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How politics contributed to the January 2011 Brisbane floods

By Peter Coulson - posted Monday, 24 January 2011

Reports today by Dr Patel take-down journo Hedley Thomas indicate that mismanagement of the dam levels at Wivenhoe and the decision to belatedly release water may have contributed to the flooding in Brisbane.

But there is more behind this story than simply an over-worked engineer at SEQ Water. The real problem lies much deeper and has its roots in the Cabinet Room in George Street.

To understand the underlying issues, we must first look back to 2006.


In 2006, South-East Queensland faced a daunting prospect of total water loss (see section on Historical Dam storage data). Rainfall was at an all-time low and it was clear to then Premier Peter Beattie that action was required.

Beattie’s response to the lack of rain was the $9 billion water grid. The water grid is a spider-web of pipelines that would connect water supplies and sources to spread stocks around. Attached to that was a recycled water plant and a desalination plant.

The key focus of these measures was the assumption being fed from people in the Department of Environment that climate change was visibly at work and that it might never rain in South-East Queensland again. One of the Premier’s key advisors with this message was now-Premier Bligh’s husband: Greg Withers.

So acting on this assumption of climate change-affected rainfall the Government announced these new measures with typical Beattie-gusto!

Fast forward a couple of years and the water grid was under construction.

Step two in Beattie’s plan to “drought-proof” South-East Queensland was for the State Government to compulsorily acquire local council water infrastructure. Until then, while the State Government owned some of the larger infrastructure like Wivenhoe Dam, local councils owned and operated the distribution and retail water assets.


Part of the compulsory acquisition was a nominal payment from the State Government to councils to compensate them for the loss of water infrastructure. That payment was in the order of $2 billion after significant haggling by the local councils – Brisbane City Council received $1.01 billion.

Premier Bligh and Labor then announced a raft of new bureaucracies to oversee water distribution in South-East Queensland, and the model announced would bring a tear of joy to Sir Humphrey. Even former Labor Lord Mayor of Brisbane Jim Soorley called the water bureaucracy a “complex mongrel beast.”

From a public responsibility perspective it was a nightmare concept – but from a public service perspective it was perfect. With so many advisory bodies, the actual responsibility for decision making was lost thereby protecting the people giving the advice on which decisions were made. But the cost of these bodies began to add up – and that’s the theme of this story.

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About the Author

Pete Coulson is a Brisbane-based student of economics at Griffith University. He is a keen observer of Queensland politics and shares his thoughts at Queensland Politics.

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