New allegations that Wivenhoe Dam operators used incorrect water-release strategies during last year’s Queensland flood disaster have forced the state Labor government to delay elections until March 24. The north-eastern Australian state was devastated by floods, caused by the La Niña weather pattern, which killed 35 people and badly damaged thousands of homes and businesses.
The election date was announced last week by Premier Anna Bligh following an unprecedented request by the official floods inquiry that it re-open investigations and its final report be pushed back to March 18. The request was in response to damning new evidence published by the Australian newspaper.
Wivenhoe Dam is located about 70 kilometres northwest of Brisbane and commercially operated by SEQWater. The facility was supposed to prevent major flooding in the capital and outlying suburbs. It failed to do so last year, however, and over 20,000 homes were inundated.
According to the Australian, Wivenhoe Dam engineers used a flood-operating strategy known as W1 for 48 hours longer than necessary on January 8 and 9 last year. Operators should have employed W3 releases, which were designed to protect Brisbane. Water levels rapidly rose during this period, threatening the structural integrity of the dam itself and forcing operators to initiate a W4 strategy on January 11. W4 involves massive water releases—up to 7,500 litres per second—and takes no account of the impact on Brisbane.
Bligh told the media last week that she would not hold a state election before Queenslanders could assess the floods inquiry report. “Every flood victim should know the truth,” she declared, and the “full force of the law” would apply to anyone “responsible for any cover up.”
The Queensland premier, of course, is banking on the inquiry diverting attention, not only from what her government knew about the dam, but the lack of emergency warnings, grossly inadequate rescue measures and other issues that drastically worsened the catastrophe and for which her government is directly responsible.
Bligh’s sensitivity to any suggestion that the state government knew what was going on at Wivenhoe, and turned a blind eye, underlines the acute fragility of the Labor administration.
Having ruled Queensland almost continuously for the past 20 years, the Labor Party, which holds 51 seats in the 89-seat parliament, faces a landslide defeat, with deep-seated opposition on a range of issues. The latest two-party preferred opinion polls show the opposition Liberal National Party (LNP) at 59 percent, against Labor’s 41. If this were replicated at the polls on March 24, Labor would be reduced to a rump.
Bligh was re-elected in March 2009 on the slogan, “jobs not cuts.” Three months later, her government announced a $15 billion selloff of key state assets. These included the QR National rail freight business, Queensland Motorways, the Port of Brisbane, the Abbott Point coal terminal and Forestry Plantations Queensland, eliminating an estimated 10,000 jobs.
According to polls, 80 percent of Queenslanders, including more than 90 percent in regional areas, opposed the rail sell-off. Bligh declared, however, that the privatisations were necessary to restore the state’s AAA credit rating, and were “not negotiable.” Bligh also axed Queensland’s fuel subsidy, despite assuring voters during the election that her government would retain it.
Working hand in glove with the trade unions, the Bligh government continued slashing public sector employment. Last year’s state budget eliminated 3,500 public sector jobs. Last month, the axing of another 1,500 positions was announced.
While Queensland is presented in the mainstream media as a boom state with high export earnings from mining, this industry only employs 2.4 percent of the state’s workforce, or about 50,000 workers.
The current official unemployment rate is 6.2 percent, a 0.5 percentage point increase since July. Youth joblessness is double that rate and the figure for indigenous workers is three times higher. Unemployment in many working-class Brisbane suburbs is over 20 percent and is up to 10 percent in regional centres dependent on tourism and property development.
Almost half a million people, or over 10 percent of Queenslanders, are living below the poverty line. According to Queensland Council of Social Services, the poorest 20 percent were 70 times poorer than the richest 20 percent.
The Bligh government’s austerity measures have impacted heavily on working people. The cost of utilities and transport has risen by 63 percent and 48 percent respectively. The Queensland Competition Authority reported last year that almost 6,000 residential customers were disconnected for non-payment of electricity bills from July to September 2010.
The public health system has gone from crisis to crisis in line with new funding mechanisms to slash per-patient costs. A new payroll system for Queensland Health employees has also been a disaster, with thousands of doctors, nurses and other health workers either not paid properly or not paid at all. Despite months of government assurance that the problem would be fixed, the multi-million dollar scandal and incorrect payments still continue.
Every aspect of government policy has been geared to meeting the requirements of the financial and corporate elite, at the expense of working people. In last year’s flood disaster, emergency reconstruction assistance was largely directed toward repairing transport infrastructure for the major mining and agribusiness corporations, with a pittance paid to families and small businesses. Thousands of flood victims continue a desperate struggle to maintain mortgage payments on damaged homes, many still uninhabitable, that they cannot afford to repair.
Even as Bligh announced the state election date, numerous regional Queensland towns were being hit again by major flooding. On Monday, Charleville residents had to be evacuated from the town, while Bundaberg city was hit by flooding and raw sewage spillage. Many of Bundaberg’s gutters had not been cleaned since last year’s disaster. The Agnes Water community was cut off because the state government had done nothing to flood-proof main roads into the community.
The conservative LNP, the Greens and rural independents are hoping to capitalise on the popular disgust with Labor. There are no fundamental differences between any of these parties. Whatever the outcome of the March 24 election, the next government will seek to shift the burden of the deteriorating economy onto working people through a deepening assault on living standards.
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[16 January 2012]