The “Red Room”, Queensland’s Legislative Council Chamber was the venue chosen for Premier Campbell Newman’s release of the state’s review into emergency services completed by former Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty.
Red is the traditional colour of Westminster Upper Houses, supposedly chosen because Kings would wear red into battle to hide any wounds. Over the years, the colour red has also come to symbolise the left side of politics, in particular, communist beliefs.
Having wondered whether there is any particular symbolism that the Premier was attempting to tap into, the former seems a more fitting interpretation; but the irony of the latter does not slip idly by.
As the Premier stood at the head of the room to make his announcement, he was supported by his Police Minister Jack Dempsey and the heads of Fire and Police. Queensland Fire and Rescue Service (QFRS) Commissioner Lee Johnson and Queensland Police Service (QPS) Commissioner Ian Stewart standing to either side.
Premier Newman said the review has identified a number of structural reforms that will improve the emergency services in Queensland.
“The objective isn’t about changing the headcount, the objective isn’t about saving money, it’s about doing better,” he said.
A closer inspection of the 361 page review shows that improving the emergency services is definitely a large component of the document titled “Sustaining the unsustainable”; but it is difficult to ignore the recommendations that open the door for more private sector participation.
The unions – often criticised for their affiliation with the red side of politics – that represent QLD’s corrective services, ambulance and police, seem to think this is a case of the Premier wearing red, to hide the blood.
Together Union spokesman Alex Scott says the Government knows privatisation is unpopular so there is reluctance to talk about the issue.
“This government doesn’t want to talk about its ideological agenda of privatisation,” he said.
“It wants to talk about minor changes to departmental structures and not the fundamental change that will cause thousands of Queenslanders to lose their jobs and will see frontline services run for private profit rather than QLD’s community safety.
“This is a complete sham of a review.”
The Together Union represents QLD’s correctional services sector, the review recommends prisons move under the banner of the Department of Justice and the Attorney-General.
The duplication of operations for the QFRS and QPS will be eliminated by merging the two departments under a single Chief Executive.
Another restructure sees the Queensland Ambulance Service (QAS) transferred to QLD Health instead of the Department of Community Safety.
United Voice represents 2300 of the State’s 2600 Ambulance officers, their spokesman Gary Bullock said the highly publicised problems with the management of QLD Health could cause problems.
“They can’t even pay their own staff properly, how the hell are they going to run emergency services in QLD?” he said.
Mr Bullock is also worried about the proposed outsourcing of patient transport, highlighting the use of the word “contestability” in the report.
“We all know what that really means, it means privatisation by stealth and there will be companies out there making money off the sick and injured and that is just wrong,” he said.
“What we find is a lot of paramedics once they have worked in the industry, imagining the trauma that they have seen over 10, 15, 20 years put their hand up and say “look I just can’t emotionally handle this.
“They go into a patient transport role, they’ve still got their skills, they’ve still got their profession, obviously they are still dealing with our most vulnerable people. They are professionals.
“It’s not selling it off to basically get a taxi service for our elderly.”
Mr Scott has similar reservations about increasing “contestability” in Correctional Services to add more private prisons.
“This government was elected on the basis of revitalising front line services not privatising them,” he said.
“It’s a fundamental role of the Queensland government to keep Queenslanders safe in their communities and they need to make sure that our prisons are run for the safety of the Queensland community and not for the private profit of multinationals.”
The report is critical of the amount of time persons are held in watch-houses due to an inability of police to efficiently transfer people on remand to Queensland Corrective Services. It noted that in other jurisdictions, where watch houses and prisoner transport are outsourced, these problems are less frequent.
Other areas earmarked by the report for privatisation to free up the QPS to perform their primary duties are speed cameras and wide-load transport.
These duties are a source of overtime and additional income for many officers.
Public criticism of speed cameras has already focused on their use for revenue raising rather than public safety, but in NSW where mobile cameras have been outsourced, the organisations overseeing them have been paid for enforcement time rather than number of infringements and have been deemed successful according to their annual reviews.
Still, Queensland Police Union representative Mick Barnes said he is sceptical.
“It’s not about public safety, it’s literally about making a dollar for the government coffers,” he said.
Mr Barnes was positive about the report’s recommendation to increase technological support to officers in the field.
Because of a lack of officially provided technology, many officers have resorted to using their own personal smartphones for the documenting of evidence.
The review was critical of the side effect of this information being in the hands of private citizens instead of centralised official databases.
QPS Commissioner Ian Stewart said that the legal ramifications are being investigated.
“We’ve involved the Privacy Commissioner in a range of our decisions in recent times and will endeavour to do that again in relation to this particular issue,” he said.
Premier Newman says the issue will be dealt with but he feels that police should not be criticised for the ingenuity in difficult circumstances.
“People do things like that when the organisation they are working for is not providing the equipment – the tools – to do the job,” he said.
“They’ve been trying to actually have a system to do their job because overall we have let them down as a community by not funding them enough.
“Yes we need to deal with that, but it is important to recognise why that situation developed.”