The ALP Palaszczuk government last week rushed 14 new laws and amendments through Queensland’s unicameral parliament without prior parliamentary committee review.
Most worryingly, this included suspending the Human Rights Act – for the second time – to allow for detention of children in adult watch houses following a recent court challenge to the legality of the practice. Other changes included to laws on public drunkenness and police surveillance of sex work-related issues.
Similarly, last year, legislation concerning disability services, revenue and holidays was declared “urgent” by the government and rushed through parliament on the same day or shortly afterwards with only token scrutiny.
Such executive government disregard for parliamentary processes, oversight and accountability has again triggered calls for Queensland to re-establish its upper house, the legislative council. It was abolished in 1922 – despite a successful referendum for its continuation – by the Theodore Labor government, which stacked its membership to get the numbers.
All other states and our national government have democratically elected upper houses that help hold executive government to account. Though not perfect, they make governments work harder to get their legislation passed, to be more careful what they propose and to change flawed bills. The Howard government had to make 170 changes to its first raft of industrial relations legislation and to modify its goods and services tax following Senate pressure.
In his landmark 1989 report, Tony Fitzgerald pinpointed that many of the state’s integrity problems stemmed from executive government dominance. It was the very complaint the then Labor opposition also made.
As Fitzgerald said: “Parliament is meant to be a forum in which the necessity and worth of proposed laws … can be debated. Much less misconduct will occur … if the political processes of public debate are allowed to operate and the objects of the parliamentary system honestly pursued.”
While recommending an expanded parliamentary committee system and new institutions of integrity, the Fitzgerald report’s flaw was that, without the countervailing powers of an elected upper house, these institutions have easily succumbed to partisan executive government manipulation, regardless of who is in office.
Three major inquiries during the past two years – into the Queensland forensic testing laboratory, the state’s flawed integrity system and its anti-corruption body – highlight how nothing has really changed since Fitzgerald. Queensland’s lack of transparency, ministerial responsibility and an over-compliant, politicised public service remain for all to see.
The problem is that tight party discipline concentrated in a single house of parliament makes it a “winner takes all” game, with executive government able to control the parliament, the public service and all other related institutions without challenge.
As Labor has held office in Queensland for all but five of the past 34 years, it is easy to blame it for this malaise, but, to be fair, changes in government – when they occurred – made little difference. Any examination of the recent Newman LNP government tells the same sad story of executive government overreach.
The “now it’s our turn” syndrome pervades Queensland’s political culture, with each successive government wanting to pull all the levers of power, to appoint their “boys and girls” to positions, and to enjoy the perks of office with as little parliamentary oversight as possible.
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