Friday, March 09, 2012

The bureaucracy that flooded Brisbane

There would have been no flood if Brisbane's big flood control dam had been used properly. The flood compartment should have been kept fully available as long as possible. It wasn't. It was used for storage to avoid the cost of running the creaky desalination plant.

That left bureaucratic alertness as the only barrier between Brisbane and a flood. That barrier failed. The bureaucrats were asleep or indifferent, in the usual bureaucratic way

ONE week out from the flood inquiry report that delayed state and council elections, The Courier-Mail has uncovered another serious flaw in the investigation tasked with finding out what went wrong in 2011.

A Courier-Mail analysis of data commissioned by the inquiry but never published shows thousands of homes would have been spared flooding in 2011 and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage avoided under alternative dam management strategies devised by the inquiry.

Its hydrology expert, Mark Babister, had to generate the data for a key report into these strategies but he was never asked to produce the information and was not questioned about it during hearings.

Lawyers, with $1 million in funding from a company that profits from mass legal actions, will trawl flood-hit suburbs this weekend for victims willing to sign up to a no-win, no-fee class action against the State Government.

They are seeking to prove that the Government should have made bigger, earlier dam releases - exactly the scenarios that Mr Babister modelled.

Ultimately any payouts to victims will be funded by taxpayers.

The inquiry is due to deliver its final report on March 16.

But it is unlikely to include the crucial data on river flows obtained and analysed by The Courier-Mail.

The information can be used to show that more than 5000 properties could have been spared and at least $600 million worth of devastation avoided if larger, earlier releases had been made, based on 2007 property prices and development levels.

Flows are the best way to predict how much damage will be caused downstream. But the inquiry focused instead on river levels.

Mr Babister told the inquiry that its alternative release scenarios could have reduced the level of the Brisbane River at Moggill by up to 1.3m and at the Port Office in Brisbane by up to 60cm, although he argued it would have been "unreasonable" for the dam engineers to have made such releases.

When asked under cross-examination whether he had looked at how many fewer houses would have been flooded under the different scenarios, he said: "No, we haven't, and that would be the sensible way to analyse the benefits of different strategies."

Mr Babister's flow calculations also undermine the basis for State Government claims about the mitigating effect of Wivenhoe Dam during last year. He found that peak flow in January 2011 was 10,300 cubic metres a second (cumecs), more than 1000 cumecs higher than the official Seqwater figure. By comparison, during the 1974 flood engineers recorded a peak flow of 9500 cumecs at Centenary Bridge.

Knowledge of flows is also crucial for flood mitigation planning, with only small flow increases causing Brisbane Valley damage to rise dramatically during large floods.

The Courier-Mail obtained Mr Babister's spreadsheets, which show river flows would have been significantly reduced under all the alternative scenarios.

The paper measured Mr Babister's results against damage curves developed for Brisbane, Ipswich and Somerset councils. It shows under the most effective of the inquiry's alternative scenarios, more than 5000 properties would have been spared and about $600 million worth of damage avoided in the three council areas.

Even the least effective of the strategies would have avoided $250 million worth of damage in Brisbane.

Brisbane hydrologist Max Winders, who has repeatedly warned of shortcomings in the management of the dam, said flood mitigation using dams was "all about flows". "If you want to reduce levels, you dredge, or you build levees," he said.

Mr Winders, who has seen The Courier-Mail's analysis, said it gave only a very low estimate of how much money could have been saved in 2011. "Six hundred million is just what the commission thought they could save," he said. "(The dam operator) could have saved a lot more than that. "It's too much money to be sneezed at."

The only way properly to explore the issues would be to hold a completely new inquiry, Mr Winders said.

More than 1000 flood victims have signed up to a planned class-action lawsuit against the State Government, claiming dam operators failed in their duty of care.


Apartheid not the answer for Aboriginal schooling

Sara Hudson

Koori schools in Victoria are a prime example of how throwing money at a problem is ineffective. According to The Age, the Victorian government is wasting millions of dollars on schools with tiny enrolments, abysmal attendance rates, and poor academic performance.

