Queensland politics and public administration never ceases to surprise. First, we had the death of an Aborigine while in police custody on Palm Island in North Queensland. This resulted in widespread riots, a compromised police investigation, an aborted Coroner’s study and finally a further Coroner’s report that was highly critical of a Queensland police officer’s actions that may have contributed to the death of an Indigenous person on Palm Island.
Despite the sensitivity of this issue to the local Aboriginal community, suggestions that the police officer should be suspended, pending advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), were rejected by the Police Commissioner, the Police Minister and the Premier. Instead, the officer, although given different duties, remained on active service.
This seemed an odd response given that elsewhere in the public service, staff suffering allegations and being investigated by the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC), the state’s anti-corruption watchdog, are automatically stood aside and sent on “gardening leave”. Clearly, these arrangements do not apply to police officers named in coroners’ reports.
Sadly, this matter was not resolved by decisive decision-making by Queensland’s political leaders or the Police Commissioner. Rather, the police officer concerned decided to “suspend” himself. It was the right decision, but made by the wrong person. Perhaps this is the new “self managerialism” where staff decide their own fate. The DPP’s decision as to whether the officer should be charged with an offence has yet to be made.
That we are still having problems with Aboriginal deaths in custody after the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the millions of dollars spent on this issue and special bodies established to monitor the issue must be a concern to us all. Just what progress has been made on this terrible policy problem? Why is it so hard to resolve and why are police of all people so inept in this highly politically charged area?
Perhaps, more fundamentally, this event again raises concerns about the state of Queensland’s public administration. Problems of poor public administration were supposed to have been resolved by the 1989 Fitzgerald Royal Commission into Corruption. However, the Palm Island incident, and problems exposed by the two Royal Commissions into the overseas doctor scandal last year, highlight just how little progress has been made in Queensland.
Just to emphasise this problem another scandal broke in Queensland. Gordon Nuttall, the former health minister has been discovered to have failed to record on his ministerial pecuniary interest statement a $300,000 “loan” made several years ago by a Queensland mining magnate.
What makes Nuttall’s non-declaration so interesting is that it was pecuniary and it is conflicts of interest issues that were at the centre of the Fitzgerald Commission’s report. Indeed, the Fitzgerald Commission concluded that “the financial interest of any parliamentarian or person in authority are of public significance. Such interests can result in conflicts between public duty and private interest.” The Fitzgerald Report noted the deficiencies in then existing pecuniary interest arrangements.
Successive Coalition and Labor governments responded to this problem so that Queensland now has codes of conduct for local and state politicians and public servants in relation to pecuniary interests. Requirements are outlined in 1994 Public Sector Ethics Act, in other legislation pertaining to local government, in the 2001 Parliament of Queensland Act, and in the more recently developed Queensland Ministerial Handbook.
Indeed, it could be argued that Queensland has one of the most vigorous pecuniary interest scrutiny systems in Australia and across other Westminster democracies. Nevertheless, problems remain. In particular, what the Nuttall affair shows is that the accuracy of these pecuniary interest statements leaves a lot to be desired, and questions whether there should be increased regulation and penalties to ensure their correct maintenance.
It is ironic that it is Nuttall who, even as an ex-minister, is still causing the Beattie Government grief. After all, it was Nuttall who, as the health minister, was publicly contradicted by his own deputy director-general, Dr John Scott, at a parliamentary Estimates Committee about his knowledge of the overseas doctor scandal. Despite this, Nuttall was not dismissed but given a new portfolio.
Dr Scott was sacked, even though he was later commended by the Davies Royal Commission into the overseas doctor scandal for his actions in this area. Nuttall was also the same minister subjected to investigation by the CMC over these statements to the Estimates Committee. After briefly standing aside, Nuttall was reappointed to the ministry and later publicly attacked the CMC.