But clearly Townsville City Council gross incompetence, secret deals, and extensive conflicts of interest substantially contributed to the human costs of the Townsville floods last week (and any genuine inquiry into the floods should reach such a conclusion)
There have been some interesting press conferences taking place in wake of the devastating Townsville floods last week (1). Mayor Jenny Hill kept pointing out that this was a ‘1-in-500’ year flood event in terms of annual likelihood (2) – trying to suggest that it was completely unpredictable, that there was no reasonable way to avoid what happened, and that she and the Townsville Local Disaster Management Group (TLDMG) she oversaw were completely blameless. Meanwhile, when it was put to Qld Premier Palaszczuk that earlier releases of water from Ross River Dam might , ears pricked up when she replied “That’s a good question, you should direct that question to the Townsville City Council because they own that dam”.(3) This was not being completely fair to Mayor Hill since the Qld government corporation SunWater had at least nominal responsibility for the Ross River dam operations (4).
But then again, as TLDMG head as well TCC Mayor, Jenny Hill had not just overall but also direct and personal accountability for critical decisions linked to the flood. And it is now appropriate to explore further whether she failed to adequately fulfil those responsibilities. Whilst we are assured there will be an independent review by the Inspector General Emergency Management at a later date, there is already enough relevant information available to begin looking into these matters, to raise relevant further questions to check out, and to also point to some of the reasonable provisional conclusions that can or should be found by any genuine investigation. This is especially in light of further feedback this week (5) that the typical Q100 (or ‘1-100 year’) standard for flooding in development areas is out-of-date and often abused in Australia – which now lags far behind Europe and the USA when it comes to ignoring the planning for climate and weather ‘extremes’. This is especially so when it is used to justify hasty or inappropriate developments (and ‘profits over people’ generally, like in the recent Banking commission) – as well as to ignore relevant warnings, additional local factors which should be considered also, and the increasing level of extreme weather events caused by climate change. Some of the politicians and developers who are likely to be mentioned in a proper investigation have publicly referred to how there had been no big local floods in ‘living memory’ to justify their irresponsible opportunism (and their selective memory about the traumatic 1998 Townsville floods).
Just weeks before the floods hit, a Townsville Ratepayers Association (TRRA – go to https://www.facebook.com/tsvratepayers/) had released several reports (6) (7) with comprehensive details and supporting evidence from the public suggesting apparent corruption in and around Townsville. This was in relation to secret deals with developers apparently overseen by Mayor Jenny Hill, and also the implementation of a privatised Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) regime within the Council operations. This was especially so in terms of how Hill is one of the main directors of the LGAQ business organisation having more than a few apparent conflicts of interest. This regime is especially reflected in the TCC by its procurement of goods and services through the ‘preferred suppliers’ lists organised by the LGAQ’s ‘Local Buys’ model. In practice this is reported to typically lock out locals as prospective contractors and suppliers so that work and money is lost to the community rather than invested back into it. This apparent denial of effective market competition – in terms of what a growing list of critics tend to label a ‘cartel’ procurement arrangement (e.g. 8) – was a regime implemented at TCC by the then CEO Adele Young. The TRRA reports (and other influential local social media such as Townsville Magpie) suggest that Ms Young has both been linked to the systematic sackings of experienced staff and quality standards and also a new management regime filled more with compliant, inexperienced and fearful staff answering directly to the top. These reports suggested that Jenny Hill may not be responsible for the weather, but she may still have some relevant responsibility for the devastating human costs in relation to several related aspects of possible corruption suggested by the TRRA reports:
- Suspicious and highly questionable council re-zoning ‘deals’ with developers to build in areas known to be flood-prone
- An apparent failure to develop an adequate flooding emergency management plan (as well as observe adequate building and safety standards) possibly part of a cover-up of the free rein given to development in flood-prone areas as well as in other urban planning areas
- That the implementation of an LGAQ model directly compounded these problems in terms of (a) the systematic loss of experienced staff with initiative and respect for quality standards, and (b) their replacement by a compliant and inexperienced staff fearful of job uncertainty and a top-down management culture more interested in private sector profits and deals than public accountability
- So that in effect no-one was really in control of the emergency response to be able to really deal with a crisis (i.e. with uncertainty, dilemmas and emergency decision-making) with experience, local knowledge, and sufficient initiative. In this way, the ignoring of relevant warnings of problems ahead by senior management staff in Council and other relevant government agencies could potentially be construed as wilful blindness and even possibly criminal negligence.
