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Schooled in the art of the possible

By Patrick Weller - posted Monday, 22 January 2007

As election year opens, Kevin Rudd's career will come under close scrutiny. In particular, his period in government in Queensland, as chief of staff to then premier Wayne Goss and as director-general of the cabinet office, will be analysed to see what type of prime minister he might be. Perhaps fair enough, but any such analysis needs to be kept in context.

Those were dire times in Queensland. The Fitzgerald inquiry had uncovered a rotten core. Four ministers and a police commissioner went to jail; a former premier escaped prison, saved by a couple of jury members. The public service had little policy capacity. The framework was archaic.

So change was needed. The Fitzgerald report set much of the agenda, establishing standing commissions that gradually reported on criminal and electoral issues. The government had to wait on the reports.


Then Goss, who had committed to implementing the proposals, had to sell to his party recommendations - including weighted electoral boundaries (even if minimal) and optional preferential voting - that reversed party policy.

In the public sector, departments were rapidly reduced from 28 to 18. Only one new departmental head was initially brought from outside the Queensland public service, and the first female director-general was appointed. The Public Sector Management Commission, announced months before the election, reviewed departments and then advertised the top positions. Two, including the head of the premier's department, who had been appointed after open advertisement by the previous Coalition government, were confirmed in their positions.

Opposition to change from within the public service was extensive. One incredulous officer asked, "You mean we have to change what we do just because the government has changed?" Every government will answer that in the affirmative, but some still did not get the point.

Indeed the public reform agenda was scarcely radical when compared with other states; Queensland had just lagged. Most of the antipathy was aimed at the PSMC and at its chairman Peter Coaldrake, now vice-chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology. Goss and Rudd left public service reform to the PSMC.

Rudd's influence was greatest in policy arenas: in the early years of the special premiers conferences, and later the Council of Australian Governments. Goss, NSW Liberal premier Nick Greiner and Victorian Liberal Jeff Kennett sought to improve federal-state relations. They worked with prime minister Bob Hawke in a rare meeting of minds across partisan boundaries. Rudd and Gary Sturgess, then head of the NSW cabinet office, prepared the ground for the premiers meetings. The consequence was a surge of reform in water, transport, mutual recognition and other policy areas.

In these discussions, Goss saw the effectiveness of the policy advice the NSW cabinet office gave Greiner, in contrast to the limitations of his own system. He instructed Rudd to establish a similar capacity. Assisted by Sturgess, the Queensland cabinet office was born.


It was small, never more than 80 staff, and worked across departments tackling what are now described as whole-of-government issues. Rudd had been schooled in the policy capacity of central agencies in Canberra and wanted the same drive and knowledge to ensure quality advice for premier Goss. Rudd had high expectations of his staff, demanded results and wanted them to work as hard as he did. At times the office could appear arrogant, pushy and impatient. Ministers were sometimes nervous about its demands, public servants were often intimidated.

Yet the Queensland Office of the Cabinet did nothing not done in Canberra before and since: its influence was no greater than that of the Prime Minister's Department now. It did far less to centralise government than Kennett. Yet that was enough to spook and upset public servants used to more tranquil times.

All the time Rudd was an adviser. No observer in Queensland at the time had any doubt who was in charge: Goss. He worked with a team of leading ministers such as Tom Burns and Keith De Lacy, with senior public servants such as Erik Finger, Henry Smerdon, Gerard Bradley and Coaldrake.

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First published in The Australian on January 17, 2007.

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About the Author

Patrick Weller holds the Premier of Queensland chair in politics and public policy at Brisbane's Griffith University. He is co-author of The Engine Room of Government: The Queensland Premier's Department 1857-2001 (UQP 2001) and was a member of Wayne Goss's transition-to-government team in 1989.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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