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A Queensland Senate is needed to stop corruption

By Scott Prasser and Nicholas Aroney - posted Friday, 7 August 2009


Tony Fitzgerald QC, who chaired the pivotal inquiry into Queensland corruption released 20 years ago, last week lamented the lack of real reform in Queensland.

The jailing of a former state minister, the exposure of close links between former ministers and staff with business and the executive government's dominance of parliament highlight Queensland's continuing problems.

The Fitzgerald report, unlike other inquiries, blamed corruption in Queensland more on the failure of its particular system of government than on individuals.

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We were reminded of this emphasis last week when Fitzgerald commented that the ability of a government to remain clear of the taint of corruption is sorely tested by long-term incumbency. But while corruption can occur in any administration and under any political system, the lack of an upper house in Queensland makes the problem especially acute and helps to explain why that state in particular continues to be mired in allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest.

The thrust of Fitzgerald's incumbency argument is that the longer a government holds power the more institutions within its sphere of influence have to bend to its will, distort their decision-making and minimise opposition. Public servants subordinate their advice to their political masters in order to retain their positions. More and more senior appointments are filled by those who are either partisan supporters or sympathisers. Organised interests seek increasingly to channel their support to the government of the day.

These traits of incumbency are exacerbated in Queensland because of the state's unicameral legislature. As the experience of the past 20 years demonstrates, procedural reforms, more open government and greater scrutiny of executive decision-making can only make marginal progress while the executive continues to dominate parliament.

Recent events corroborate this, as do the two 2005 royal commissions into the overseas doctors' scandal and the breakdown in ministerial accountability, responsibility and parliamentary oversight that these exposed.

To make matters worse, of all the Australian states and territories, Queensland is where incumbency is commonplace and long lasting.

Since the abolition of Queensland's upper house in 1922, there have been, with minor exceptions, three very long party-dominated regimes.

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Labor held power in the state for more than four decades from 1915 to 1957, with only a brief respite between 1929 and 1931.

Following this was a similar three-decade Country-National-Liberal regime from 1957 to 1989. Since then Queensland has experienced an era of Labor domination, a period of two decades and counting, relieved only by a very brief minority Coalition government between 1996 and 1998.

Other states and territories have seen much more frequent turnovers of government. Since the 1920s, Tasmania has had nine major regime changes, NSW 10, South Australia 11, Western Australia 11 and Victoria 14. This compares to only six regime changes in Queensland over the same period. Once you gain power in Queensland, you tend to hold on to it for a very long time.

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First published in The Australian on August 4, 2009.



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About the Authors

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.

Nicholas Aroney is a Fellow of the Centre for Public, International and Comparative Law and Reader in Law at the TC Beirne School of Law, the University of Queensland. He is author of The Constitution of a Federal Commonwealth: The Making and Meaning of the Australian Constitution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Freedom of Speech in the Constitution (Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies, 1998).

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