Putting aside for a moment of whether or to what extent this was done for (and suspected secret deals with particular developers) over recent decades, we can consider whether there may be a link between the recent transformation of the TCC management structure and suggested failures of response in the lead up to the apparently panicked decisions to open the Ross River dam floodgates on the evening of February 3rd. The previous Tuesday (29/1/19) Mayor Hill herself was clearly aware of a potential problem when she herself publicly flagged the possible need for people in flood prone areas to sandbag their homes (9). Over the next few days, there was an accelerated rise in the dam levels hardly at all ameliorated by some brief and minor automatic gate releases of water.
Yet it was not until 1.58pm on Sunday 3/1/19 that the TLDMG provided a formal yet vague flood warning alert. Around 6pm that evening it then issued an emergency alert of flooding – now known to be linked to the decision that evening to fully open the flood gates. Not only did this late decision lose the now obvious options of earlier staged releases to ease the pressure on dam levels (to avoid the worst of the flooding), but the full release at a dam peak of less than 43 metres (still at the STAND UP -3 alert level) was still significantly below the 47.5 metres -4 level when a full opening of the gates was required. At that point about 1,900 cubic metres of water a second rushed out into the Ross River and ultimately into low-lying Townsville suburbs, where residents had to be evacuated and devastating flooding resulting. In the aftermath, it was estimated that more than 22,000 households were “directly affected by floodwater” (10).
This all suggests not only that NO-ONE-one was really in control of the situation with their finger on the pulse in the days and even hours before the catastrophic release, but that SOMEONE may have then just hastily panicked. It also suggests the kind of top-down decision-making culture that the TRRA reports indicate is the main leadership style of Mayor Hill within the Townsville Council. This is in addition to the absence of a culture of experienced decision-makers that also reportedly resulted from a ruthless management structural change overseen by CEO Young to replace experience, initiative and quality standards with a more compliant, youthful and generally non-questioning regime of the Council run as a private corporation. If the organisational capacity to effectively respond to the emerging crisis with experience and initiative seems to have been lost under Jenny Hill’s watch, so too the emergency plans don’t seem to be any better on closer inspection. The decision to open the gates at the 43 metres level was based on a clearly inadequate 2012 study which also generally ignored the option for staged earlier water releases when recommending a later full release – even though its modelling also suggested that heavier rainfalls could devastate residential areas at that level (11).
What really discredits this 2012 study and the generally approach of the Council and TLDMG group adopted under Mayor Hill is how the Council ignored the now fully vindicated warnings of the impending flooding disaster by the geo-positioning specialist Ross Parkes. After having the Council (followed by the Qld government) casually dismiss and ignore his well-informed warnings, Ross made an extensive submission to the 2011 Queensland Floods Commission of Enquiry further warning that an anti-corruption agency may also need to investigate. His overall 2011 submission (which included his October 2010 submission to the TCC and their brief dismissive reply on 10/1/2011) is available online (12). Some of the following selected excerpts indicate how timely, relevant and very concerning it was in terms of the Council and TLDMG’s failures to also consider a range of additional factors highlighted by Ross:
“It is not possible to have any confidence in operational and safety statements by Townsville City Council regarding Ross Dam…. The upgraded Ross Dam now has a spillway capacity of approximately 3000 cubic meters a second. Giving consideration of the additional discharges directly into Ross River as a result of urban development, catastrophic flooding of Ross River is a distinct probability. [In Council planning considerations] At no time were the impacts on residents and property of a Post Maximal Flood Event (PMF) ever articulated in writing… Flood events similar to PMF flood impacts are now a distinct probability as result from near 20 years of neglect and political indifference of the identified problems. The Bohle River is [also] public safety time bomb and the possibility for a Lockyer Valley type flash flood disaster is no longer a matter of if, but when. It is not farmland involved but an urban community with over 20,000 residents. Timely evacuation of residents is not an option and the problems are well documented. …This concept should have the very highest priority as those that live immediately downstream of Ross Dam are also at risk of being flooded … Giving locals enough warning so that they could move their motor vehicles and valuables to higher ground could considerably reduce property damage and potential loss of life. I have very serious concerns that disaster management in the Townsville City Council is totally focussed on compliance to government legislation and statuary regulations and is not focussed at actually reducing risks as identified to the community at large”.
