Scott Prasser Policy Insights Substack August 5, 2022
In the 100th anniversary year of the abolition of Queensland’s Upper House, it may be time to re-examine the need for one. But if so, how might that be achieved and is it even politically feasible? The recent Coaldrake Report, the Review of Culture and Accountability in the Queensland Public Sector sparked off by a series of scandals concerning Queensland’s integrity system, the effectiveness of the Public Service Commission, and lobbying, is a latest of a long line of reports into integrity and corruption in Queensland government and found it sadly wanting.
We have also witnessed in the last twelve months the resignations of key integrity officers including of the chair of Queensland’s anti-corruption body, the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC). There is currently a commission of inquiry chaired by Tony Wilson and Alan Wilson, into the CCC.
It seems that despite the 1989 Fitzgerald Report, originally appointed to probe corruption in the police, but which found flaws in Queensland’s wider political and public administration system with its lack of adherence to Westminster principles to be the underlying cause of the state’s integrity and accountability problems that nothing has changed.
Other commissions of inquiries after Fitzgerald, like 2005 Davies Queensland Public Hospital Commission of Inquiry into the overseas doctors’ scandal and Queensland Health Payroll System Commission of Inquiry (2012) also exposed secrecy, misinformation, flawed processes, poor management and lack of transparency.
This is despite most the Fitzgerald’s recommendation being accepted so that Queensland has all the outward appurtenances of a reformed integrity system with a host of new integrity arrangements, offices, legislation, and even a revamped parliamentary committee system, and as mentioned, a powerful anti-corruption body.
But problems, as the Coaldrake Report reminds us once again, persist. Something is rotten in the state of Queensland that it is systemic, deep and unrelenting.
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Let’s be clear about who is responsible for Queensland’s current integrity crisis. In the 33 years since the Fitzgerald Report was released, the Labor Party have been in office for all but five years – 80 per cent of the period. It is Labor governments under the successive premierships of Goss, Beattie, Bligh and now Palaszczuk, who are responsible – Labor and Labor alone. At the same time, the brief interludes by the Coalition parties in the Borbidge (1996-8) and Newman (2012-15) governments do not indicate there would have been much difference.
For those expecting the Coaldrake Report to fix the problems, they are missing the point. Like all inquiries its recommendations are handed back to the very executive government that appointed it. Moreover, the same people and institutions responsible for the problems in the first place are the ones responsible for implementing the recommendations. After all, the Coaldrake Review was not a royal commission. It did not name, names, but asked those in government to do better.
The problem, and why the Fitzgerald Report has not had the ameliorative impact expected, is that all those aforementioned new integrity arrangements that it instigated, could not be sustained in the context of Queensland’s existing constitutional and political framework with its unicameral parliamentary system and resulting winner takes all approach to government by the winning political party. There is in this system no countervailing power to executive government dominance. There is no moderating force to executive government, and thus partisan excesses as occurs in other jurisdictions with an upper house. Everything, even with the best integrity arrangements, inevitably gets manipulated to suit immediate political needs.
Consequently, the public service has become even more politicised than before, appointments to government boards are more partisan than ever, frank and fearless advice is rarer, processes contrived and misallocation of public funds, as we have all witnessed with the recent Wellcamp fiasco, all too frequent.
Now, the re-establishment of a democratically-elected upper house would be no immediate panacea, for the political culture in which these problems have thrived is well-entrenched. And, as we have noted, the performance of the Australian upper houses presents a mixed picture, though the federal Senate is a shining light in this regards. But a democratically elected upper house that is not so easily controlled by governments would help to make them more responsible and accountable—through its own investigatory and inquisitive powers, as well as through its capacity to fortify and support the findings, recommendations and determinations of Queensland’s extra-parliamentary institutions. An upper house would give oppositions more opportunity to scrutinise and evaluate government proposals, thereby not only subjecting the government to closer examination but also giving oppositions more opportunity to commend themselves to voters as viable alternative governments.
We all know that Queensland’s Legislative Council was abolished by the Theodore Labor Government in 1922, in a surreptitious way. It denied a people’s referendum of 1917 that supported the chamber’s retention. It was motivated by Labor’s ideological antipathy to upper houses that were seen as restraining their wide-ranging, and sometimes excessive policy platform. In Queensland, there was also local factors like the Legislative Council’s scrutiny of certain then Labor government initiatives that were later to prove to have involved Theodore and other leading Labor figures.
The abolition in 1922 was done by legislation passing both houses.
Sadly, getting an upper house is fraught with great difficulty and would require:
Acceptance by whoever was in government that it would have to accept great scrutiny;
It would need to have a clear model of how an upper house would be elected, its form, numbers and costs;
It would have to ensure there would be no additional members and costs;
It would need bipartisan support;
It would need support from key interests groups;
There would need to be an ongoing public education campaign;
It would require at least two terms of a government to initiate the campaign and pursue it consistently and energetically.
Remember it took Australia 20 years to get the GST and even then, Howard almost lost the 1998 election because of it.
So, an upper house will never happen for all the reasons cited above. There is no leader or party with that much commitment on an issue that though worthwhile would seem to have no political benefits. Indeed, it would cause nothing but headaches and be a distraction from the day to day pressures all governments face these days.
Scott Prasser, “The virtues of an upper house for Queensland – an idea whose time has come (but it won’t)” presentation to Brisbane Club 29 July 2022
N. Aroney, S. Prasser and JR Nethercote, (eds), Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? Perth: UWA Press, 2008
1/ Source: Queensland Parliament House