Tony Fitzgerald isn’t interested in shades of grey. His attack on Queensland governments of both sides last night was couched in black and white. Wayne Goss and Matt Foley pursued his reforms in the early 90s, but thereafter the whole country moved to the right, along with Queensland, and the Nationals, who were still unfit to govern, got back in. Then Peter Beattie was elected and found success appealing to those who had supported Bjelke-Petersen.
Access can now be purchased, patronage is dispensed, mates and supporters are appointed and retired politicians exploit their political connections to obtain “success fees” for deals between business and government.
No wonder Beattie immediately hit back, boasting of his reform record and personal probity. Fitzgerald seems to suggest the problem is with Queensland itself, which is too conservative, and its political parties too short-sighted, to ever pursue genuine reform.
His analysis is too simplistic — so much so that it doesn’t do anything to assist those trying to pursue reform.
A significant problem with the Beattie Government was Beattie’s own lack of judgement about his ministers, a number of whom had serious lapses in probity or committed criminal acts. To an extent he was captive to the quality of ministers and staff served up to him by Queensland Labor’s factions. But Beattie’s style was a contributing factor. A former Minister — in one of the state’s most sensitive portfolios — told Crikey of how they had approached Beattie to complain that their advisers, who had been placed there by factional leaders, were so inept that they were simply unable to effectively operate as a Minister. But Beattie politely fobbed off the request for help.
Beattie was also an expert at blustering about how he was determined to address impropriety, but never putting in place any structures or systems to deal with it.
Now the longevity of Labor rule in Queensland — with only a two-year spell out of office over the last two decades — is haunting Anna Bligh’s government. Queensland business is riddled with former senior Labor ministers whose connections within the government, the Labor Unity faction and the bureaucracy are highly-valued. Sometimes the value of regular rotations of governments are clear.
In contrast to the implication of Fitzgerald’s criticism, Bligh — who has had her own, albeit minor, difficulties with electoral disclosure — has taken significant steps toward greater accountability than that seen under Beattie.
The State’s FOI laws — the tool for some of the most egregious abuses of executive power in the Beattie era — are being comprehensively reformed, including greater access to Cabinet documents. And Bligh’s lobbyist code of conduct goes further than Kevin Rudd’s, imposing a two-year cooling off period for former ministers rather than eighteen months. Her Lobbyist Register requires lobbyists to list clients stretching back twelve months, rather than only their current clients, providing greater information about business-lobbyist links than under the Commonwealth register, which only provides a current snapshot of who is representing whom.
Bligh’s register also requires the identification of success fees, where lobbyists earn a bonus if their lobbying efforts are successful.
Today Bligh went further and announced that success fees will be banned — a step that other state governments should urgently adopt. A number of lobbyists have made clear their deep unhappiness with the proposal, according to Bligh Government sources — as have a number of MPs, who can see their post-political prospects shrinking with every advance in transparency.
Judging by the reaction, it is clear that success fees play a lot more prominent a role in lobbying in Queensland than the Lobbyist Register entries suggest.
Fitzgerald’s assertion that systemic corruption remains part of Queensland culture is hard to sustain. But Anna Bligh has major problems with a Queensland Labor culture of lobbying and looking after mates. Transparency is the most effective way of dealing with it.