In his submission, Ross Parkes further warned that the Council’s projections were significantly inaccurate because they further ignored how the three weirs along Ross River would artificially inflate water levels in any flooding event. As he wrote in his report, “The three weirs in Ross River … perform no flood mitigation role, they artificially raise the water table and their very existence poses an unacceptable public safety risk. The total removal of the three weirs in Ross River would reduce the flood potential of the Ross River by at least the weir wall heights (3 meters approx.), allow an environmental river flow and lower the water table in several areas.”
In the TRRA post about how the Qld government were supporting the Townville implementation of an LGAQ regime for local urban development open to secret preference deals with preferred developers as well as suppliers (13), mention was made of how the decision to approve the Townsville Football stadium (a major and very costly investment project) was hastily pushed. This was not just despite a KPMG report advising against this, but in terms of how this report was kept secret and ignored as part of some apparent Council-developer agreement or deal. Apparently, the Council was persuaded that an approval (despite warnings of a likely ‘white elephant’) could lead to an inner-city renewal based on projected figures of an immediate and direct influx of people to live in the Townsville inner city area (and assumedly buyers for the still largely empty apartment blocks that were built as part of this expectation).
The post mentions how the Stadium was then unfortunately sited on a flood plain and waste dump. This is currently making the project difficult and much more expensive than expected to put in concrete foundations for the stadium – with projections now of a major budget blowout as well as an increasingly likely white elephant that local ratepayers will likely have to foot the bill for. This example epitomises the hidden costs and potentially disastrous consequences of the now regular move by both the state government and local councils in Queensland to try and bypass or ignore environmental and related ‘local knowledge’ considerations (as well as relevant standards) in their haste to make dodgy, secret and (it is believed) often suspicious deals with developers – apparently also an Australian tradition (13b). Also, at least one of the developers linked to the inner urban development in areas with a history of flooding has expressed surprise and disappointment that Q100 projections were shown to be inadequate by the recent Townsville floods (14).
Another case which much better epitomises the problem is the newly approved suburb of Rasmussen, also based in a low-lying area of Townsville (15). Mayor Jenny Hill personally took it upon herself to work hard to get the Townsville councillors to reverse an initial Council decision to deny the develop this ‘emerging communities’ zone (a zoning which can allow the state government to over-ride Council decisions, as another of its new policy options to fast-track Development Application approvals and, in many cases, effectively ignore environmental considerations ) (e.g. 16). A closer look at the developer of Rasmussen and their apparent behind-the-scenes links to Mayor Jenny Hill reveals many interesting facts that have to be more than mere coincidence. The developer is Riverstone (a company previously known as Wingate Communities and before that originally Constant 3 when first set up in 2012). In 2018 Jenny Hill was caught out failing to declare a $22000 donation from Wingate just prior to the 2016 local government elections – and was publicly fined by the electoral commissioner for breaching electoral disclosure laws (17). Could this donation be linked to the efforts of Mayor Jenny Hill to get the other councillors to reverse their decision to not allow the rezoning and large-scale development of Rasmussen as a low-lying known flood-prone zone of Townsville? Is it believable that her failure to mention this was simply an oversight as was later maintained in defence of what was effectively a corruption charge listed by the Qld Electoral Commissioner?
The company Wingate Communities/Riverstone company was created by Steve Williams who also operated another Wingate company at Ipswich which was linked to suspicious development approvals by his close friend Ipswich Mayor (and LGAQ poster boy) Paul Pisasale. Williams remains a close of the now disgraced former Mayor Paul Pisasale even after his resignation because of corruption charges (18). Williams has been linked to not only some of the direct corruption allegations against Pisasale (e.g. William’s wife at the time was co-owner of Pisasale’s million dollar West End ‘love nest’ apartment) but also suspicious development approvals at Ipswich and elsewhere. As well as director of Wingate Properties involved in a number of development projects at Ipswich, Williams was also a director of Sekisui Australia when Pisasale voted to approve its development of Ripley Park (after illegally failing to cite his conflict of interest with Williams) (19). Sekisui was a company on behalf of which Pisasale directly tried to lobby the Newman government to approve a $2 billion dollar development at Coolum (unsuccessfully – believed to be because it was on an area prone to flood zones).