Initial findings of an independent review of the schools are due to be presented to the Victorian Department of Education on 26 March. However, it shouldn’t take a review to figure out the concept is flawed and does not provide value for money or a decent education.

The four Koori schools in Victoria (in Glenroy, Morwell, Swan Hill and Mildura) receive $3.9 million in funding a year even though they educate less than 1% of Indigenous students in government schools. The total enrolment in all four schools was only 65 students in 2011. Ballerrt Mooroop College was recently closed by the education department: The school was receiving more than $1 million in funding and employed 13 staff despite having only one full-time student!

Funding for each student in these schools was among the highest in Victoria, with one school, Woolum Bellum College in Morwell, receiving more government funding per student than any other school in the state. According to the My School website, the school received $82,277 per student, eight times the state average of $10,946 per student.

At the same time, student attendance rates in the Koori schools languish between 44% and 64%. Two Rivers College, the only Koori school to post its NAPLAN results on My School, performed substantially below the national average in all categories.

Clearly, taxpayer dollars are being wasted on providing separatist schooling for a few Aboriginal children in Victoria rather than giving more resources to help disadvantaged Indigenous students in mainstream schools.

Indeed, Chris Sarra made the same recommendation in 2009 in a report on the Koori education system. But the state education department ignored Sarra’s advice and spent another three years wasting public funds propping up failing Koori schools.

How long will it take the Victorian Department of Education to realise that separate is never equal?

The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated 9 March. Enquiries to Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.

Fairfax's angry man says it's racist to criticize half-Japanese airhead

Because George Negus hasn't come under as much scrutiny for his comments on The Circle as Yumi Stynes. The fact that Stynes and Negus made different comments (etc.) doesn't count, apparently

John Birmingham

It is possible, if only just, to imagine that the hateswarm engulfing Yumi Stynes this week has nothing to do with her being an attractive Asian woman, but unfortunately my imagination doesn’t stretch that far. So I’m gonna say it – most of the vitriol being spewed in her face over the comments she made about Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith on The Circle are motivated by racism, gender and jealousy.

Yumi Stynes and George Negus disgraced themselves when they mocked the VC winner Roberts-Smith in a seriously ill-considered grab for a couple of cheap laughs. What they did was wrong and quite literally shameful. Media careers have been extinguished by much lesser offences. Giles Hardie wrote a great piece explaining how such mistakes are often made, not just on live TV, but at barbecues, bars and in the tea rooms of millions of workplaces every day. He explained their oafish behaviour without excusing it, because there is no excusing it.

But while those two particular citizens are probably wallowing in their shame – and I say ‘probably’ because Negus has a hide much thicker and tougher than even the giant Walrus of Stupid – some of the deranged responses directed at Stynes in particular are appalling and immeasurably more shameful than her original sin. She is being attacked with a savage and terrible glee that is largely absent from the criticism of Negus.

Producers are removing or disallowing any comments on The Circle’s Facebook page that go beyond reasonable criticism. Sexual threats and insults, threats against Stynes’ family, misspelled and misogynistic abuse (so odd, how those two often go together), they’re all being zapped. But there is no shutting down the interwebz and a search on Twitter for Stynes and Negus finds thousands of comments, some of them quite level-headed and judicious critiques of their foolishness, but many, many of them not. Many, indeed, present with an air of menace and promised violence that would go a long way towards securing Stynes the protection of the law, if she chose to seek it.

Why the difference? I asked this, not entirely seriously, on the twitterz and farcebuck the other day, as the shrieking of the horde reached an ugly, feral pitch. “I wonder why the hatin' on Yumi Stynes is so much hatier than the hatin' on George Negus? What possible difference might there be?”

