We’ve been here before: How Queensland keeps ignoring efforts to fix public sector culture

They say culture is all about actions, not words. The Palaszczuk Government won’t solve its integrity crisis if it ignores that maxim, writes Craig Johnstone.

Jun 29, 2022, updated Jun 29, 2022
 Peter Coaldrake has delivered a stinging rebuke to Queensland's public sector integrity. '.  (AAP Image/Alan Porritt)

Peter Coaldrake has delivered a stinging rebuke to Queensland's public sector integrity. '. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt)

The striking thing about Peter Coaldrake’s comprehensive review of the integrity of Queensland’s public sector is that it is an immediate reminder of how many times in the state’s recent history we’ve been here before.

A lot of what he proposes as a fix to the accountability problems besetting the Palaszczuk Government were urged by similar reviews a decade or more ago.

This government didn’t invent a bullying culture. It certainty isn’t the first to sacrifice good government processes to short-term political imperatives.

But it certainly is responsible for ignoring past efforts to ensure the state’s bureaucracy values openness and transparency and encourages a safe and respectful workplace.

For all the attention it is getting in the wake of the Coaldrake review, that some ministerial advisers treat experienced bureaucrats like dirt is an all-too-familiar lament to anyone who has spent more than a few years in the state’s public sector.

Way back in the late 2000s, the then Crime and Misconduct Commission, chaired by Robert Needham, investigated the circumstances surrounding a $4.2 million grant made to the Queensland Rugby Union and the role certain advisers to the then sports minister, Judy Spence, played in awarding that grant.

The revelations of that investigation included instances of bullying and the undue influence ministerial advisers placed on public servants. It has a particular relevance to today’s government because one of the public servants who told the inquiry about her frustrations with Spence’s office at the time was Di Farmer, now a minister in Palaszczuk’s Cabinet.

The subsequent CMC report urged reforms that would clarify the relationship between ministerial offices and bureaucrats. If the spirit of those reforms had been observed, the current government would not find itself where it is now.

Coaldrake’s report finds fault with the operation of most of the integrity systems put in place by the Palaszczuk government and its predecessors and paints a picture of an administration seeking to avoid transparency rather than embrace it.

The overall theme of the 131-page report, titled Let the Sunshine In, is an appeal to open up the government’s processes to public view as a way of improving confidence in its integrity.

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It was Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk herself who appointed Coaldrake to review the culture and accountability of the state’s public sector in response to months of scandal and controversy over integrity matters.

He is holding her to that expressed need for a reset, saying that the right integrity mechanisms are important but what holds it all together is a commitment to encouraging the right culture.

“And culture is shaped by leaders at all levels – the Premier of the day, ministers, MPs, Directors-General and senior executives. Their tone will be a precondition for success, whether that ‘tone’ be in the form of modelling behaviour, policy ambition and encouraging a contest of ideas, supporting the community in times of crisis, or the manner in which authority is exercised and the voice of the public heard,” Coaldrake says in his report.

In that sense, the review is aspirational rather than condemnatory. Get the culture right and the integrity issues should disappear.

“Our best young people, indeed the best young people from around the world, should aspire to be part of Queensland’s public sector, serving the needs of the community, and a government committed to identifying and enacting a long-term strategy for the State.”

The reforms Coaldrake urges are much broader in scope than the changes to lobbying regulations announced by Palaszczuk announced on Monday.

Echoing Mike Ahern’s famous declaration following the release of the Fitzgerald Report in 1989, Palaszczuk says she will implement the reforms “lock, stock and barrel”. We shall see.


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