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Checking and balancing in Queensland

By Ken McKay - posted Friday, 31 July 2009

Queensland is unique in Australia in that there is no upper house. This, combined with the concept of binding the caucus of parliamentarians to party positions, means a fundamental tenant of the Westminster system of government is in jeopardy. That is the separation between the Executive and the Parliament.

A fundamental issue that led to the corrupt system in Queensland during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era was that Parliament rubber-stamped the actions of the executive.

Does anyone recall the issue that broke up the Liberal Party and the National Party coalition? It was the establishment of the Public Accounts Committee. The Liberal party wanted it: the Nationals were opposed.


The establishment of the Public Accounts committee would have forced the executive to be accountable to the Parliament - crucial when considering the absence of an upper house.

Wayne Goss recognised the need for the Parliament to play watchdog to the executive government when he was elected in 1989. The Goss government not only established a Public Accounts committee but also a system of estimates committees - a first for Queensland. These enable the Parliament to question and probe the actions of the executive, enhancing the separation of powers - a crucial element of the Westminster system.

How sad it is that former Premier Peter Beattie does not realise how his government undermined the reforms of the Goss era. In The Courier-Mail this week Mr Beattie labeled Tony Fitzgerald’s attacks as being unfair. He claims that because he referred Gordon Nuttall to the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) he has acted in the honourable manner that the Fitzgerald reforms envisaged.

Yet it is Beattie’s actions, when accusations were made that Gordon Nuttall had knowingly given false evidence, and his actions after the CMC confirmed the allegation that betrayed a fundamental principal of the Fitzgerald reforms.

When the accusation of knowingly giving false evidence was made, rather than insisting that the Minister step aside while the serious matter was investigated, Mr Beattie removed him from the Health Ministry and placed him in another portfolio - Primary Industries. Contrast this with the action of Neville Wran as Premier of New South Wales who stood aside while under investigation by the Street Royal Commission.

It must be remembered that the issue with Gordon Nuttall, knowingly giving false evidence to a Parliamentary Committee, was not a trivial matter: at that time it was an offence punishable by imprisonment. A senior public servant directly contradicted the evidence that Gordon Nuttall had presented to the Parliament.


The ability for the Westminster system to function in Queensland with the Parliament holding the executive to account was placed in jeopardy by Gordon Nuttall.

Premier Beattie’s duty to Queenslanders and the spirit of the Fitzgerald Reforms was to protect the integrity of the system of the Parliamentary Committees and insist that Gordon Nuttall step aside while he was under investigation, not shuffle him off to another Ministry.

The actions of the Beattie government after the CMC report and the historic parliamentary debates will be a stain on the history of the Queensland Labor Party. Any pretence of respect for the Westminster tradition, and the Fitzgerald reforms, went out the window with the legislation that removed the option for the Parliament to determine a prison sentence for a member of the executive who knowingly gave false evidence to a parliamentary committee.

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About the Author

Ken McKay is a former Queensland Ministerial Policy Adviser now working in the Queensland Union movement. The views expressed in this article are his views and do not represent the views of past or current employers.

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