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Governments love a great idea, but it's always best to check the use-by date

Insights

The Palaszczuk Government hailed Building Queensland as a great idea six years ago. But now, it’s getting rid of it. What’s changed? asks Robert MacDonald

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What’s the life-span of a good idea in government?

I’ve done some deeply non-scientific research and decided the answer is about two electoral cycles – six years in the old days before fixed four-year terms.

Here’s my case study.

Exactly six years ago, in May 2015, then-Deputy Premier and Planning Minister Jackie Trad, introduced a bill to Parliament to establish a new government agency called Building Queensland.

She was honouring a pre-election promise to create “an independent statutory body to ensure a whole-of-government perspective is brought to major infrastructure planning, prioritisation and investment”.

It was all about getting the politics out of big project decision making.

“Building Queensland will be a centre of excellence for infrastructure. It will independently assess infrastructure projects through rigorous business case development including cost-benefit analysis and the assessment of community benefits.”

Exactly six years later, on Friday last week, State Parliament’s Economics and Governance Committee tabled a report signing Building Queensland’s death warrant.

The report recommended that Parliament approve the Palaszczuk Government’s new Debt Reduction and Savings Bill, which among other things, will kill off Building Queensland.

The bill, to be considered in Parliament next week, also gets rid of the Queensland Productivity Commission, which the Palaszczuk Government  created at about the same time as Building Queensland,  as  “an expert independent body to review complex economic and regulatory issues and propose policy reforms to government.”

The Government said at the time  all of the commission’s reviews — from housing affordability to industry and consumer regulation and indigenous economic development –   “would be undertaken by independent experts through an open and transparent process informed by widespread public consultation.”

But now, the commission will be dissolved and its functions absorbed by Treasury as a cost-savings measure.

In short, what were good ideas six years ago are no longer good ideas now.

And the reasoning? It’s all about money and efficiency.

The Government thinks it can save about a million dollars a year by sacking Building Queensland’s highly qualified board, chaired by Alan Millhouse, a former senior partner of national law firm Allens, and handing the organisation’s duties back to government departments.

“This reform is a real opportunity to further enhance efficiency and effectiveness of government infrastructure planning, assessment and investment in a post-COVID world,” Dick told Parliament.

“This reform will bring the skills and experience of Building Queensland into central government. It strikes the balance between assisting agencies to deliver good quality infrastructure projects and enabling more strategic oversight of project development at a much earlier time.”

But what about the independent oversight and all the other things that seemed so important six years ago?

Don’t worry, says Dick.

“The Queensland government remains deeply committed to robust and effective assessment to support investment decision-making,” he says.

“Business cases will remain subject to independent third-party assurance, with expert advice continuing to inform decision-making.”

I’m not quite sure what that all means exactly but I’ve got a half-baked theory about what’s happened.

When you’re in opposition the idea of independent oversight of government decision-making sounds like a noble aspiration but the longer you’re actually in office, the more tedious it all becomes, having outside experts endlessly second-guessing your decisions.

What starts as a good idea becomes a pain in the neck, which perhaps you can live with through your first term but come the second term you start thinking of ways to get rid of it.

And then COVID-19 comes along to give you the perfect cover to junk your once-high-minded but now apparently too-costly concept.

Consult Australia, which represents the country’s engineering, design and design consultancies, thinks getting rid of Building Queensland is a bad idea.

“Building Queensland has made a significant and important contribution to good infrastructure governance in Queensland,” it argued in its submission to the Parliamentary committee’s hearing into the Debt Reduction and Savings Bill.

“Building Queensland has made a noticeable improvement to the quality of the investment proposals presented to government for consideration as evidenced by the government’s funding commitments and confirmation of national priority project status for numerous detailed business cases positively assessed by Infrastructure Australia.

In other words, Building Queensland, according to the private sector experts, did what it was supposed to do.

Consult Australia also argued that the million dollars a year the government hopes to save by scrapping Building Queensland is money well spent.

“An annual investment of $1 million to ensure a robust governance structure to support the $13.9 billion investment in infrastructure, is a solid investment in the future of the state, and not an area for cost cutting,” it said.

Consult Australia further argued the government could easily save $1 million a year “by reducing the state’s reliance on obtaining external legal advice to amend/revise/bespoke its contracts across its infrastructure portfolio and instead adopting standardised forms of contract for the delivery.”

I’d argue it was never just about the money. The last thing a government wants as its settles into its third term is too much oversight of its decision-making.

But I’d also argue that if ever there were a time for more independent oversight rather than less, it would be precisely at the time a government is settling into its third term in office and its own way of doing things.

 

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