Peter Coaldrake’s report to Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, Let the Sunshine In, is a clear and frank assessment of culture and accountability in the Queensland public sector today. With one exception, it also offers refreshing guidance to jurisdictions across Australia showing signs of complacency about integrity.
First to the important exception: Coaldrake’s proposal that all cabinet submissions and their attachments, all agendas and all decision papers be published online within 30 days of cabinet decisions.
While the report acknowledges some of the risks associated with such a change – including the possible compromising of frank and fearless advice – it claims that New Zealand’s experience with early disclosure has worked well. As it points out, the NZ system explicitly omits:
exploratory advice, “blue skies” thinking or advice generated in the early and formative stages of a policy development process and intended to ensure the free and uninhibited exchange of ideas that is necessary for the development of robust policy advice […]
Coaldrake believes NZ takes a “measured approach” to redacting small sections of documents where free and frank advice is offered. He also firmly endorses NZ’s principle that
the possibility of a cabinet paper being proactively released must not undermine the quality of advice included in the paper, and therefore the quality of the decision ultimately reached by ministers.
But it is important to recognise the context in which those rules operate:
- NZ’s voting system means that it doesn’t emulate Australia’s strongly adversarial political culture; indeed, governments tend to be coalitions and cross-party negotiation is common
- NZ’s public service commissioner is the employer of departmental secretaries (and other agency heads), limiting their exposure to penalties if advice embarrassing to the government is released
- NZ has far fewer ministerial advisers devoted to minimising political risks, including risks from public servants’ written advice.
Even if governments move towards NZ practice on the latter two points, I wouldn’t support such early release of cabinet papers.
The cabinet system nurtures the important principle of collective responsibility. It requires cabinet ministers to consider fully and frankly all perspectives and expert evidence, enabling each of them to stand by the collective decision regardless of differences robustly debated.
It is likely that Australian governments would adjust their cabinet processes or papers if they knew these documents would soon be available to opposition members and journalists eager to find divisions within cabinet or failures to accept expert advice.
It would be better, in my view, to start at the other end: to go back to a culture in which departments undertake and publish more research and analysis, produce substantial annual reports and perform evaluations for public release. Governments would issue green papers and white papers; the definition of an “exempt cabinet document” would be tighter; attachments to cabinet submissions and memoranda would be released if they didn’t include direct advice or ministerial recommendations.
The tone at the top
A number of Coaldrake’s other recommendations echo the key proposals of David Thodey’s 2019 Independent Review of the Australian Public Service rejected by the Morrison government:
On ministerial staff: “Development and continual reinforcement of a common framework to determine appropriate relationships among ministers, their staff and senior public servants.” Here, Coaldrake recognises that the tone set at the top – the attitudes of political and public service leaders that foster the culture of the system – is essential. For the Commonwealth, I would go further. A major overhaul of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act is long overdue, as is a cut in the oversupply of ministerial staff.
On capability and the Public Service Commission’s role: “Rejuvenation of the capability and capacity of the public sector” to emphasise performance and integrity, with the Public Service Commission playing a key role. For the Commonwealth, I would go further towards the NZ model, with the Australian Public Service (APS) Commissioner as professional head of the APS.
On consultants and contractors: “Departments [to] more robustly account for the benefits from engaging consultants and contractors with regular monitoring by the Auditor-General.” Hear, hear.
On top appointments and tenure: “Stability of government and performance of public service [to] be strengthened by appointment of agency CEOs on fixed term, five year contracts, unaligned to the electoral cycle.” For the Commonwealth, I would further strengthen the merit basis of appointments and constrain terminations.
Coaldrake’s recommendations about integrity bodies provide excellent guidance to the new federal government. As it develops legislation for a federal anti-corruption authority, Coaldrake’s proposed “single clearing house for complaints, with capacity for the complainants and agencies to track progress and outcomes” would be of enormous use.
This clearing house would help to ensure the new authority works with existing bodies such as the ombudsman and the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) – and, indeed, with the departments and agencies complained about. It would also ensure it focuses on serious corruption and major crime.
Coaldrake also recommends that integrity bodies’ independence be enhanced by involving parliamentary committees in setting budgets and contributing to key appointments. To some extent this already applies to the Australian National Audit Office. But it should apply more firmly not only to that body but also to the ombudsman, the information commissioner, the human rights commissioners, the electoral commission and, indeed, the APSC.
In essence, Coaldrake’s report is a reminder of the importance of institutions and the need to review their roles and performance regularly. Critical to their effectiveness is the tone at the top, a point also emphasised in NZ’s integrity system. That tone has been wanting not only in Queensland but also in the Commonwealth and a number of other states.