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D-Gs ‘on notice’: Queensland’s public service shake-up

Queensland’s top bureaucrats are on notice under an incoming Labor government — previous experience and past success may no longer apply. And those that survive face the challenge of new and often disparate portfolio groupings under a slimmed-down ministry.

New Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (pictured) has ordered all department directors-general must re-apply for their jobs as part of a “merit-based process”. She says it will avoid a “night of the long knives” and goes to the government’s “commitment to integrity and accountability”.

One head has already rolled, with Premier and Cabinet boss Jon Grayson quitting the service by “mutual agreement”. He’s been replaced by Dave Stewart, a former Queensland mandarin who worked closely with Palaszczuk as a minister before being dismissed by Campbell Newman’s Liberal-National government.

Roger Scott, a long-time Queensland public servant who served as director-general of the Department of Education under the Wayne Goss Labor government, says “directors-general have been placed on notice that the reasons underlying their original elevation will be examined”.

“Service in the Brisbane City Council was previously regarded as clearly meritorious above all other considerations [Newman was formerly BCC mayor]; performance and qualifications will now play a major role,” Scott wrote for The Mandarin.

“There is a feeling of 1989 about the recent machinery-of-government changes … It stands in stark contrast to the total chaos which accompanied the incoming Bligh government where there seemed to be two sets of decision-makers, one political and one structural, operating without reference to each other and producing a complete dog’s breakfast.”

“There is a feeling of 1989 about the recent machinery-of-government changes …”

For an incoming government of “modest aspiration”, public servants face a challenge of structural adjustment rather than policy adjustment, Scott says. The new make-up of ministries — reduced from 19 to 14 — offers some clues of the changes ahead.

“Incoming directors-general will face a challenging amalgam of functions with all ministers having two often disparate groupings to deal with,” he said. “Some of this is a product of a pre-election commitment to reducing the number of departments; others one can only presume relate to the interests of the individual occupants or a specific policy concern requiring either improved co-ordination or deliberate separation.

“The Premier, like her predecessors, leavens her weight of office with the generally enjoyable sideline of Arts. By contrast, her deputy Jackie Trad combines Trade plus Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning, plus a Department of Transport which excludes Main Roads, Road Safety and Ports. These three are under the same relatively junior minister (Mark Bailey), alongside his responsibilities for Energy and Water Supply.

“New Treasurer Curtis Pitt is also heavily laden, with the additions of both Employment and Industrial Relations and ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships’, the latter reflecting the interests of many of his constituents in Far North Queensland…

“There are some apparently incongruous pairing such as Training and Skills linked with the Attorney-General rather than with Education or Employment/Industrial Relations, but also some sensible co-locations such as Health and Ambulance Services and various aspects of environment and heritage under one minister.”

Bill De Maria, a long-time political watcher and academic at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Public Administration, agrees it “has a similar feel to the Goss springtime in 1989”. He describes the move to have directors-general reapply for their jobs as “bold”.

“It is going to be a test of how entrenched the politicisation of the public service is,” he told The Mandarin. “One of the things favouring a return to a politically neutral bureaucracy is the naivety of the new cabinet (with three exceptions). This inexperience may drive a demand for bureaucratic advice and assistance that is not tied to specific political agendas. Here I am thinking of governments’ past obsession of running their respective shows as if they were businesses.

“The re-application initiative may also encourage competent senior career public servants to again aspire to the top positions. Where before it was a ‘do not apply unless you have made millions in business’.”

Requests for comment from Palaszczuk’s office on how the selection process for directors-general will run, and whether departments will be restructured, were not answered by deadline.

As one insider told The Mandarin today: “The ALP is still feeling its way after the totally unexpected elevation to government.”

More at The Mandarin: No ‘night of long knives’, but Qld bureaucrats face axe

Author Bio

Jason Whittaker

Jason Whittaker is managing editor of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has written for and edited political, business and culture publications for a decade. He spent two years as editor of sister Private Media publication Crikey.