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Disasters bring opportunities and hard choices

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 17 January 2011


The flood disasters current sweeping Queensland while shocking in their immediate adverse impacts for the people concerned also highlight long term problems in Queensland infrastructure and planning.

And having wasted much of the nearly $6billion plus some have estimated that the Beattie and Bligh governments spent in drought proofing south-east Queensland, such as on the rusting, expensive and now redundant Gold Coast desalination plant, let’s be careful before we rush in to start flood proofing Queensland.

Disasters of this size and the extensive damage they cause are also a time to do some serious rethinking about current and future infrastructure priorities and planning arrangements. Let’s not just reconstruct everything as before. 

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Under the umbrella (sorry about the pun) of reconstruction some of the many policy options that have been in the too-hard basket could be re-examined.

One issue is the present location of some small towns and communities. Periodic floods interspersed by intermittent droughts make maintaining these towns in terms of reconstructing roads, rebuilding levees that often do not work, provision of an array of services and trying to find jobs for locals not just expensive, but also repeatedly so. Time for a rethink.

Another related issue is locating suburbs in flood prone areas. Premier Bligh has rightly highlighted that the current floods are affecting more people compared to 1974 because more people now live in Queensland – especially south-east Queensland. The issue is why so many of these new accommodations are still in flood prone areas? How can this be avoided in the future?

Next is the issue about house design. Too much of the new housing built in recent years in Queensland by the big developers especially in low lying or potential flood areas are of slab on ground construction. Good for quick fast production housing at a price, but lousy for any protection against intermittent floods. Queensland used to have its own architecture – houses on stumps/poles off the ground – better for our wet and hot weather. Let’s allow greater use of Queensland’s architectural design.

Then there is the issue of dams. We can all thank that after the 1974 flood the then Coalition Government built the Wivenhoe Dam despite protests from the environmental lobby and others.

While Tony Abbott’s, federal Opposition leader, suggestion to build a raft of dams is a too easy knee-jerk reaction to the current crisis, it is telling that dams have been off the policy agenda for too long in Queensland. The Goss Government cancelled the suggested Wolfdene Dam south of Brisbane in 1990. And we are not really sure given the poor process whether the Beattie Government was ever serious about the Traveston Dam near Gympie. Time to set some new dam priorities!

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What is lacking in Queensland is a good policy process and the appropriate institutional architecture for some independent assessment to discuss what the state’s infrastructure priorities should be, their real costs and their projected benefits.

Queensland just does not have the institutional frameworks and the political culture to sustain the integrity of this sort of process. We need a State Priorities Commission that analyses the issues, engages the community and provides independent assessment that is made public. Government can then decide, but at least we, the public would know why they are supposed to be doing what and what it might cost!

Of course, State Treasury might be expected to do this, but many of us have long given up on that weak body that operates in a politicised environment and lacks the talent and the nerve to speak truth to power!

Unless we take this opportunity to develop better ways of setting priorities, assessing costs and in having an open debate about these issues then the alternative as we have seen with so many projects in Queensland in the recent past, will be just money down the drain – or rather out to sea like the torrents flowing down the Brisbane River right now!

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This article was first published in The Australian on January 14, 2011.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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