Only one respondent actually replied with any sort of coherent defence of the lynching of Stynes, an irregular drop-in here at the Instrument, Lobes, who wrote on Facebook that, Stynes' comments were worse "for a start". She has achieved little since she was a contest winner VJ on Foxtel, he argued, whereas at least Negus has had a career of some accomplishment. "Saying that though, they are both retards*, but she definitely deserved it more… The initial comment was made by Stynes about BRS being brainless. She set the tone and Negus followed.”

I doubted that the mob assaulting Stynes had parsed the original exchange so minutely, and Lobes replied, “I see where you are coming from JB, and believe me I do not share the sentiment that seems to motivate those thousands. But just because you take a different path does not preclude you from arriving at the same conclusion.”

Why delve into these individual responses? Because for better or worse they at least characterise some of the moderate and more considered ‘debate’ that has flowed from Stynes’ and Negus’ abysmal misjudgment.

For the most part, though, it’s been a feeding frenzy, with the worst of our natures on display. The only person to come out of this with their integrity unsullied is Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith who graciously accepted the apologies of Negus and Stynes and moved on. He doesn’t need the army of trolls and orcs which has come boiling out of the lower levels of internet hell to defend him. The sick-making abuse and threats of violence they’ve heaped on Stynes, and the contrast with the relatively light treatment of Negus – in spite of his shark’s tooth amulet and porno mo – is a disgusting example of double standards and cowardice.


Immigration paves Australia's way into the Asian century

BY: CHRIS BOWEN (Chris Bowen is the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship in Australia's Green/Left government)

What Chris Bowen's writers say below is true enough in that East Asians and South Asians integrate well into Australian society and, now that that is generally recognized, their presence is not controversial.

Though young Caucasian/Australian women could be forgiven for being bothered by the way that East Asian young women tend to snap up all the tall Caucasian men. No shortage of integration there!

Bowen deliberately ignores what IS controversial in Australia, however: Illegal immigration. The people are overwhelmingly against it but the Leftist government winks at it. Leftists represent elites and would-be elites these days, not the people.

And since Afghans are prominent among the illegals, there is good reason for disquiet. Importing medieval ignorance and religious hostility has little good to be said for it

SOMETHING big happened in the history of immigration last year. It didn't get any headlines. It had nothing to do with boats or asylum-seekers. It wasn't debated in parliament.

But it is probably the most important development in immigration in years. Last year, for the first time in the history of Australia, Britain was not our largest source of permanent migrants. For the first time, more people moved to Australia from China than any other country.

As we talk of Australia's role in the Asian century, there is a lot of focus on trade and resources, naturally enough. But it is immigration - and skilled migration in particular - that is the greatest cross-cultural and economic development program of them all.

Skilled and business migrants from Asia increase our trade links, our understanding of the region and our national language skills. And it's not just China we're talking about, of course. Putting aside New Zealand, which has separate migration arrangements with Australia, India and The Philippines are our third and fourth largest sources of new residents.

All of this has occurred with little public criticism. The days of John Howard or Pauline Hanson warning of the social upheaval caused by Asian migration seem like an eon ago.

Skilled migration is vital to our economy. Without migration, the labour force is expected to contract by 2050. Australia simply won't have enough people to keep our economy growing - even with the government's strong investment in skills and education, participation and social inclusion, and productive capacity. We need migrants for future growth and prosperity.

We are no longer victims of the tyranny of distance. Indeed, we have been blessed by geography. But let's be clear, the opportunities the Asian century present Australia aren't purely down to chance.

Our nation is a highly open economy, open to significant flows of people. More than a quarter of our people were born overseas and migrants add more to our population each year than natural increase.

The potential then offered by six million migrants, a third of them born in Asian countries, is extraordinary. Think also about the hundreds of thousands of Australian residents fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Hindi, Punjabi, Indonesian, Tagalog and Japanese.

Asian migration to Australia is very much driven by a mutually beneficial emphasis on skills. Much more than 60 per cent of migrants to Australia come under our skilled migration program, and this applies particularly to migrants from Asia.

Perhaps the most reassuring element of the shift in emphasis towards Asian migration is that we don't need to tweak the system to tap into these skills, because the skilled migration system we have developed has the flexibility to automatically respond to shifts in the world's economic activity.

