Queensland public servant ‘protected government minister’, integrity review reveals

A Queensland public servant prevented a report reaching a government minister so they could deny knowing about it, an inquiry has heard.

Professor Peter Coaldrake released an interim report on his review into state government accountability and workplace culture on Thursday afternoon.

Serious concerns have been raised about senior public servants, ministerial staff and lobbyists.

Public servants have told the review they have been told by seniors how to “channel” information to ministers.

“Instances [were reported] of senior public servants directing employees to sanitise advice and alter recommendations to align with what was presumed to be the minister’s position,” he wrote.

“Another example included a director-general taking steps to prevent a report from ‘reaching the minister’s ears’ so as to ensure that the minister could continue to plausibly deny knowledge of the matter.”

Queensland’s premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, ordered the review in February, seeking advice on potential systemic issues amid weeks of questioning about integrity issues.

Coaldrake said public servants were not necessarily acting under pressure from ministers or staffers.

Instead, they were taking it upon themselves to protect ministers.

“The effect is to have a public service whose motivations are partly informed by a self-imposed obligation to ‘protect’ the Minister, which is at variance with its proper practice,” Coaldrake wrote.

Public servants also have concerns about the overreach of ministerial office staffers.

There have been instances of staffers directing public servants as if they were ministers.

Queensland has a ministerial code of conduct, but Coaldrake said awareness and observance of the code are uneven.

“This review in its next phase will be considering what steps, if any, are needed to ensure that the Code has teeth and is observed,” he wrote.

The influence of lobbyists has also been raised as a key concern.

Contacts between ministers and lobbyists rose from an average of 239 per year from 2010 to 2019, to 988 in 2020/21.

Coaldrake said lobbyists avoid scrutiny by increasingly using “other” and “commercial-in-confidence” categories when recording meetings with officials and ministers.

Other categories such as “introduction” or “development or amendment of a government policy or program”, he wrote, were equally vague.

“This implies artistic obscuring of the purpose of registered meetings,” the report said.

There have also been complaints about lobbyist contacts being vaguely recorded in ministerial diaries as “meeting” or “briefing”.

Coaldrake said lawyers or consultants, who are not registered as lobbyists, have also been lobbying.

He said the number of people actually lobbying could be up to five times greater than the amount of official lobbyists.

Despite success fees for registered lobbyists being illegal, the review heard of at least one case of a consultant receiving such a kickback.

Coaldrake said lobbying was only legitimate if its purpose and frequency were disclosed, and tighter laws may be needed in Queensland.

“Unfortunately, there is declining confidence that governments across the board are making the best decisions rather than decisions influenced by those with the most effective voice,” he wrote.

Coaldrake also raised concerns about the public’s perception of Labor-aligned Anacta Strategies.

The lobbying firm has been acting for clients to influence the government and worked on Palaszczuk’s re-election campaign 2020.

“This can leave the public sceptical about even the strongest protections against conflict,” Coaldrake wrote.

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