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Queensland shadows ... not there yet

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 18 August 2008


Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg's announcement of his new shadow ministry, the first under the new amalgamated Liberal-National Party brand, is a chance to assess both the Opposition's thinking and Springborg's political mettle.

Overall, it is a disappointing first effort.

Springborg has tried to add a new focus to his shadow ministry and to highlight deficiencies in the Bligh Government with new portfolios such as future growth, open government, social inclusion, workplace and job security and housing accessibility that have a thematic rather than specific functional focus.

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While interesting, these so called new portfolios have just been grafted onto existing departments and structures. They mean little in terms of new ways of doing things and raise certain questions. For instance, what exactly would a Department of Open Government actually do?

The real importance of these new themes is what they tell us more about the Opposition's election agenda. The stress on "future growth" for instance indicates a concern with better long term planning - a real issue given the present infrastructure mess in Queensland. The suggested "housing accessibility" picks up the emerging "affordability" issue and clearly reflects current concerns. "Social inclusion" - an unusual heading for non-Labor parties, attempts to show that the new LNP, though dominated by the former National Party, has a heart! Again, what this means in terms of on the ground policies is the question.

Springborg's other major announcement was for important portfolios like treasury and health to be with "senior ministers" by linking them to the ministerial pecking order. So what's new? A bolder step would have been to end present arrangements where all ministers sit in cabinet together and move to the long used approach in Canberra of an inner senior cabinet of 8-10 ministers and an outer cabinet of more junior ministers. Springborg's allocation of certain portfolios to the inner cabinet members would then be more meaningful.

Sadly, no one in government nor in the Opposition has appreciated that future Queensland politics is really about urban issues - suburb and housing design and development, environmental management and providing services like transport and cultural facilities on time and at the right levels. Yet, despite being one of the fastest growing states with growth in some regions like the Gold Coast the fastest in terms of actual numbers of people, no one has really picked up the political salience of this and articulated a policy framework to capture this issue. Springborg could start and gain first mover advantage by advocating a Department of Urban Affairs that tackles these issues in a one-stop shop.

One of the problems the Queensland government and its public bureaucracy suffers from is “siloism” - too many government departments and minsters with overlapping roles and jealous about keeping their jobs and “turf” protected in departmental silos that are isolated from each other. For instance, why are there separate departments of transport and main roads when both are concerned about different aspects of transport? Why are not all the economic development departments such tourism industry, primary industries and mining all rolled into one, integrated agency to maximise Queensland's economic growth?

Springborg does not tackle these problems. Instead, he has departments like Main Roads and Transport “sit alongside the Minister for Infrastructure” with what appears to be the Department of State Development. Exactly what “sits alongside” means in practice is unclear.

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Those wanting a smaller, leaner government will also be disappointed in Springborg's decision to have an 18 member shadow ministry. Although  parliamentary secretaries (assistant minsters) have been dropped, does Queensland really need 18 ministers? As well that left-over from nineteenth century welfare socialism, the Department of Works, is still in the Springborg line-up. Public Works should be outsourced to the private sector.

Tactically, having 18 shadow ministers means that over 70 per cent of the Opposition gets a post. This poses problems in management and is also spreading the Opposition's somewhat limited talent very thinly.

This large shadow cabinet also indicates Springborg's attention to internal political party interests. Yet to fully cement his authority with an election win, Springborg has adopted an inclusive approach to former amalgamation opponents in the Nationals and Liberals. Most, with the exception of Dr Bruce Flegg, get a seat at the table. Also, former Liberals enjoy six positions including key posts such as health, treasury and education - not bad for a party that had only eight members prior to amalgamation and clearly a sign that Springborg is keen to break down any reservations from that side of the new LNP.

While Springborg's new shadow ministry has indicated that he wants to try something new, he has stepped back from being really bold. This is a pity. He is going to have to take greater risks and develop much more imaginative policies if the new LNP is to show voters that it has something different and innovative to govern Queensland for the future.

The new LNP shadow ministry is just the start of long road to possible victory. They are not there yet!

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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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