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How Qld’s slimmer cabinet could focus on policy priority

The last Queensland Labor cabinet before the ALP split tore it asunder had 11 members, headed by Premier Vince Gair. Jack Pizzey’s ministry, the last Country Party-led administration before Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s long reign began, had 13 members. The last National Party cabinet before Wayne Goss gained power in 1989 was Russell Cooper’s ministry of 19. Campbell Newman shared executive power with 18 other ministers before he resigned as premier on February 10.

The new Labor premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk (pictured), heads a cabinet of just 14.

During the election campaign, the reduction in the number of ministers, and the virtual abolition of assistant ministers, was justified as a cost reduction measure, coupled with the announcement that MPs’ salaries would be tied to public sector wage movements, a policy reaffirmed yesterday by the Premier. Perhaps because there were few who expected a Labor victory, the announcement attracted little comment, though I suspect it was electorally helpful.

Roger Scott wrote for The Mandarin about the administrative arrangements and the changes to the process for recruiting and reappointing directors-general. But there’s also a political and policy context to this move.

The Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh cabinets were not always blessed by the most competent ministers, even if we leave aside the scandal-ridden and later jailed Merri Rose and Gordon Nuttall. Bligh was initially accorded too little room by the factions to renew Beattie’s ministry, and unfortunately some of her ministers spent more of their time plotting or having long lunches than carrying out their executive functions. Others, too long in the saddle, had effectively given up.

[pullquote] “I think it’s true now to say that Palaszczuk has actually been advantaged by not having a ministry in waiting.” [/pullquote]

One leading Labor figure commented to me in 2011 that it was most unlikely that the government got value for the then $40 million or so spent on ministers and a veritable army of ministerial staffers, some of whom were in the habit of strutting up and down George Street, imagining themselves characters in The West Wing.

It surprised me during the election campaign that more was not made either by the Liberal-National Party or the generally hostile Courier-Mail of the difficulty of proposing a viable cabinet from a parliamentary party of nine MPs, two of whom retired at the election. I thought this would be a viable political attack, and perhaps its absence was again a factor of expectations of an LNP win.

Nevertheless, I think it’s true now to say that Palaszczuk has actually been advantaged by not having a ministry in waiting. She’s been able to reward those re-elected members of her tiny opposition team and also bring back some (but by no means all) of the members who lost seats in 2012 and regained them or successfully stood elsewhere in 2015. So for a party which has won from opposition, there’s a very respectable cohort of ministers with experience. In 2012, only Lawrence Springborg had previously sat in cabinet.

Palaszczuk has also promoted a diverse range of first-termers, including Leanne Enoch, the first Murri woman elected to the Queensland Legislative Assembly. Labor, by dint of its landslide loss, was able to renew its parliamentary ranks very significantly and, importantly, recruited candidates from well outside the narrow corridors of the “political class”. Both Enoch and Dr Anthony Lynham, elected for Stafford in a 2014 by-election, are good examples.

A smaller cabinet should be both a more cohesive unit and more amenable to assessment on performance. There’s literally no room for time servers and superannuated factional hacks.

What does the cabinet say about policy priorities?

As to policy, there’s an interesting story to tell here.

Scott already noted some of the combinations of portfolios had synergies. It’s not new, of course, for there to be more departments than ministers, and sometimes there have been jarring combinations in the past.

One of Palaszczuk’s signal achievements as opposition leader was to refocus the party around its core values. Opposition to asset sales was part of this, as were the renewed links with the broader labour movement and the adoption of community campaigning. As ALP leader, Palaszczuk facilitated a process whereby the party platform was rethought, and threw open the doors to a much more wide-ranging policy development exercise, both within the party and through consultation with stakeholders and the public.

I don’t think it’s been summed up in a neat three-word slogan, but Queensland Labor’s “modest” policies can be distilled down to “jobs, sustainability and innovation”.

Having Mark Bailey as a minister who’s well across the sustainability agenda in Main Roads, Road Safety and Ports, and Energy and Water Supply, is a much more logical and focused set of responsibilities than it may initially seem. So too with Deputy Premier Jackie Trad, Minister for Transport, Minister for Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning and Minister for Trade.

Springborg, the new LNP leader, has criticised the administrative arrangements for overloading ministers. Ministers arguably have three roles: as administrators, as stakeholder managers and as strategic policy thinkers. Springborg may have had the first in mind.

At state government level, there are certainly some portfolios which lend themselves more to the first two sets of functions. Here a successful minister can be one who causes no trouble for the government. But, as Bligh government minister Rachel Nolan relates in The Monthly, a relatively junior ministry — in her case Disabilities, and the input she had into the formulation of the NDIS — can also be a springboard for strategic policy work.

[pullquote] “State governments can also have a powerful advocacy role.” [/pullquote]

Obviously, as with the NDIS or Gonski, there are many portfolios where to rise above administration and stakeholder engagement takes a degree of state/federal co-operation. But this doesn’t need to be only through slow Council of Australian Government processes or achieved through commonality of party alignment. State governments can also have a powerful advocacy role. That was something John Brumby and Terry Moran demonstrated in Victoria, particularly in hospitals financing and healthcare delivery.

Queensland played a demonstration role with equal pay legislation in 1999, a policy initiative in which I was involved as a consultant. The industrial relations policy capacity in the Queensland public service continued to be levered for this sort of role even when WorkChoices was legislated, with reports and research commissioned and produced under Bligh setting policy agendas that would later be reflected in aspects of federal Labor’s Fair Work legislation.

All this takes two things, though. First, ministers who can distinguish between mere activity and strategic thought and policy advocacy; and secondly, a policy capacity both within their departments and externally. Here, the announced savings from consultancies may present a problem, but there can and should be innovative ways of sourcing relevant and innovative policy expertise that go above and beyond stakeholder consultation.

Mark Latham, in typically acerbic mode, recently advised state governments to concentrate on only a few policy areas. Queensland Labor doesn’t have to take to heart the grumpy neo-liberalism he champions, but if the smaller Palaszczuk cabinet can concentrate on strategic initiatives across the inter-related themes of jobs, sustainability and innovation, then it will be doing something significant beyond the expectations created in its “modest” election campaign.

Dr Mark Bahnisch’s book — Queensland: Everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask — for NewSouth Books is released in May.

Author Bio

Dr Mark Bahnisch

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist, writer and consultant. He is a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and has analysed Australian and Queensland politics across a variety of media since 2004.