TOWARDS A PROFESSIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE FOR QUEENSLAND


CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary Much about the flood is still to be uncovered
Introduction + The email reproduced below was a response to requests for comments on the report by the Floods Commission of Inquiry on Brisbane's 2011 floods, which included adverse findings against those involved in controlling Wivenhoe Dam during the flood.  In brief the email:
  • suggests that it is inappropriate to scapegoat a few individuals for systemic problems that pervade Queensland's system of government, and that (as is typical of inquiries into problems in Queensland's public sector) these 'big picture' problems were outside the Commission's terms of reference; and
  • speculates, on the basis of limited available information, about apparent significant defects in SE Queensland's water supply and flood management that still seem to need further attention.
Email

2011 Flood - email sent 16/3/12 (with later additions)

Rodney Stephen
4BC

I have not looked at today’s report on the 2011 flood, but gather that it recommends action against the engineers involved in managing the flood routing.

This would seem to me to be a gross error because, while there was undoubtedly a lot of confusion and difficulty in managing the flood event, this is not likely to be entirely or primarily the fault of those who were in the control room during the emergency.

There are severe problems in Queensland’s system of government which are discussed in various documents on my web-site – and an overview of these (Paying the Price of Ineffectual Public Administration) is in Structural Incompetence and SE Queensland's Water Crisis (2007). Ultimately those systemic problems can be traced back to the amateurish approach to public sector ‘reform’ adopted by the Goss Government in the early 1990s (see Queensland's Worst Government?), which left government: politicised (ie dominated by ‘yes men’); fragmented; overly complex; and (as a consequence) subjected to periodic crises. The response to such crises has not been to confront the structural problems that were introduced into Queensland’s system of government, but rather to: (a) throw huge amounts of money at problems; and (b) blame bureaucrats. A classic example involved the response to the crisis in the Health Department / Bundaberg Hospital. The problems seemed to be due to the dysfunctional environment around the Department as much as to internal failings, but enquiries were set up that were limited to seeking only internal scapegoats (see Intended Submission to Health System Royal Commission, 2005).

This is probably relevant to the flood situation because there are claims from those with pre-1990 flood expertise that such expertise was largely eliminated from government (see attached email). Associated with the latter was a large document by an individual with a very senior flood role in Department of Local Government which appears to present arguments about deficiencies in relation to flood analyses. I think I have a copy somewhere on my computer but can’t currently find it. The process of deskilling that arises in a politicised environment involves embarrassment of ‘senior’ staff when their lack of technical competence is made obvious by ‘junior’ staff – and reasons are then found to show the latter the door (see Outline History of the Breakdown of the Westminster Tradition in Queensland and of the Growth of Public Service Bullying). Thus it is possible that the engineers involved in managing the 2011 flood were not up to the job and made mistakes (and subsequently distorted the record of events to protect their backsides in a hostile environment). However, if so, this can’t simply be blamed on those individuals.

Note added later: "Greg McMahon, a consultant who was the chief flood expert in Queensland's local government department until the early 1990s, says attitudes to dam safety became compromised during the late 1980s when "political skulduggery" led to an effective lowering of standards. He explains that when Wivenhoe was first conceived in the 1970s, Australian design standards for large dams made of earth and rock required them to be able to contain the flood created by the largest possible rain event in the catchment, the "probable maximum precipitation". But soon after Wivenhoe was completed in 1984, meteorologists realised they had significantly underestimated the size of this epic deluge." [1]

There seem to be major problems with efforts to manage SE Queensland’s water supplies (see Structural Incompetence and SE Queensland's Water Crisis). Wivenhoe Dam was built primarily as a flood mitigation project rather than as a water supply source – because its catchment is subjected to very large but unreliable / infrequent rainfall. ‘Everyone’ knew this in the 1980s, but in the 1990s this awareness seemed to have been lost because of the Goss Government’s restructuring and restaffing process. Thus Wivenhoe apparently came to be regarded as a reliable water supply source – and the necessity to proceed with Wolffdene Dam was not recognised. Moreover, the process of approving the Traveston Dam alternative was amateurish (because no one in their right mind would commit to a shallow dam on an alluvial flood plain – which implies massive losses from evaporation and leakage). I am a bit cynical about the claims that this dam was blocked on environmental grounds (see Saving 'Brand Labor' from Traveston Dam? What about Saving 'Brand Queensland' and 'Brand Australia'?.)

