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Sunshine state hasn't shaken its shady past

By Scott Prasser - posted Friday, 24 July 2009


The 1989 Queensland Fitzgerald royal commission into police corruption exposed more than crooked cops. It also highlighted, under the National Party, just how porous the relationships were between government and business, the conflicts of interest of elected officials and the blurring of distinctions in government decision-making between the public interest, partisan promotion and legitimate business development.

As the Fitzgerald report said: "On the evidence before this inquiry ... there were a number of occasions when persons and organisations ... involved in transactions with government were also involved in personal dealings with one of its members, who nonetheless participated in and sometimes dominated the official decision-making process."

While state governments' closeness to business is inevitable given their constitutional responsibilities and inevitable pro-development stance, it reached new heights during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era.

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The closeness was manifested by two-way traffic between government and business in favours and deals. Successive Queensland governments provided to selected business interests special concessions, relaxed regulations, emasculated tendering processes and fast-tracked project approvals. It was justified as helping to get Queensland developed, to catch up to the other states and create wealth and jobs.

And business played along. After governments have been in power for as long as the Nationals, they become, as one academic said, "the only game in town".

They had to be supported and pacified if the pivotal approvals business needed for large and long-term investments were to be forthcoming, as Queensland became industrialised from the 1960s onwards with its resources, tourism and population booms. Donations to party funds, loans to ministers, appointment of ex-politicians to company boards and even joining the Nationals to show support were what smart business leaders did to conduct business in Queensland. Interests between government, party, individual entrepreneurs and even some public servants were seen as mutual, reciprocal and reinforcing. The result was a network of contacts supported by favours and overlapping roles.

For instance, businessman Edward Lyons was a trustee of the Bjelke-Petersen Foundation and chairman of the TAB who used his connections to further his personal business interests. Jennings Industry won the Gold Coast Casino while its chairman Roderick Proctor was a member of the Bjelke-Petersen Foundation. Russ Hinze, minister for main roads and local government, fast-tracked some projects in exchange for loans.

In Queensland, private sector development costs were often minimised by government action: a sandbar moved here, a new road there, a favourable environment assessment somewhere else.

And so it went.

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The Fitzgerald inquiry initiated some changes, but close government and business relations have continued, as highlighted by the trial of former Beattie Labor state minister Gordon Nuttall for accepting $360,000 from a mining magnate.

Other incidents during the past decade suggest that business and government still drink at the same trough, gnaw at the same bones and digest the same benefits being served up on Queensland's table of economic growth, property development and infrastructure projects. In Queensland, secrecy still surrounds the government's business attraction strategies. There are new networks and contacts for business and government to collaborate, but the ends remain the same: mutual advantage and personal advancement.

In Queensland, jobs for mates - party mates, business mates and aspiring mates - pervade appointments to government business enterprises and public service positions, even more so than when Fitzgerald reported.

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First published in The Australian on July 17, 2009.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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