The forgotten reforms

by Chris Griffith
Published 4 July 1993 in The Sun-Herald


my face


"There are many ways in which the agenda for reform could be delayed or subverted by political or bureaucratic opponents. If such people are allowed to form committees of review, to draft or introduce superficially innocuous changes to the necessary legislation, or to select those who must carry out the subsequent stages of what is recommended, then the process of reform will falter, especially once the hubbub dies down." The Fitzgerald Report, July 3, 1989.
The Fitzgerald report, that poignant blue-print for rekindling democracy in Queensland and for scouring its institutionalised corruption, was four-years-old yesterday. Today, it is Queensland's forgotten agenda.

Thanks partly to the Goss Government, and partly to national economic problems, Queensland's zeal to fight corruption and the excesses of the Bjelke-Petersen era is firmly refocussed on unemployment and economic survival, and more recently on the Mabo High Court decision.

Even the title "The Fitzgerald report" no longer refers to Tony Fitzgerald, QC's, efforts, but recently to Dr Vince FitzGerald's report into national savings.

So has reform faltered?

Fitzgerald reform has certainly faltered if you take seriously another Fitzgerald quote "the price of democracy is eternal vigilance". These days few in the public arena point out the process's shortcomings. Tony Fitzgerald et al is old stale news.

Of course, there have been successes. The Goss Government did end the state's voting gerrymander even if the new electoral system contains unpalatable electoral weightage in Western Queensland. Revamped public assembly laws are in place as are several reform- inspired Acts.

However the Fitzgerald report's thrust - apart from drastic reform of the police and the criminal justice system - was to promote the depoliticisation of the state's institutions and to give Queenslanders a handle on the process of government.

That depoliticisation is anathema to the culture of the Goss Government and indeed many Australian government who have implemented centrally-controlled cabinet government. The Goss Government's style, while laudably disciplined, philosophically conflicts with this aspect of Fitzgerald reform.

The result is that many accountability mechanisms have low priority. The Queensland Parliament still meets infrequently (only 20 days so far in 1993), there are up to four month delays in servicing some freedom of information requests, the Opposition is still under- resourced, and there is no requirement to disclose political donations. Last year, the Government over-rode its own judicial review legislation to gets its way with the Brisbane casino.

In this area, reform has sadly faltered.

So too has it faltered when one looks beyond issues of accountability to the operation of the criminal justice system.

The massive reform of the Police Service -- with at least 105 of Fitzgerald's 127 recommendations implemented -- is still under a cloud because of continued instability in the service's upper echelons.

Former Police Commissioner Noel Newnham's decision not to re-apply for his job, the demise of his supporters such as David Blizzard, Bruce Window, and Phil Griffin create a perception that the government is out to control the top jobs.

Certainly the recent Public Sector Management Commission (PSMC) report which recommended the revamping of police administration has been a vehicle for some wishing to conduct a pro-Newnham purge.

Further, the powerful Police Union has chosen to ignore Fitzgerald's plea that it confine itself to industrial matters and again is calling the shots. Its successful campaign against Noel Newnham culminating in last year's massive vote of no-confidence against him is testament to that.

The Police Union's re-established dominance augers badly for the future of police reform.

There is, too, the fate of the reform commissions recommended in the Fitzgerald report. The Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC) is expected to disband in September having completed its assigned 19 reform projects.

The commission's wind-up party, this Saturday night (planned when EARC thought it would disband in July) is really a reunion party as it now employs only 13 people. Two years ago it employed 50.

In August the commission expects to submit its final four reports which address administrative appeals, individual rights and freedoms, the consolidation of the Queensland constitution, and the pros and cons of separating the Attorney-General's and Justice Minister's portfolios.

Sadly many commission reports remain unimplemented, and there will be no official mechanism to keep this process moving swiftly after it folds.

(An interesting issue is what will happen to the commission's extremely useful and publicly accessible computer system containing correspondence, public submissions, and reports. Wherever it goes, this facility must remain publicly accessible for years to come.)

The most significant player remains the controversial Criminal Justice Commission, a body unloved by the police, politicians, bureaucrats, and lawyers with whom it has crossed swords.

Unfortunately in recent months this Commission has pursued a policy of attracting as little public attention as possible except where absolutely necessary -- in contrast to the headier days of Sir Max Bingham at the helm.

While the absence of earlier political confrontations is a worthy aim, no bad news about the CJC is not good news, and plays into the hands of those who relish the public spotlight away from the CJC while they undermine it.

A concern has been expressed that some CJC resources used to investigate official misconduct are being diverted to the fight against organised crime.

While superficially a laudable idea, it must be stated that the flourishing of organised crime is dependent upon the existence of corrupt police, bureaucrats, and politicians. The investigation of official misconduct is therefore an integral part of the fight against organised crime and cannot be neglected.

On the other hand, the Commission is still waiting for the Goss Government to respond to changes that the CJC requested to its legislation in December 1991. One of these was to correct a mistake that left the corrective services area outside the CJC's jurisdiction.

It means intermittent public accusations of misconduct and other illegal activities in prisons cannot be investigated by the CJC. The amendment, which has the support of the CJC and the union representing the prison officers must be corrected.

These long awaited changes to the Criminal Justice Act are currently before a government interdepartmental committee chaired by the Attorney-General Department's David Hook and the Premier's Department's Cynthia Newbown. The committee includes representatives of the police and the PSMC.

Yet another headache in the Fitzgerald process is the commission's governing parliamentary committee chaired by Labor MLA Ken Davies.

The Davies committee is the vital parliamentary link by which the CJC is made accountable to the public, but it is regarded as factionally appointed and politically driven.

The notion that the Fitzgerald reform agenda is in trouble is evident when you compare the Government's lack of zeal when implementing Fitzgerald-inspired reports with its enthusiasm for implementing reports by its own PSMC.

Unlike the Fitzgerald commissions, the PSMC is not answerable to parliament through a parliamentary committee, although the EARC last year recommended that it should be.

Whether it is too late for Fitzgerald reform, or whether its agenda can again capture the public's imagination is the question. Otherwise, Queensland stands to slip further back into the ways of old without realising it.