There seems also to be serious problems with flood planning for SE Queensland because the Brisbane River flood that has to be coped with has probably been grossly under-estimated (perhaps because estimates are based on the relatively modest rainfall events in the 20th century, while the much more severe floods in the 19th century are neglected, because corresponding rainfall data is much less readily available). This issue is explored in The Choice is not just between Flood Levees and Flood Levies (2011). In practice the implication of this is that:

  • It is likely that the 10m flood compartment at Wivenhoe Dam and the flood manual were based on unrealistically low estimates of the potential floods it could be exposed to. The 1999 Brisbane River Flood Study suggested that dams could be expected to be at full supply level (ie just below the flood compartment) when a flood started, but this would be unsafe if  the potential flood was under-estimated. However this probably did not make a lot of difference in 2011, as the flood experienced was by no means one of the really big ones.
  • Land use planning arrangements for Brisbane allowed development in areas that are much too low – and the fact that 100 year flood levels were raised by (I think) 1m at Port Office gauge after the 2011 flood is in conformity with this, but has perhaps not yet gone far enough (though I haven’t done any work to prove this). The whistleblower report mentioned in the attached email implied that this was a problem elsewhere in SE Queensland (eg at the Gold Coast);
  • There has been concern about the possibility of Wivenhoe Dam being overtopped – and failing. This required the installation of fuse plugs at the dam which would fail preferentially in the event of such a risk, and thus protect the structure generally. However this required lowering the dams’ full supply level by (I think) 1-2m, and thus reducing its water supply capacity;
  • After the 2011 floods, it has been recognised that the 10m difference between full supply level (at RL 67) and the flood level would not be enough to cope with a major flood, so provision was made to reduce water levels prior to expected major rainfall events. Once again this implies that Wivenhoe’s potential as a water storage has been over-estimated;

While I have an interest in this subject for various reasons (see Author’s Background and The Choice is not just between Flood Levees and Flood Levies), I am by no means able to express authoritative technical opinions about these matters – merely to point to apparent deficiencies in what has been done. I simply have not had access to the information, time or specialised experience required to do so. Also the above comments are made from memory, and could be improved with more time.

Overall I see the fact that probable deficiencies (and cover-ups) exist as largely symptomatic of fundamental problems in Queensland’s system of government – concerning which Queensland's Next Unsuccessful Premier offers some suggestions.

If these limitations are recognised, I am quite happy for you to make any use of the ideas in this email (or on my web-site) that you see fit. I have sent a copy to Mike Darcy in the Opposition office because he also rang to seek my response.

John Craig

Whistleblower's Action Group 2011 Press Release

Extract from email sent to Gordon Harris on 31/1/11 in response to his press release (as below)

PRESS RELEASE

THE FLOOD WAS PREDICTED - SO WAS THE ROYAL COMMISSION

By Whistleblowers Action Group Qld Inc

30 January 2011

More than fifteen years ago, flood professionals in the State Public Service predicted that another 1974 flood would come to South East Queensland about this time.

They also predicted that there would be a Royal Commission.

2013 ± 2.5 years is how they expressed the year that it was likely to occur – in lay terms, this means that another 1974 flood would come sometime during the five wet seasons from 2010/11 to 2014/15. That prediction eventuated.

The prediction about the Royal Commission has also eventuated. That prediction was based on what the flood professionals saw that local and state governments were doing, or failing to do, with the hydrologic and hydraulic information that the flood professionals were presenting to government.

A lot of this information and expertise has been lost since the two decades of flood studies that followed the 1974 floods. The Queensland community needs to recover this vital information.

