September 2, 2023

Six months on from the election, is the inexperience of Minns’ front bench becoming more apparent?

By Deborah Snow
September 2, 2023 — 5.40am
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In the weeks before taking office, Chris Minns often downplayed the challenge posed by the near total absence of ministerial experience on his front bench.

Of Labor’s incoming ministry, only one MP – former party leader and current Attorney-General Michael Daley – had served any time as a cabinet member. Prior to becoming opposition leader, Minns himself had never shadowed the most senior portfolios of finance or treasury.

On the campaign trail Chris Minns talked up his team’s inexperience as a plus.Credit: Janie Barrett

Pressed on this vulnerability in the run-up to the election, Minns would talk up the energy of his team, extolling the advantage of a “fresh set of eyes” on the state’s problems.

But since Labor’s victory in late March, the lack of experience seems to be coming home to roost. One sign is the government’s continued fumbling over the supposedly independent process by which ALP stalwart and former Laing O’Rourke executive, Josh Murray, was appointed to head embattled transport minister Jo Haylen’s department.

Another is the striking number of inquiries the premier and his ministers have commissioned since the change of government.

On the opposition’s count, there’ve been 29 launched so far – an average of more than one a week since the election. The first – into the train system – was announced just six days after the March 25 poll.

A couple – such as the health minister’s surgical taskforce and the interim biosecurity commissioner – are arguable inclusions, and government sources say they should not be classed as reviews. Nor does it believe the Labor-led parliamentary metro inquiry should count. Even so, the list is substantial and suggests a degree of policy paralysis.

“It’s hard to keep up,” says NSW deputy Liberal leader Natalie Ward, who counts nine inquires in her areas of transport and roads alone.


“Its chaotic. Nine reviews in one portfolio seems extraordinary, and part of that is essentially kicking the can down the road. I’m not seeing a 100-day plan … You would have expected after 12 years, there would be more policy implementation taking place by now.”


Ward is particularly irked by the bus task force set up in May, and two metro reviews – one overseen by the chair of NEC Australia, Mike Mrdak, and another by the Labor-dominated parliamentary committee – saying there was no hint before the election that Labor might rethink the current metro build.

It’s a sign, she says, of a government struggling with budget overruns caused by scrapping the public sector wages cap and now buying time while it works out what to do.

The bus task force is being led by John Lee, a former press aide to Bob Carr, who later headed the premier’s department (again under Labor) before becoming managing director of two private bus companies.

The Liberals have branded him a “Labor mate” and Ward says it’s a “gross misuse of taxpayer funds” for up to $440,000 to be allocated for him to perform the role on a year-long contract “when the time and money could be better spent recruiting bus drivers and fixing the immediate problems we already know are there”.

“There is corporate knowledge in the bureaucracy, good smart people who have dealt with these issues for years, and what are you doing to utilise that experience? You are essentially sidelining them.”

Haylen says the government was forced to “bring in a rescue team of independent experts because the Liberals ran transport services and projects into the ground. These experts are helping us examine the problems and identify solutions … So far, they have helped us make strong progress.”

NSW Minister for Transport Jo Haylen says the reviews she has commissioned are necessary.Credit: Nick Moir

Minns told the Herald “this work is informing the tough balance we face to contain spending, to fight inflation and debt, while also rebuilding services and supporting people doing it tough”.

Ironically, Haylen is now in the invidious position of being the target of an inquiry herself. On Thursday, a non-Labor dominated parliamentary committee began probing how she’d handpicked Murray, who was initially assessed by an independent panel as too inexperienced for the job. The emergence of his donations to her campaign (below a declarable threshold) has provided further grist to the opposition’s mill.

Parliamentary inquiries tend to be fractious, though they carry weight when bipartisan accord can be reached. In Canberra, the Senate and House of Representatives have some 50 inquiries under way, while the state parliamentary website lists 30.


Governments turn to inquiries for a wide range of reasons, some more worthy than others: to buy time to solve a problem; to tap into expertise not available within the bureaucracy; to turn the blowtorch back on predecessors (the Robodebt inquiry commissioned by the Albanese government is a classic example, as was the royal commission into Kevin Rudd’s pink batts home insulation scheme called by Tony Abbott); to get to the bottom of a disaster (think Ruby Princess and the Granville train disaster); or to ease the deadlock on intractable problems in areas like aged care, veterans suicide and disability services, all of which have been or are the subject of recent royal commissions.

David Thodey, the former Telstra chief who led a 2019 review of the commonwealth public service, says: “My personal view is they can play a really important role in informing the political process and good public policy.”

Tony Harris, the former NSW Auditor-General, volunteers another reason why a political party that’s been out of office for a while might resort to outside advice: because it doesn’t trust the public service. “You might sense that [after 12 years working for the other party] it’s politicised, and you are not going to get the answers that you want,” he says.

In Harris’ view, the NSW public service has been weakened in similar fashion to the federal public service, which was exposed during the recent Robodebt royal commission for failing to confront ministers about the illegality of that scheme. Harris believes the erosion of security of tenure for top public servants at both state and federal level has played a key role in weakening the bureaucracy’s willingness to serve up frank and fearless advice.

“It’s mightily evident in NSW,” he says. “The state public service is totally captured by the politicians, and that does not mean they are conservative or Labor … but they just do whatever the politicians want. The heads of agencies can be fired for any time for any reason, and once you have that power you can insinuate that throughout the whole public service.”

Royal commissions can be expensive.

But external inquiries are not necessarily immune from politicians seeking to shape the outcome either.

“Governments can seek to do that through the terms of reference, time frames, who they appoint, all sorts of things can be done,” says researcher Dr Scott Prasser, a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies who has made studying royal commissions and inquiries his life’s work.

