by Chris Griffith
Published 18 October 1992 in The Sun-Herald
Queensland's Office of Cabinet is found on the 13th and 14th floor of George Street's Executive Building, just below the precincts of its head, Director-General Kevin Rudd, and the office of Premier Wayne Goss.
It was established in July 1991 with the transfer of 50 public servants from the Premier's Department. A year later, it has a staffing establishment of 81. Of these 61 are divided among Policy Units, responsible for advising the Premier on the content and implications of proposed Cabinet submissions.
The Units and their approximate staffing are the Policy Planning Unit (5), Economic Policy Unit (11), Social Policy Unit (12), Legal and Administrative Policy Unit (10), and the Women's Policy Unit (14). Another Unit, the Rural Communities Policy Unit (9), was recently relocated under Deputy Premier Tom Burns as rural communities minister.
The remaining staff belongs to either Mr Rudd (4), Deputy Director- General Bob Smith (8), or comprises the Cabinet Secretariat (8) responsible for managing Cabinet operations and servicing Cabinet committees.
All staff are classed as public servants, and not the Premier's personal staff, and are subject to PSMC appointment processes. Interestingly, no one has ever appealed against an appointment decision.
The Office's major role is to work with government departments and co-ordinate their development of Cabinet submissions. As such it is one of a breed of centralised policy bodies found in NSW, Victoria, and more recently in Tasmania under the Groom Government.
In the past, Ministerial submissions were prepared by departments and taken directly to Cabinet. Nowadays they are developed in co- ordination with the Office, a procedure which has increased the standard of Cabinet submissions at the expense of some departmental autonomy.
The Office also prepares a briefing for Mr Goss on each submission. This includes a summary of the critical information required for Cabinet deliberations and decisions, and the Office's view as to each submission's consistency with the government's stated policy, its financial regiment, and the attitude of affected interest groups.
In theory Ministers could, as before, bypass the Office and take submissions directly to Cabinet, however in practice it is unlikely the submission would be taken as seriously.
There is, however, criticism that the Office of Cabinet is too- powerful; that these elite bureaucrats influence as much as Ministers the content of Cabinet submissions and, through the selection of briefing information, even the direction of Cabinet discussions.
Some members of the Labor movement, too, are concerned the Office of Cabinet's prime position in policy co-ordination has further supplanted the once traditional role of ALP policy in Labor Governments.
Party members point to an entire policy package, the Aboriginal Land Rights legislation, as an example of where the Office usurped the traditional role of a Minister by sponsoring the policy through Cabinet. However this was done at the behest of Premier Goss.
To what degree the laudable aim of co-ordination leads to undesirable centralization and eventual control of government policy by one bureaucracy is the debatable point.
There is also the observation that Queensland's rudimentary version of Westminster Government is already too highly dominated by the executive and the Premier. A well-staffed and resourced Office of Cabinet attached to the Premier can only exacerbates this problem.
However the Office says it has been a main-stay in pushing Fitzgerald accountability reforms throughout traditional departmental bureaucracies less conducive to change than it, reforms that open executive government to direct public scrutiny.
This, it says, applies particularly to judicial review and, although partly exempt from it, freedom of information.
It stresses it is purely an advisory body in the Cabinet process, and welcomes a detailed airing of its role as clarifying this. However neither its staff, supporters, nor its critics would speak on the record. Instead all provided background information, and the Office was pleasantly cooperative.
Each Tuesday, departments present their draft Cabinet submissions to the Office, a minimum 14 days ahead of their intended inclusion in the Cabinet bag. The Office and departments liaise via a Cabinet liaison officer, a department-based staffer who consults the Office ideally from the early stages of drafting.
Rudd and the directors of the policy units meet on Wednesdays to review these drafts. One policy unit is made primarily responsible for preparing the Premier's brief on the submission, although other policy units seek an influence.
The Office's sole environmental project officer, for example, may seek input into a Cabinet brief on a submission proposing a new mining venture or a new development. So may the Economic Policy Unit, regarded by some as having an economic rationalist philosophy, or the Women's Policy Unit.
