Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Re-opening of Brisbane flood inquiry

NEW evidence suggesting Wivenhoe Dam was incorrectly managed in the days before last year's inundation of Brisbane has forced the flood inquiry to reconvene, potentially delaying state and council elections.

Premier Anna Bligh was last night seeking urgent legal advice on a "number of options" after agreeing to grant an extension to the flood inquiry's reporting timetable.

Revelations that crucial documents about the dam's operation were either not released or overlooked by the $15 million inquiry's bevy of high-paid legal professionals has forced it to reconvene hearings.

The extension could cost taxpayers a further $1.5 million. But it was unclear last night whether this could be absorbed by the inquiry's original budget.

In a written statement late yesterday, Ms Bligh said she had met with inquiry commissioner Cate Holmes and accepted her request for an extension of the reporting deadline.

The documents, in The Australian newspaper, indicate that on the crucial weekend of January 8-9 last year the dam's managers were operating under a low-level release strategy aimed at preventing inundation of rural bridges when they should have deployed the more urgent strategy under which preventing Brisbane from inundation becomes the priority.

The email trail contradicts evidence presented to the inquiry by the dam's operators, Seqwater, that they were operating under the higher release strategy and that their own logbooks entries recording that the lower level strategy was being used were incorrect.

Lead flood engineer Rob Ayre told the inquiry last year that although he recorded the lower level release strategy was being deployed in a situation report on the night of January 8, this "wasn't correct" and the strategy to protect urban areas was in place.

Seqwater has insisted any claims it had given misleading evidence to the inquiry were "baseless".

However, Seqwater's defence is likely to be rigorously tested during new hearings that the inquiry has scheduled for the next two weeks.

The Courier-Mail understands the inquiry was putting the finishing touches on its final report before the new evidence came to light.

Earlier this week Ms Bligh backed Seqwater's version of events and promised Queenslanders would see the final report before going to the polls.

The commission of inquiry initially sat for 57 days under a budget of about $15 million or $263,000 a day meaning a further six days of sittings could potentially cost taxpayers a further $1.5 million.


Thieving ambulance man keeps his job

Public servants are a protected class

A QUEENSLAND ambulance officer has kept his job despite being convicted and jailed after stealing drugs from his employer.

In the wake of mounting evidence of criminal activity within the public service, the State Opposition has called for more checks and balances and the immediate sacking of those found guilty.

The 40-year-old paramedic was working near Rockhampton where he stole methoxyflurane - a non-opioid alternative to morphine often used for acute trauma - from the Queensland Ambulance Service in November 2010.

QAS suspended him a month later and court documents show he was convicted in Brisbane Magistrates Court after pleading guilty to "stealing as a servant" in April last year, receiving a $500 fine and five days' imprisonment.

Documents obtained by The Courier-Mail under Right to Information laws show he received a subsequent "formal reprimand" and demotion last June.

Police and Emergency Services Minister Neil Roberts defended the decision not to sack him, saying he had "a lot of confidence in the ambulance service and indeed the other services to make those judgments".

"If I was presented with a significant number of cases where everybody was simply let off with a demotion, of course I would ask questions for a bit more details," he said.

Opposition Police, Corrective Services and Emergency Services spokesman John-Paul Langbroek said that "public servants found guilty of serious criminal offences should be dismissed immediately".

"Not only is Bligh Labor's process for background criminal checks an embarrassing shambles, but even when public servants are convicted of crimes of stealing drugs, it seems they're free to keep working for the government," he said.

The paramedic caught stealing drugs was one of two ambulance officers convicted in the past two years of stealing drugs while on the job. The other officer was sacked.

Another ambulance officer who was convicted of possessing drugs and child pornography material last year resigned.

Two off-duty prison guards from Queensland Corrective Services lost their jobs after being convicted on drugs charges after being caught with steroids; another has resigned pending the outcome in court.

Queensland Corrective Services Commissioner Marlene Morison said there was "zero tolerance for staff convicted of an indictable criminal offence".


$2b Nauru detention bill overblown - Opposition

THE opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, has accused the government of grossly exaggerating the cost of reopening the detention centre on Nauru, after the federal government presented him with a $2 billion bill to implement the Coalition's key border protection policy.

After the Coalition refused further talks with the government on solving the boat crisis, the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, revealed yesterday that a departmental team had travelled to Nauru this month to assess the island's ability to process asylum seekers.

It found the centres used by the Howard government had in effect been dismantled, water shortages were severe, and housing Australian staff would pose an enormous challenge.

No asylum seekers could be accommodated on Nauru for at least three months, and then only 400 would fit until extra buildings were flown from Australia, the department said.

The department put the cost of safely housing a maximum of 750 asylum seekers at $1.7 billion over four years because of limited land space, and not including an extra $316 million to rebuild the centres.

"It's ridiculous, absurd. We suggested they reopen a processing facility on Nauru, not the moon," Mr Morrison said.

He accused Mr Bowen of "trying to trash Nauru as an offshore processing option" and demanded to know why the costing was four times higher than immigration facilities in Australia, and equated to $500,000 per person.

During talks held late last year, the federal government had broached reopening Nauru if the Opposition agreed to the Malaysia refugee swap, the option favoured by the Gillard government. But that option was blocked by the High Court and would have required new legislation to make it viable.

Mr Bowen offered an inquiry into the effectiveness of temporary protection visas - another key Coalition policy - if the Coalition backed the Malaysia plan.

However, Mr Morrison yesterday pulled the plug on discussions, saying the government had failed to address the Coalition's "serious policy concerns".

The Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's office said Labor had claimed, in 2008, that it cost the department $289 million to run the Nauru and Manus Island processing centres between 2001 and 2007.

Mr Bowen agreed the $2 billion cost was "enormous" and said he would publicly release details of the department's "independent" advice, telling the 7.30 Report last night: "These are the costs that would need to be in the budget if the government, any government, went down that road."

Mr Bowen said if Mr Morrison were a government minister he couldn't "just ignore the costings" because they were inconvenient.

The Opposition had been unable to nominate a third country which would accept refugees processed on Nauru, so most would end up in Australia, and Mr Bowen said the government could not justify spending $2 billion on a policy that would not work.

He accused the Coalition of not being prepared to move "a millimetre" to find a compromise on border protection.


Queensland students to learn about Australia Day

FOR the first time Queensland students will be forced to learn about Australia Day, with the national day previously being considered "optional".

As the national curriculum is rolled out across Australia - with Queensland the first to begin the new regime - students will learn about the day (January 26), its history and its meaning.

Queensland teachers have previously been offered "debates about Australia Day" as an optional example when teaching students about national traditions, but there was no mandatory requirement.

South Australia had no specific requirement to study Australia Day, while curricula in other states listed the day as an example of public holidays, without man-datory requirements for study.

Federal Education Minister Peter Garrett said Australia Day was "too important a day to leave as an optional extra".

"We've got a fascinating past in this country, with stories of great bravery and determination and examples of outstanding individuals in science, sport, public life and the arts," he said.


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