In NSW, there’s been anger from the Australian Medical Association at the terms of reference issued to a special commission of inquiry into the state’s $33 billion health care bill, announced last week by state health minister Ryan Park to fulfil an election promise.

The AMA claims the terms of reference were “handed” to the government by the powerful Health Services Union which has queried the amounts being earned by private doctors working part-time in the public health care system.

“There are bigger things afoot including the five-yearly national health reform agreements that are being hammered out with the commonwealth” says NSW president Dr Michael Bonning. “You wonder about the government’s priorities when it looks like it’s turning inward to settle scores and be about the HSU’s agenda rather than the higher order agenda for the community.”

Government sources insist they consulted widely about the terms of reference, including with the AMA. “It’s the single largest item of the state’s budget,” Park told the Herald. “I think most fair-minded people in the community acknowledge that we need to ensure [it’s] spent as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

Labor spinners also point out that the Minns government isn’t the first to appoint a slew of inquiries after taking office following a long period out of power.

Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell, whose party had been out of office for 16 years when he won in 2011, was similarly criticised for commissioning a slate of inquiries, though it took him a year to get to 30 – a tally the Minns government looks set to outstrip on its current trajectory.

The Whitlam Labor government unleashed 13 royal commissions in just three years after coming in from the political wilderness in 1972.

Federal governments have commissioned on average one royal commission a year for the last 10 years, starting with the Gillard-initiated inquiry into institutional responses to child sexual abuse in 2013.

Justice Kenneth Hayne, who headed the royal commission into misconduct in the financial system, posed a key question in a speech to the Melbourne University law school soon after handing down his report.

“What does the use of royal commissions tell us about how our existing governmental structures are working?” Hayne asked. “And the immediate answer to that question may be that it shows those structures – legislative, executive or judicial – are not working as they should.”

Prasser describes royal commissions as the “Rolls Royces” of inquiries because of their high profile and sweeping statutory powers, including the power to compel witnesses and documents. But they can also be extremely expensive. The bill for the child sexual abuse royal commission came in at more than $340 million.


Most other forms of government-initiated inquiry are of shorter duration and narrower scope, carried out by panels of experts recruited for their professional standing, and their acceptability to ministers of the day. In fields like health and education, where complex funding and administrative arrangements exist between commonwealth and states, the same topics seem to come around time and again.

Prasser points to teacher education , the subject of a 2008 paper by Western Australian education expert Professor William Louden, entitled 101 Damnations – a clever reference to the canines of the classic children’s tale. It revealed there’d been a whopping 101 inquiries into teacher education across the country between 1979 and 2008 alone.

Ironic, then, that Louden would end up sitting on yet another – the Mark Scott-led “teacher education expert panel” which reported to the Albanese government in July.

“Governments are often a bit like goldfish”, says Prasser. “They have very short memories … there is a phrase in political science called the ‘issue-attention cycle’; some event triggers a need for governments to be seen to be reacting, media and ministers respond, and then gradually the issue drops down the agenda again until the issue reignites.”

While the Albanese government has reviews running across a range of portfolios, it has so far failed to call a promised inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federal health minister Mark Butler’s office told the Herald this week, “the prime minister has indicated the government will undertake [that inquiry] at an appropriate time in the future”.

Prasser believes the real reason for delay is fear of blowback against the five Labor state and territory governments that were in office at the time alongside the Morrison government.

Another area where the Albanese government seems to be dragging its heels is on public service reform. The review under David Thodey, assisted by a panel of business luminaries, was set up in 2018 by then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to advise on how to revitalise the federal bureaucracy.

By the time it reported in late 2019 Scott Morrison was in charge. Key sections of the report were left to languish. Prior to last year’s federal election, Albanese and the shadow minister for the public service, Katy Gallagher, gave every sign of willingness to fully embrace the Thodey report if they won.

David Thodey is still waiting for key sections of his report into the public service to be implemented.Credit: Louise Kennerly

So far, that has yet to happen. Professor Andrew Podger, a former head of three federal government departments and a leading commentator on public administration at the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy, says the Albanese government’s recent bill on public sector reform is “very disappointing” because of its failure to pick up Thodey’s most politically sensitive recommendations, designed to bolster the independence of government agency and departmental heads.

“It contains nothing on these big issues such as how do you ensure a more merit-based appointment process of secretaries [heads of department], how do you constrain political terminations of secretaries, how do you ensure a stronger role for the public service commissioner, who should be appointed after consultation with the opposition leader – all of those things are missing,” Podger says.

Gallagher’s office would not be drawn on when, or whether, those recommendations might be picked up. “The Thodey report is important work and is being used to inform our broad APS reform agenda,” a spokesperson said.


Thodey, who is currently the chair of Xero, told the Herald, “we hope they do something with it … because we think it’s good public policy. The public service is there to serve the government, parliament and the people of Australia. That’s what the legislation says. They are to give frank and fearless advice to the politicians of the day. But politicians do make the decisions so we have to be realistic here.”

Overall, he says, “well-intentioned” inquiries can lead the nation to a better policy position if done by “politically impartial people who are just trying to help us go forward as a nation”.

Inquiries that are serious efforts to solve policy dilemmas also need responsive government if they’re to drive change. In 2010, a landmark review of the tax system under the leadership of then treasury secretary Ken Henry produced a blueprint for reform which was greeted as gold standard by every expert in the field.

To this day, it sits in a vault marked “too hot to handle”, an orphan child unloved by Labor and Coalition alike. Earlier this year, warning of the tax system’s “parlous state”, Henry told the tax institute that the nation didn’t need another tax review. What it needed were political leaders who could live up to the challenge.

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Deborah Snow is associate editor and special writer at The Sydney Morning Herald.Connect via Twitter, Facebook or email.


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