This afternoon the inevitable inquiry was announced by Premier Anna Bligh. Reporting deadlines in six and 12 months! The inquiry is revealed by that very parameter as a device with which the Queensland Labor Government wants to absolve itself of any responsibility until at least after the next election, which I would call very quickly now were I her; Bligh’s popularity is riding inexplicably high on the back of carefully staged media events.
And yet, what evidence is there that she provided any leadership at all? A theatre arts graduate could have delivered the on-air performances. What did she do in the background to remediate the disaster? It’s not a rhetorical question, but also not one that most journalists appear keen to ask. In fact, the only more superfluous and useless grandstanders during the flooding were our journalists, who stayed well away from providing useful information in order to dwell on the maudlin and the tragic.
From my perspective there should be an inquiry, but not one aimed at finger-pointing and ‘blamestorming’. What should be established, and by the end of the month, not half a year down the track, is what we could do better in February if flooding were to occur again. I’m not forecasting anything, but I don’t think we can rule it out in what is, after all, our wet season. The full bureaucratic treatment can still be applied over the longer term, but we need at least some answers more quickly.
One of those answers is the extent to which government, and therefore taxpayers in general, should be liable for private losses and insurance shortfalls on full reconstruction. It is not an easy topic to deal with, but with costs probably exceeding $20 billion state-wide, but it is nevertheless a pertinent question to ask. There was an oddly bloodless article on the subject by Erwann Michel-Kerjan, the managing director of the US Wharton Business School’s Risk Centre, and chairman of the OECD High-Level Advisory Board on the financial management of catastrophes!!!
I remember distinctly that various emergency services personnel commented glowingly on the Brisbane City Council’s flood maps, though I was underwhelmed by public access to the same, and by the absence of meaningful legends (ie, what water level were they based on). Nevertheless, these maps existed, meaning it was well-known that many parts of Brisbane were prone to flooding, and such an event was a matter of time rather than ‘if’. The corollary is that many residents must accept significant responsibility for their flood losses as a private liability.
I suspect, though, that there is an area of regulation that could be tightened: plain declarations by developers and vendors of the flood history of a property, and its location in the BCC flood projections. There is no excuse for not knowing this kind of information before buying a property. Nor is there an excuse for not taking out flood insurance cover, which was prohibitively expensive for many properties precisely because actuaries had established the unbearable truth: many properties were located on flood plains and therefore very high risks.
If that sounds heartless, let me put it another way. While Gertrude Gigglewits bought a palatial riverfront property without bothering to check the likelihood of flooding, and without paying for flood insurance (or perhaps being refused such insurance, which should have been a big hint), Johnny Sensible bought a cheaper home, checked the flood history and established he was pretty safe, but bought flood insurance anyway. Should Johnny now fund the reconstruction of Gertrude’s mansion by way of extra taxes and charges, or foregone services, as his taxes are diverted away from education, health, etc? Harsh though it seems, Gertrude should have to accept personal responsibility for her misfortune, because she wilfully ignored the risks.
There is an exception to this brutally frank rule for which I can see a good case being made. Rural properties producing food. We all need what farmers produce, so I can see the merit in restoring their productive capacity at some cost to the public purse, to reduce the even greater costs of lost productive capacity — forever in some cases — and the inflationary pressure of rising food costs. These are not luxury foods we’re talking about, but staples like bread, rice, pasta, milk, fresh meats and vegetables.
If it seems casual and callous for me to be talking about people’s misery this way, consider for a moment that these are precisely the unpopular but necessary decisions that should be made right now by the people notionally in charge – our governments. But exactly these people appear to be playing duck and cover behind an impossibly long-term inquiry. Can we really afford even a month to defer these absolutely critical choices?
I don’t think Queensland or Australia will be at all well served by retreat into the fallabck bullshit of politics as usual. There’s nothing usual about these circumstances and we should demand more than party politics at this time.
On that point, where the hell is the State opposition? The Liberal National Party has been all but invisible in the midst of this crisis. They are the ones who should be keeping the government honest and holding it to account for decisions.