Tony Fitzgerald’s challenge to Queensland

On Tuesday Tony Fitzgerald returned to Queensland for the 20th anniversary of his landmark Inquiry to make a powerful statement about patronage and power. Fitzgerald’s extraordinary 1987-1989 “Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct” set new legal standards for commissions of inquiry. By giving indemnities in return for evidence, it not only exposed a corrupt police force, but also toppled the 32 year reign of the National Party Government. This week Fitzgerald was back in Brisbane to point the finger at Labor’s two decade domination of Queensland.

Yesterday the Courier-Mail was only too happy to repeat his speech in full in their long-running campaign against the government. “Dirty Dozen” ran their page one headline (article not online) saying Fitzgerald’s speech “savages Labor’s 12 years in power”. Brisbane’s only daily newspaper somewhat missed the point he was making. Fitzgerald was not gunning for the government; he was issuing a warning based on the history of the last 20 years in Queensland.

He began by praising Labor’s reform agenda in the early 1990s. The political program outlined by the Inquiry was pushed through by Premier Wayne Goss and Attorney-General Matt Foley. It was enthusiastically administrated in the revamped public sector by Glyn Davis and Peter Coaldrake (and by fellow horsemen Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan). As Peter Beattie would later say Fitzgerald’s Inquiry was Queensland’s Berlin Wall. “It washed away an old regime and heralded in a new era.”

The new era didn’t happen as fast as many would like. Fitzgerald did not mention the timidity of the first term in 1989-1992 when Goss moved to the right to shore up the vote. Although he grew more confident in the second term the voters misread it as hubris. Like everywhere else in Australia, Queensland swung to the right in the mid 1990s. Under state secretary Mike Kaiser, Labor hung on in the 1995 election by one seat. But the Court of Disputed Returns ordered the Mundingburra by-election in Townsville in February 1996. Labor lost that seat and with it their majority. To the surprise of most, Goss immediately resigned saying hoped “he’d left Queensland a better place.”

The new National government was uncomfortably similar to the corrupt one who lost in 1989. After it was revealed Rob Borbidge had struck a deal with police to repeal many of the Goss reforms, they were turfed out at the first time of asking. Goss’s replacement Peter Beattie cobbled a majority with the support of independents. He also moved to the right to gain more certainty as premier. Beattie shut down the examination of the past and made peace with Joh Bjelke-Petersen. As Fitzgerald said, Queenslanders were encouraged to forget the repressions and corruption and the social upheaval in eradicating those injustices.

Labor’s return to power also marked the end of Fitzgerald’s influence in Queensland. In 1998 he resigned and he moved to Sydney. Beattie claimed today  the real reasons Fitzgerald quit was because he missed out on chief justice and because he was annoyed by Beattie’s friendship with Joh.

Queenslanders forgot about Fitzgerald and reform, aided by the resources boom. China was eager to import as much coal as Queensland could provide. With ample funds in the exchequer and a tyro leading the opposition, Beattie won a landslide victory in 2001 and repeated it in 2004 and 2007. The sins of the past were forgotten in the largeness and largesse of victory. Fitzgerald says younger Queenslanders “know little of that era and are largely ignorant of the possibility that history might be repeated.”

While Peter Beattie’s own personal probity was never an issue, he was let down by faction-appointed ministers. Many advisors migrated out into business where their connections with power were highly valued. Fitzgerald described the consequences. “Access can now be purchased, patronage is dispensed, mates and supporters are appointed and retired politicians exploit their political connections to obtain ‘success fees’ for deals between business and government,” he said.

None of the scandals of the era touched the Teflon Premier. But after nine years in the job, Beattie had enough and quit in 2007. His wife Heather called him a “tired, exhausted, man with bags under his eyes”. He handed over power to his deputy Anna Bligh.

Bligh hung on in this year’s election but the Gordon Nuttall prosecution and the CMC (Crime and Misconduct Commission) report into renewed police misconduct have weakened her position. Bligh acknowledged the state of affairs in her own speech leading up to the Fitzgerald Inquiry anniversary. She said Fitzgerald’s Inquiry was the reason she entered politics. She hailed the $43m CMC and its broad mission to oversee and investigate allegations of public sector misconduct and major organised crime. There are also new FOI laws, a Lobbyists Register, new political donation laws, and laws banning ministers from holding shares or company directorships.

Bligh says the fact the problems have been found shows the system works. “The drive for reform is never over,” she said. As Mark Bahnisch says, openness and transparency are not just the responsibility of the government. He reminds us the media also have a role. The Courier-Mail and ABC local radio have gone tabloid, the state 7.30 report has gone weekly and “there’s no new Quentin Dempster to put the pollies and coppers under the microscope.” Fitzgerald is saying we cannot afford to wait for new Quentin Dempsters to put probity under the microscope. “[E]ven if we cannot rely on politicians to voluntarily curb their excesses or tell the truth,” he wrote, “a well-informed community that is committed to doing so can influence the way it is governed.”

Over to us.

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