February 7, 2013

Who pays?

Mayor Graham Quirk has announced that the clean-up bill for Brisbane post-Oswald will be in the order of $60 million. Who will pay, and for which bits? In Central Queensland the bill will be far higher. Major infrastructure has been destroyed; thousands of farmers have lost their homes and livelihoods; fishing boats were swept away and left high and dry and stranded.

Millions of dollars' worth of coal exports are likely to be lost because of damage to the rail line to the port of Gladstone. Will the mining companies help pay for repairs? Coal production raises another problem in the form of huge quantities of contaminated water to be disposed of post flood. The coal companies expect to be able to dump at least some of their waste water in rivers, which then carry pollutants as well as silt and debris out to the Reef. Should taxpayers foot the bill for this part of the clean-up?

Mayor Quirk revealed that Council would only be able to recoup half of the $16 million it needs for road repairs, and none of the $13 million it needs to restore parks. He estimated that Brisbane Council would have to find about $23 million in total – ultimately from ratepayers.

It seems that last December revisions were made to 'national disaster guidelines' that determine whether the Feds or state or local government pay the bills for recovery after a catastrophe. Many local council leaders believe they are now liable for the replacement of social infrastructure. So, higher authorities pay for the big stuff such as roads, rail lines, bridges and culverts; while local government has to repair parks, sports grounds and facilities, children's playgrounds, public toilets and the like.

In fact, there is still a certain amount of flexibility as far as who pays for what is concerned, if the Feds and the state government are inclined to put their heads together to create a National Partnership Agreement (NPA). Over the last few days state Treasurer Tim Nicholls (Liberal National Party) and Federal Minister for Flood Recovery (and Senator for Queensland) Joe Ludwig (Labor) have been bickering about who has contacted whom in an attempt to launch an NPA. I hope the ruined citrus growers of North Burnett aren't listening to their politicking.

If parts of Australia are to become even more at risk from flooding rains – and there can be little doubt, unless you're an ostrich – not only should 'disaster' funds be included in budgets at national, state and local levels, but guidelines under the National Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (NDRRA) need revision. They should not be restricted to replacing like with like. That is why the town of Gayndah has lost its water pump twice in two years. The next one must surely be built well away from the Burnett River. Following the 2011 floods, the citizens of Grantham were rehoused on higher ground, which must seem like a good plan to most people. The resolution of most if not all big issues, however, comes down to cost, and, with politicians obsessing about budget surpluses and the looming election, I pity those poor Queenslanders awaiting speedy and innovative rebuilding programmes.

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