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Much about the flood is still to be uncovered - email sent 17/3/12

The Australian
– not for publication

Re: A blueprint to cut flood risks in Queensland, The Australian, editorial 17/3/12

Your editorial correctly noted that there were more important issues related to preventing a repetition of SE Queensland’s 2011 flood disaster than finger-pointing at individuals whose mistakes during the crisis may have added (say) 300-500mm to the flood peak.

Extract: “…. Due processes must be followed, but the commission's most important task was not retribution or finger-pointing, but showing how best to avoid a repeat of the disaster caused by the prolonged deluge that soaked Queensland in December 2010 and January 2011…..

……. the most important challenge is not about apportioning blame but instigating clear, transparent processes for dam management that will help prevent disaster when future floods occur.”

The problem is that the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry had terms of reference that were too narrow to identify the causes of such problems, so there is no prospect of bringing an end to the string of similar fiascos that Queensland has experienced. My reasons for suggesting this are outlined in 2011 Flood.

In his comments on the Floods Commission of Inquiry (The Flood Uncovered, The Australian, 17/3/12) Hedley Thomas pointed to the investigative difficulty of discovering that releases of water from Wivenhoe Dam may have been mismanaged during the flood, and that this may have been covered up. However what has so far been uncovered is merely one very small piece of a very large problem. As was noted in Hedley Thomas’s article:

Extract: “The issues were complex, revolving around hydrology, hydrodynamic modelling, and detailed release strategies, but they should have been subjected to better analysis in the media. Yet most journalists concentrated their efforts instead on human interest angles arising from those who were flooded, instead of how it happened.

If journalists had spent more time being sceptical, the truth could have emerged much sooner. But for a year, despite nuggets of evidence that pointed to SEQWater gilding the lily with many assertions about the scale and circumstances surrounding the event, the unvarnished truth remained elusive. The floods inquiry contributed to this with its interim report and public hearings that indicated it largely accepted the official line.

The lack of rigour by journalists dovetailed with a quietly effective campaign of spin and misinformation by SEQWater to discredit The Australian's work until the breakthrough that Craigie provided. Peter Borrows, the chief executive of SEQWater, issued a call last August for the public questioning of how the dam was operated to cease. It was a call aimed at The Australian.”

However, what the Floods Commission of Inquiry was able to ‘uncover’ with its narrow terms of reference has in effect become a red herring to divert attention from much more fundamental problems (just as journalists’ human interest stories involving flood victims had done previously). The problems in SEQWater did not arise in a vacuum, any more than those in Queensland Health and many other Queensland agencies did.

John Craig