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All accountability, not much integrity

By Scott Prasser - posted Tuesday, 13 October 2009


The recently released Green Paper on Integrity and Accountability in Queensland poses the following broad question: how can Queensland's integrity and accountability framework be improved and strengthened? While welcoming the Green Paper it is a fundamentally flawed document.

In particular, the Green Paper’s main thrust is to propose various extra-parliamentary accountability and transparency mechanisms, such as the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC), the Integrity Commissioner, the Ombudsman, freedom of information laws and other codes of conduct regulating ministers and public service employees.

Herein is the Green Paper’s prime flaw. Although the Green Paper acknowledges a civil society depends on public trust in its democratic institutions, none of the external institutions and processes of review mentioned, and so highly praised, in the Green Paper are democratic bodies. They are all appointed by executive government and none are reliably monitored by Parliament given the reality of Executive Government control in Queensland.

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There are three main reasons why these external mechanisms of review alone have only a limited capacity to enhance accountability and integrity in government.

First, as unelected bodies, the functions and powers of these external bodies must be inherently limited by statute. They cannot investigate issues where they have no legislative powers to probe. The CMC has often lacked legislative powers to investigate certain issues or to be able to have the necessary powers to probe as deep as required.

Second, their scope of operation is focused on particular outbreaks of corruption and incidents of maladministration which, even if tackled, are usually a reflection of wider systemic problems. It is Queensland’s system of executive dominated government, winner takes all approach to government, and its weak parliamentary scrutiny that lies at the heart of its continuing problems.

Third, the Executive Government controls both the appointments, resources and powers of these bodies. While there are sensitivities concerning any overt “stacking” of such bodies, there have been numerous examples of where the Executive Government has sought, often with success, to reduce the resources and powers of these bodies and to make appointments without bipartisan support.

The Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) established as a result of the 1989 Fitzgerald Royal Commission, and its successor, the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC), although much vaunted by the Green Paper, have had a long history of difficulties in performing their watchdog functions. Successive Labor and Coalition administrations have sought to interfere with these bodies. Critics have argued that the CMC has delegated too much of its investigatory activities to government agencies and lost its real investigative edge.

External review bodies do not sit well with the “winner takes all approach to government” which prevails in Queensland. Moreover, parliamentary committee oversight, especially when concerned with disputes between the CJC or CMC and the government, decline into a simple contest of party politics which is inevitably resolved in favour of the Executive Government through its control of the Parliament and its committees.

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Other innovations like whistleblower protections have not entirely eliminated a culture of fear and intimidation within the public service as the Davies Royal Commission concerning the overseas doctors’ scandal clearly demonstrated. Moreover, our public service seems to be more politicised than ever.

The Green Paper misses the mark. While acknowledging that democratic government, including the separation of powers, ought to be the keystone of the integrity framework in Queensland and that the legislature “makes the laws and, through its proceedings and committees, holds the executive to account” the Green Paper avoids any major discussion of the parliament’s effectiveness.

This is remarkable given the fact that the Parliament is the primary mechanism by which governments are held to account in our system. But the Green Paper ignores Parliament. This overlook is characteristic of the basic flaw in Queensland’s integrity and accountability framework. The external review mechanisms discussed in the Green Paper cannot operate effectively and independently from Executive Government unless they are linked to clear parliamentary oversight that is itself free from excessive Executive Government manipulation.

We need to fix our parliamentary system first and foremost if we are to improve accountability and most importantly get integrity back into Queensland Government. And that means not just improved parliamentary processes, but having an appropriately structured upper house to provide countervailing power to all knowing executive government. This issue is not canvassed in the Green Paper. Our system of government in Queensland is not working. It is broke. It needs major repair, not minor renovations as proposed in the Green Paper.

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This article is based on Professor Scott Prasser and Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney’s (University of Queensland) submission to the Green Paper on accountability and was given as an address to the Institute of Public Administration on 30 September.



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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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