This loss of information occurred with the natural retirement of men and women, 40 years or older, who worked on the flood studies in the two decades following 1974. This loss of information was exacerbated further by:

1. The alleged rough removal of hundreds of senior public servants from government agencies upon the election of the Goss government;
2. The alleged mistreatment of whistleblowers who came forward with disclosures about flooding and development matters after the Fitzgerald reforms were perceived to have been implemented;
3. The politicization of the public services at State and local government levels, through such changes as the loss of tenure for Senior Executive Service and other principal appointments, and through the role played by ministerial advisors;
4. The 'de-engineering' of the public service agencies involved in flood engineering;
5. Circumventions of the Freedom of Information Act, and the tactics used to deny knowledge of relevant issues

These professionals are unlikely to have confidence in the Flood Commission as it is presently structured, Mr Gordon Harris, President of Queensland's Whistleblower organisation, said today. This is the Forde Inquiry without Forde – most other players are the same, including Premier Bligh who commissioned the 1998 Forde Inquiry as Minister for Families.

We need a Fitzgerald type inquiry, one that follows the disclosures. But we also need more protection for whistleblowers. Protection did not occur for the police whistleblowers in the Fitzgerald Inquiry, such as Inspector Col Dillon, at the hands of the post Fitzgerald Queensland Police Force, Mr Harris said.

We do not need another Forde type of Inquiry, one that limits itself to restricted terms of reference and political interference, as did the Forde Inquiry when clear allegations of cover-up by State Government came before that Inquiry. Bans on any inquiry into the role of the State Government in wrongdoing and maladministration, including cover-ups, regarding flooding and development issues, cannot be allowed to occur again, he said.

The creeks in the Toowoomba region are not the only flood situations in Queensland where there may be serious risk to life. Other situations are alleged, for areas housing greater populations, populations dominated by the young and by the retired, concentrated in layout, subject to sudden night flooding, with minimum prospects for evacuation.

Current situations must be identified. Knowledge of the role of government developers and private developers in generating these situations is vital to efforts to arrest such risks and return the community to acceptable levels of hazard from flooding. Mr Harris said.

The Whistleblowers Action Group recommends that a prominent whistleblower, with appropriate experience from these post 74 flood studies, be placed on the Commission.

To this end, Whistleblowers Action Group is writing to Premier Bligh and Mr Langbroek, Leader of the Opposition, to seek the appointment of a whistleblower with eminent credentials for any review of flood management in Queensland to the Royal Commission.

We are seeking bipartisan support to such an appointment because the involvement by such whistleblowers in flood management in all parts of Queensland, after the 1974 floods, included service under governments of both the Labor and Coalition Parties.

When it became known that one flood professional, code-named ˜Warrior' by the public service bureaucrats, had blown the whistle on the Queensland Government, numbers of hydrologists, scientists, engineers and economists approached Warrior with their concerns about particular decisions by Government agencies involving water engineering.

The community can benefit from that same dynamic, if those flood professionals with knowledge of the risks in place, have sufficient confidence in the Commission to come forward.

The 2010/11 wet season is only the first season of the predicted window of wet seasons when major flooding is likely to occur. If we have entered a period where major flooding has an increased likelihood, it behoves the Queensland Government to do its best to obtain all ˜lost' information, in some cases, from officers who may have been severely mistreated by the system which they served and to which they had offered their expertise.

There are other choices, Mr Harris claimed today. We support calls by the legal profession in this State for a restructure to the Flood Commission, but for stronger reasons.

It is noted that Tony Fitzgerald, prior to his famous Inquiry, completed a formal opinion for the Brisbane City Council on improving flood mitigation and control legislation, according to information given to the Group. When a Commissioner between 1987 and 1989, he went beyond the original terms of his Inquiry. This the Forde Inquiry failed to do with serious allegations against the Government. Fitzgerald followed the disclosures made to his Inquiry. Enough was not done, however, to protect, post the Fitzgerald Inquiry, the police who made his Inquiry a success.

We cannot make that mistake again. the President of Whistleblowers said. We are seeking bipartisan support for a whistleblower to go onto the Commission.

POC: President Gordon Harris, through the Secretary on 07 3378 7232