Of equal importance to our economic future are temporary migrants, such as students. Students from Asia now comprise 68 per cent of all student visitors - which has already equated to 100,000 visas granted in the past seven months.

The importance of international education for the bottom line of our universities is well understood, as is the economic activity of the students and their families who regularly visit them. Not as frequently discussed is the importance of international education to the nation's long-term strategic interests.

Having large numbers of Asia's future leaders who have had a positive education experience in Australia is of incalculable benefit to our long-term diplomatic engagement in the region. Every international student becomes another ambassador for our country, another advocate for our interests in the region. And those advocates often end up in some pretty important roles.

When I travel through the region, I'm often struck by the number of senior players in government who studied here or who have children who study here and therefore have a heightened appreciation and positive disposition towards Australia.

Singapore's first directly elected president, Ong Teng Cheong, and Indonesia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marty Natalegawa, both studied at Australian universities. Australian university alumni are littered across the region, particularly in China, India, Malaysia and Singapore.

The reforms Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans and I have announced, based on the recommendations of former NSW Olympics minister Michael Knight, are very focused on encouraging more genuine students, particularly from Asia, to have the Australian education experience.

We will provide post-study work rights of two years for bachelor degree graduates and up to four-year work rights for PhD graduates. We are also streamlining the process for assessing genuine students to make it easier for people who want to study here.

The rise of Asia brings new and exciting opportunities for Australia. Solid economic fundamentals and geography mean we're well placed to act.

Dwindling domestic labour force growth and the need to shore up our economic future mean we must act. If we get it right, the potential is profound.


Taxpayers face huge bill after power sale

No easy way out of the mess left by the previous ALP government

NSW taxpayers could be left paying tens of millions of dollars a year in penalties incurred by the state's electricity generators after they are sold under the O'Farrell government's privatisation plans.

Legislation to facilitate the sale gives the Treasurer, Mike Baird, the power to transfer the financial liabilities attached to the power generators to other state-owned entities before they are sold.

These may include tens of millions of dollars in "availability liquidated damages" each year if a generator fails to supply the amount of electricity it is contracted to produce.

The NSW Auditor-General revealed last year that one generator company, Delta Electricity, expected to be liable for $46.3 million in damages payments over the next four years. Another, Eraring Energy, had budgeted to pay $6.7 million in penalties for 2011-12.

The liabilities are a consequence of Labor's partial sale of electricity assets before last year's election, under which the trading rights to electricity output from a number of power stations were sold, but the power stations were retained in public hands.

An expert report commissioned as part of the Tamberlin inquiry into the electricity industry said any future sale of the power stations would be "significantly compromised" by the terms of the contracts between the power stations and the companies that bought the trading rights.

If Mr Baird decides to shift the liabilities from the power stations to another state-owned entity then the financial burden of the penalties would remain with taxpayers even after they are sold.

A spokeswoman for Mr Baird said the legislation "empowers the government to do what's in the best interests of NSW taxpayers" and was guided by the recommendations made by former judge Brian Tamberlin.

"The detail of the sale of the state's generators has been subject to expert advice, as was recommended by Justice Tamberlin," she said. "The government is implementing Justice Tamberlin's findings that the state should not be in electricity generation. Throughout this process the government will act in the best interests of NSW taxpayers."

The government is likely to consider removing the financial liabilities as a means to secure a better sale price for the power stations, which may be done by tender or a public float.

But the NSW Greens MP John Kaye said the government was "looking for a quick hit of cash to fatten its election war chest, while leaving households to carry the downside risk for decades to come".

"Privatising the profits while forcing taxpayers and consumers to bear all the risk might work for the Coalition's 2015 election plans but it will leave the state and households much worse off," he said.

The Premier, Barry O'Farrell, has ruled out selling the network businesses, or "poles and wires", despite the urgings of business groups and the chairman of Infrastructure NSW, Nick Greiner.


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