No one can doubt that Queensland’s new Premier Campbell Newman has a mandate for change. Saturday’s election can lay claim to being amongst the best-ever performances by an opposition at the ballot box. As a result, even more than most incoming premiers, Newman has almost unlimited political capital to spend on his ambitious program for his first 100 days in office.
He’s chosen to spend some of that capital on a series of bold appointments to the top echelons of Queensland’s public service. Newman has fired seven department heads, including the departmental heads of Premier and Cabinet, Treasury, Environment and Resource Management, Transport and Infrastructure.
There will be little in the way of continuity with the old administration. Newman has moved to put his stamp on the public service and can be expected to drive these department heads hard to implement his policy agenda.
Some of the appointments are unremarkable. Margaret Allison, for instance, is a respected former bureaucrat at Brisbane City Council, who was also the previous public service commissioner under Anna Bligh. Allison is seen as a tough but highly competent operator. Newman has also tapped former City Council administrators Andrew Chesterman, to be Director-General of Environment and Resource Management, and Barry Broe as Coordinator-General.
Helen Gluer, who has been championed by Newman as the state’s first female under-treasurer, is also a former City Council executive. She was chief financial officer at Brisbane City in the 2000’s before taking up her role as CEO of state-owned electricity generator Stanwell in 2007.
Far more controversial is the appointment of Michael Caltabiano to head up Transport and Main Roads. Caltabiano is a noted factional warrior in the Queensland Liberal Party. A former Brisbane councillor and state MP, he has a long history in the Santo Santoro wing of the local party, and at one point was even touted as a possible future leader.
He might be a qualified engineer, but his experience in running a large organisation with a multi-billion dollar budget is nil. It’s hard to see his appointment as anything else than a naked politicisation of a key position at the top of the public service. Before becoming DG of a department with a staff of 8900 and the responsibility for 43,000 kilometres of road and rail lines, Caltabiano was working in a political consultancy, Entree Vous.
According to its website, Entree Vous is a “a specialist Government and Media Relations company with significant expertise in the area of Rare Diseases and Orphan Drug funding through Australia’s Life Saving Drugs Program”. It’s not the most obvious preparation for a crucial project management role rebuilding Queensland’s transport network, badly damaged by last year’s floods and cyclones.
Another LNP mate that has scooped a plum position is Dave Edwards, the son of former Bjelke-Peterson government deputy premier Sir Llew Edwards. David Edwards is a former media advisor to the Queensland Nationals and was the chief of staff to Jeff Seeney, the LNP’s opposition leader in parliament (now the deputy premier). Edwards will be the new Director-General of the Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation. Despite his impeccable family connections, his qualifications to run a major state government department with 29 separate business units and a staff of nearly 5000 must also be seriously questioned.
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Someone who has retained a role in the Queensland public service is Anna Bligh’s husband, Greg Withers. Withers is currently in charge of the state’s carbon-reduction programs, which the LNP has pledged to abolish.
According to Newman, Withers’ “brief at the moment is to actually unravel those, quietly and in a structured way dismantle those and shut them down to save I think, from memory around $270 million a year for Queensland”.
“That is what the new director-general of Premier and Cabinet will be conveying to him,” Newman said at yesterday’s press conference. “I am telling you that he has a job, if he wants one.”
It’s not unprecedented for bureaucrats to be given the task of dismantling their own programs by incoming governments, but even so the treatment of Withers seems a tad uncharitable.
The new appointments are of course well within the ambit of an incoming premier, but they do highlight some of the structural issues around accountability in Queensland. With a single chamber of state parliament, Queensland’s executive is far less constrained than other states by parliamentary oversight. The state does have a strong anti-corruption institution in the Crime and Misconduct Commission. But no one is suggesting appointing political mates to top positions amounts to official misconduct, and the CMC will not be able to investigate unless the officers themselves do something naughty.
But it can hardly be argued Calatabiano and Edwards’ appointments are advancing the cause of an independent and accountable public service, managed by appropriately experienced and qualified people.
Newman says he expects criticism for the appointment of Caltabiano. In opposition, the LNP was highly critical of many of Labor’s appointments, including of Withers himself (despite having a 20-year career in the public service). And the interventionist tone of his early days in office is in keeping with his record as lord mayor, where he ruthlessly cleaned out a large number of Jim Soorley’s old appointments in the council bureaucracy.
It’s been a horrible few days for Queensland Labor. But the new appointments will at least give newly-elected Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk an early opportunity to show she’s up to the thankless task of holding the rampant LNP majority to account.