Campbell’s Queensland Cabal: Is it ever OK to hire your mates?

Imagine the scenario.  You’ve just started new job as leader of Australia’s most decentralised state. You’ve promised to make a difference within 100 days, and everyone is watching.  But there’s just one problem.  Hiring and firing is notoriously bureaucratic in the public sector.  Before you know it, your 100 days will be over and you’ll barely even have a team.

That’s the dilemma facing Queensland’s new Liberal-National Party (LNP) Premier, Campbell Newman.  During his election campaign, he presented himself as an efficient manager, Mr ‘Can-Do’, someone who can get things done.  The LNP’s main election document reads more like a business plan than a manifesto, with highly specific targets for the first one, seven, thirty, fifty and one hundred days in government.

Naturally, the regional media provides daily updates on whether Mr Newman’s targets are being achieved, including a nifty interactive graphic from the Courier Mail.  Apparently, Mr ‘Can-Do’ has already missed four of his first week targets, including a pledge to begin a full audit of Queensland Health’s notorious payroll system.

Given time pressures, it is not surprising that Mr Newman chose to eschew the conventional public service recruitment process during his first days in office.  However, he has come under fire for some of his choices, including former Federal treasurer, Peter Costello, and David Edwards, the son of a former State treasurer who served under Joh Bjelke-Petersen.  The latter is a particularly sensitive appointment, since the Bjelke-Petersen era is seen by many Queenslanders as a by-word for corruption and authoritarianism.

If Mr Newman can be forgiven for hiring long-term allies to help him through the crucial first days of government, his public comments about the matter suggest a negative attitude towards conventional recruitment in general.  According to The Australian, he did not call for open applications because ‘we’ve been processed to death’.  This reflects a lack of understanding of the sensitivity of public service appointments, which may spell trouble for Mr Newman in the future.

It is a natural instinct for humans to trust people that they know.  However, open recruitment has become the norm in public sectors across the democratic world for good reason.  Recruiting from a narrow social pool eventually leads to stagnation.  Talented people are overlooked in favour of others with less ability but the right contacts.  Although swift and easy in the beginning, the closed approach usually leads to poorer performance in the long run.  It is also terrible for social mobility and, in the public sector context, that matters a lot.  The public owns the public services, and it is important that everyone gets a ‘fair go’.

Moreover, all governments make mistakes, but failures are particularly toxic if they are seen to result from nepotism.  Public sectors are rarely as efficient as voters would like, but transparency and accountability are not negotiable where public money is at stake.