than to reflect accurately the will of the people;
  5. development and donations to the leading political party so that proper processes are not followed and public policy outcomes are distorted;
  6. pork barrel politics, whereby the party in power seeks to buy support though misallocation of public resources;
  7. politicised public service in senior appointments and even interference in the judiciary; and
  8. excessive secrecy and a lack of freedom of information laws and administrative law arrangements to redress grievances.

There has been some progress in democracy in Queensland.

The most important reform has been the ending of the previous four-zone electoral system with its malapportionment and weightage to regional areas. Originally developed by Labor administrations during the late 1940s it was singled out by the Fitzgerald Commission as a major area of change. Subsequently, the electoral system was reformed by the new Goss Labor Government that Queensland elected, and a fairer electoral system with acceptable regional variations now operates.

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Electoral reform was also extended to local government and a range of anomalies in that area were removed. While other changes like proportional voting could have been made, Queensland now has a relatively fair electoral system.

However, it is in relation to the second and third criteria where progress remains disappointing.

For instance, reforms to parliament and reductions in executive dominance of the legislature have been marginal. The number of sitting days has hardly increased. Under Coalition governments from 1970-1984 average sittings of parliament were 58 days a year. Under the National Party (1984-89) this fell to 43 days. The Goss government saw sitting days rise marginally to 50 days. Under the Beattie government (1998-2006) sitting days have been only 44.6!

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This is an edited version of a lecture Dr Prasser gave on November 13, 2007 as part of the IPA’s new Brisbane Club Lectures.

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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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