OPINION: Qld’s assistant ministers need to earn their money

When Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk assumed office in 2015, she announced a pared down Cabinet of 14, with just one assistant minister.

It was a big shake-up to how things had been done under Campbell Newman, especially the decision to basically do away with assistant ministers, and it was set to save big bucks.

Newman had 14 assistant ministers and it was to be one of the major points of difference between the two leaders.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. Picture: Sarah Marshall/NCA NewsWire
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. Picture: Sarah Marshall/NCA NewsWire

Palaszczuk's plan to cut the Cabinet from 19 to 14 and have just one assistant minister answerable to the premier was about making the government more efficient and saving tens of millions of dollars. "These savings will go into putting in place more frontline services, more nurses, more police on the beat and more teachers," she said during the 2015 election campaign. "This is about being modest, this is about Labor understanding that we need to make savings where we can.

"I'm serious about this. It is the right thing to do."

Fast-forward five years and Queensland now has a growing outer ministry, up from five last term to eight.

At $243,400 a year - that's $84,000 over the standard backbencher's pay - Queenslanders are forking out an extra $588,000 a year over and above that single assistant minister's wage they were initially promised.

The extra three this term will cost taxpayers $1m in wages alone over the next four years.

Palaszczuk now says she needs a burgeoning team because there's "a big job to do" in the COVID recovery.

"This is a big signal as well to regional Queensland that we are here and looking after you every step of the way," she said.

The Palaszczuk Government’s new Cabinet after being sworn in on Thursday. Picture: Dan Peled/NCA NewsWire
The Palaszczuk Government’s new Cabinet after being sworn in on Thursday. Picture: Dan Peled/NCA NewsWire

The real reason is to appease powerful people in the party. It's certainly no accident the new makeup covers off Labor's factional representation so nicely.

But having announced this mega outer ministry and making a big deal about how necessary they are, it's incumbent on Palaszczuk to actually now give them some work to do. After all, they're earning more than the average Australian annual wage to do it. But despite the title and lucrative pay, assistant ministers don't really do anything other than go to events the ministers are too busy to attend.

A handful of these events are important, like meeting with business delegations and attending trade conferences.

But according to their own diaries, most aren't. They can be as mundane as attending waste treatment plants, lunches with school students and handing out trophies - all part of the job of a local MP anyway. And despite the jobs supposedly acting as a training ground for Cabinet, just one of the three new ministers had been assistant ministers.

Former assistant minister Meaghan Scanlon has been appointed Environment and Youth Affairs Minister. Picture: Annette Dew
Former assistant minister Meaghan Scanlon has been appointed Environment and Youth Affairs Minister. Picture: Annette Dew

The Cabinet Handbook actually prohibits assistant ministers sitting as a member in Cabinet and performing any duties in the parliament on behalf of the minister, including answering questions without notice, presenting ministerial statements, or tabling documents.

They cannot introduce legislation or appear before a committee of parliament on behalf of a minister.

That doesn't leave a lot to do, as was clear from Right to Information documents obtained earlier this year that exposed their rather slim diaries. And if you want to see their diaries to check how hard at work your taxpayer money is, you can't.

Unlike ministerial diaries, the diaries of assistant ministers aren't publicly available. But why not if they're so integral to the government's work?

In Canberra, the equivalent are called parliamentary secretaries and they actually have jobs to do, including a far greater role in shaping and publicly selling government policy. For example, Brisbane MP Trevor Evans is Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management. He's currently working on the federal government's plan to phase out the export of recycled goods overseas.

Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management, Trevor Evans (centre) and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison are seen during a tour of the Visy Recycling Facility in Brisbane. AAP Image/Darren England via NCA NewsWire
Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management, Trevor Evans (centre) and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison are seen during a tour of the Visy Recycling Facility in Brisbane. AAP Image/Darren England via NCA NewsWire

Part of that includes identifying a site and planning to create a large-scale, hi-tech recycling plant in southeast Queensland that can recycle goods like tyres and aluminium.

Parliamentary secretaries can also introduce legislation, and last month Evans presented a Bill on behalf of Government Services Minister, Stuart Robert, to establish cashless debit cards as an ongoing program for welfare recipients and extend the program to another 25,000 people in the NT and Cape York regions. Laughably, he gets paid less than Queensland's ineffectual and neutered assistant ministers for doing more work than them. Federal MPs earn a base rate of $211,250 and parliamentary secretaries get a 25 per cent loading on top of that. That means Evans and his colleagues will get paid $52,812 extra for all their extra responsibilities, while Queensland's nab an extra $84,000.

It's time for Queensland's assistant ministers to earn their keep.

Originally published as OPINION: Qld's assistant ministers need to earn their money


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