New governments are always the last to realise that the only thing new about governance and public policy happens to be them. The test of any new government is how long it takes for that realisation to occur.

In Queensland, we’ve just completed the first 100 days of the Newman government, otherwise known as Campbell Newman’s 100-day magical mystery tour — a sort of prolonged orientation week for new frontbenchers as they attend lots of events, go to a lot of meetings, and where the public service tries its best to make them realise that they’re actually running the show now, and that it’s time for them to get their shit together.

A few ministers have surprised people — adapting to the realities of government much quicker than many thought they would. Some have taken to it like naturals.

Others, however, too many in fact, haven’t quite figured it all out yet — others still don’t seem to be able to bring themselves to even start acting like grown-ups.

Let me introduce you to Tim Nicholls — Tim doesn’t realise that he’s actually the Queensland Treasurer. He knows he is something Treasurerish, with his better office, people actually answering his calls, journalists actually attending his press conferences. He gets to attend swankier events and has a substantially larger hospitality budget — but he still doesn’t realise that he’s actually the Treasurer.

You can tell, as he still behaves as if he were in opposition — a place in Queensland where  it has historically been considered acceptable practice to just make things up as required. The transition from ad hoc political sloganeer to serious political institution isn’t going well for Nicholls.

The alleged Treasurer recently wrote an article for the Brisbane Times — it’s well worth pulling it apart to highlight the lazy nonsense that’s starting to pervade what should be the serious side of Queensland politics. It begins:

“The Newman government’s position on the size of the public sector is quite clear — our overriding principle is to preserve as many jobs as possible.

“This government has both a responsibility and a mandate to pay down Labor’s debt. It is a responsibility we all share. And it is with that thought in mind that I ask members of the public sector to carefully consider demands for higher wages.”

Let us then carefully consider these demands — but more importantly, a big bunch of public policy issues that accompany them — for at least then there will be exactly one of us that has decided to do so.

“It’s a question of high wage growth versus job cuts. By turning down wage offers that are more than fair, union members will be jeopardising not only their colleagues’ jobs but also the state’s future prosperity.”

The “wage offers” the Treasurer is talking about are actually based on Tim Nicholls and Campbell Newman making an assumption that average annual inflation across the next three years — the life of the coming agreement — will be 1.6%. No — that’s not a typo.

This dynamic duo is not embracing the awkward reality where the Reserve Bank of Australia runs an inflation targeting regime designed to keep inflation between a 2% and 3% band over the medium and long term.  To put this piece of ridiculous economic piffle into some context, let’s look at the most recent RBA Statement on Monetary Policy and the median inflation expectations contained within it (pages 64 and 67):

They have inflation forecasts 60 to 90 basis points lower than everyone else. If Nicholls wants to give real wage cuts, he should simply be honest about it. But as we’ll see, honesty isn’t often the best policy for the alleged Treasurer.

“The Queensland government coffers are empty. State debt is heading for $100 billion. Unions can thank their Labor ‘mates’ for that.”

Eleventy bazillion in fact — but that’s another laugh for another time. The only thing more consistent about new governments than rampaging egos is the discovery of magical budget black holes.

“So when unions demand more money for their members it stands to reason expenses must be reduced elsewhere.

“Rationalising the public service is not a task we relish. Nor do we embark on it lightly or frivolously. There are many hardworking and dedicated public servants who have been let down by a Labor government that made short-term decisions for their own political benefit.

“The Commission of Audit Interim Report found that in the past decade the size of the Queensland public service was allowed to grow by an unsustainable 41 per cent. It has become too top-heavy. Had the public service grown at the same rate as population, we’d have 18,500 fewer public servants, and expenses would be $1.5 billion lower.”

Let’s have a look at these figures — they’re quite enlightening and expose a pretty poor understanding of Queensland public policy history. All figures are available from the Queensland Public Service Commission’s annual reports from 2001 to 2011. For 2012 numbers, I’m using the 2012 March Quarter update on the same site.

Peter Fray

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