The responsible Policy Unit then checks that any necessary inter- departmental consultation has occurred, that where appropriate Treasury has been consulted, and that the draft is consistent with stated Government policy.
It also checks that departments have solicited the view of the relevant interest groups. The Office may recommend the department consult more widely or redraft its submission before presenting it to Cabinet.
The following Wednesday, a week before the submission goes to Cabinet, the Office's Policy Unit directors sit down to discuss in detail the briefing of the Premier. At this stage, the submission will also be included in a Cabinet Bag, which is available to Ministers around 4.30 pm each Tuesday afternoon.
The Office stresses its role is only to provide cogent and concise information required for informed decision making; it does not make the decisions itself.
However its role has extended beyond the processing of submissions by government departments. Half of Director-General Kevin Rudd's time has been spent on Commonwealth-State relations and the development of inter-governmental agreements on items such as the new national training authority, electricity, rail, transport, and roads.
Mr Rudd has also been working with Treasury to convince the Federal Government not to rework the current Commonwealth fiscal equalization agreement that provides greater funding per head to the geographically larger states.
It is also claimed much of the Office's energy has been spent processing reforms recommended by EARC and the CJC. Commission and Parliamentary Committee reports, once tabled, are sent to the Office's Legal and Policy Unit which recommends an implementation strategy.
It is interesting to inquire why this Unit has taken so long to implement, or even respond to, some CJC and EARC reports.
At an operational level, the Office of Cabinet and the CJC enjoys a good relationship, for example, in discussions on the future form of misconduct tribunals.
However the Office is yet to respond to a December 1991 Parliamentary Criminal Justice Committee (PCJC) report into the CJC's future, a concern given the urgent nature of some of the changes recommended to the Commission?
To date only one of this report's recommended changes has been implemented, thanks mainly to lobbying by Sir Max Bingham. This is the recommendation that the CJC no longer investigate all complaints it receives, a change that has allowed the Commission to concentrate its resources on the more serious complaints.
There is, in particular, the Government's delay in responding to continual pleas by former PCJC chairman Peter Beattie to extend his committee's life so it could endorse the next CJC chair before the new Parliament and a new PCJC was in place?
On that point, the Office of Cabinet made a recommendation to Goss to reject this idea some months ago; it appears Goss's release of his decision publicly was much later than the advice.
As for the Beattie report generally - there was lengthy correspondence between Mr Beattie and the Office of Cabinet on the finality of the December 91 report, in terms of it constituting the Committee's 3-year review.
To clarify its position the Office took Crown law advice. It subsequently wrote to Mr Beattie a month or so before the election saying that, under the Criminal Justice Act, the December report could not be regarded as fulfilling the requirements of the Act for a report after about three years.
Goss's view was that the recommendations for more substantial changes should be responded to once the consolidated report had been received, although some technical amendments could proceed.
In fact, the PCJC ordered its three-year review report to be printed on 25 August 1992, at the same meeting the committee was attempting to endorse a successor to Sir Max Bingham, the day the election was called.
The Office says the case for delaying a detailed response was influenced additionally by the existence of other reviews affecting the CJC (eg. misconduct tribunals), and the undesirability of amending the Act piecemeal.
These factors contributed to its view that it would be better to delay a comprehensive response until the three-year review was received.
Of course, it could also be argued the reforms should have proceeded irrespective of whether they were formally part of the three-year review or not; that the major criterion should be the urgency of the change.
In the meantime the Cabinet Office ploughs on as the new kid on the block in Queensland's public service administration, a structure much admired in many public sector circles, but still regarded tentatively by some concerned about the uneven build-up of power and resources in executive-based government.
Hopefully, the resolution will lie in a report the Office will soon process, namely EARC's report into Parliamentary Committees. This report, to be tabled in early November, may help restore the balance between executive government and the legislature.
Ironically, it will be in the hands of the Office of Cabinet to recommend how far the restoration of the legislative-execute balance goes.