’Off the rails’ bureaucracy a concern for councils too
GYMPIE councillors say there is a real risk the public service disaster uncovered by the Crime and Corruption Commission’s investigation Jackie Trad could happen at a local level.
The CCC report into the appointment of a new principal at a South Brisbane school cleared the former deputy premier of corruption, but took to task a bureaucratic process that went “off the rails”.
The big problem was a department that CCC head Alan MacSporran said misled Ms Trad and was apparently willing to bow to perceived political pressure.
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Mr MacSporran said public servants were paid considerable incomes to “ensure that they be professional, trustworthy and act transparently in the public interest, not their own”.
Mayor Glen Hartwig said the CCC’s report reflected shades of his concerns about the Rattler’s resurrection two years ago.
“(The last) Gympie Regional Council is a fine example of a bureaucratic organisation that failed to inform elected representatives and give them all the information they needed,” Mr Hartwig said.
But the pressure did not alway come from those voted into their roles.
“They bow to the politics of the bureaucracy,” he said.
Deputy Mayor Hilary Smerdon said this had been his experience over the past council term.
“It often went the other way – whatever staff recommended council went along with and didn’t ask too many questions,” Mr Smerdon said.
He pointed to the youth precinct as an example; Mr Smerdon said a question about the total cost of the project could not be answered, but councillors moved ahead with it anyway.
Division 5 councillor Dan Stewart said there was “always the risk that public servants, or council staff, will say what someone wants to hear”.
And then “sometimes it seems it’s very much what they (bureaucrats) want and don’t listen to councillors”.
Mr Stewart pointed to the Kilkivan Equestrian Centre and the proposed CBD transit centre as examples.
And then there were projects like the Upper Mary St upgrade, which was a “mixture of what some councillors wanted and some staff wanted”.
Mary Valley councillor Bob Fredman, who worked 40 years in the public service before being elected as a councillor, said the problem was caused by the system.
“Loyalty to politicians is the consequence of bureaucrats being on short-term contracts,” Mr Fredman said.
“It’s inevitable that the contract system leads to a desire to please the person who can hire or fire you.”
He said this was not to claim this happened in Gympie but “the risk is there that bureaucrats will give certain politicians the answers they want”.
“The smaller the council the lesser the risk.”
Mr Stewart said public servants needed to be able to tell councillors “what they really think, and also take on board what we really think”.
“We expect frank and fearless advice … but also expect staff will take on board what council as a whole wants to do,” he said.
Mr MacSporran has recommended a fix to the issues found in the report could be made by moving away from fixed-term contracts.