2020 Ipswich Mayoral candidate Gary Duffy has indicated (20) that the Pisasale Council allowed development on lands below the Q100 level resulting in thousands of houses suffering flood damage in the 2011 flood. As a result, one of the main critics of LGAQ-related apparent corruption with the Ipswich and other councils (Jo-Anne Miller – the MP from Bundamba) has been interpreted to have called for criminal charges to be laid against Pisasale in a submission to the 2011 Floods Commission Inquiry (19). It detailed how – like emerging criticism of Jenny Hill in Townsville – Pisasale’s council left locals ‘in the lurch’ and failed to either have appropriate management plans in place – especially in areas that perhaps should not have been approved for development. The legal firm representing Wingate/Riverstone is reported to be Corrs Chambers Westgarth – the commercial advice solicitors for the LGAQ (and apparently also a regular sponsor of LGAQ conferences). The recent ‘national chair of Corrs (Teresa Handicott) is known to be a director of LGAQ’s Peak Services (and one of listed directors for one of Peak’s subsidiaries LGE Pty Ltd). Gary Duffy’s Facebook site refers to how the head of the LGAQ indicated to him in an online exchange also how (at that stage – when suggesting the futility of challenging such conflicts of interest) Ms. Handicott was also a “sessional director of the ACCC”.
The example of Wingate/Riverstone at Rasmussen (along with other examples that are known about and likely to be focused on at any future Townsville floods inquiry) raises the spectre of concern voiced by Jo-Anne Miller at the Queensland Floods Commission of Enquiry. This is especially so given the Pisasale-Steve Williams deal approved by an LGAQ-inspired Ipswich Council to build housing in flood-prone areas of Ipswich – apparently being transferred to the new LGAQ “model council” Townsville (under LGAQ director Jenny Hill who also happens to be Townville Mayor) without any qualms. Jo-Anne Miller suggested to the Commission the following “Would the inquiry consider if there had been any neglect or deliberate acts of not following the law, consider an action in accordance to Section 204 of the Criminal Code in relation to disobedience to statute law?” In terms of how such offenders should be liable to imprisonment for one year, her next question to the submission was: “Would the inquiry consider recommending the amendment of statute law, making a particular office (e.g. Mayor) personally responsible for the actions of the Council and furthermore prescribe penalties if the statute is not implemented, not adequately staffed or not adequately funded?” (22).
In any case, like Ipswich, Townsville clearly deserves better. Jenny Hill certainly is not responsible for the weather. But obviously she should be pressed by any genuinely independent investigation into the Townsville Floods to answer some hard questions about possible Townsville Council mis-management and the various conflicts of interest touched upon above – and how all this may have substantially contributed to avoidable levels of devastating damage and the terrible related human costs of the Townsville floods. In addition to those households directly affected by the flood damage, all the houses (and businesses) in the great many Townsville suburbs and areas affected by this flooding will no doubt have an immediate substantial devaluation that will rock local communities and perhaps ruin many people as well. It will take a while for the full implications of how the Council-Developer conflicts of interest (overseen the last decade by Jenny Hill) contributed greatly to all this in terms of apparent professional and possible criminal negligence.
1. In light of the Townsville floods lesson about hasty development ignoring relevant environmental concerns (such as buildings in flood-prone areas), there should also be a focus on the reported plans of the Queensland premier to take on personal responsibility for (secretly?) rezoning the low-lying canefields of Jakob’s Well between Brisbane and the Gold Coast [which her government has reportedly approved as a ‘billion dollar Chinese city’ (23)] – especially if local buyers are likely again to be the ones ripped off whilst the developers make great profits and then disappear to avoid accountability before the ‘next big flood’.
2. Finally we should note that following the massive economic hit on the local community caused by the Townsville floods (24), there is growing evidence of how (with apparent Townsville Council and Qld State Government complicity) some insurance companies are apparently looking at any ‘fine print’ excuse to refuse to pay out on insurance policies for flood damage (as well as some ‘flood-zone’ areas being not being eligible for flood insurance, some policies that recognise storm damage are refusing to include flood damage in that). But an even unkinder cut (if true) is indicated by a current TRRA report suggesting that at least one (widely used) insurance company may be putting in clauses for flood repair work that tend to rule out locals and give unfair preferences to external contractors and workmen (usually from ‘down South’). [“ if they were to use X- approved contractors from out of Town then the business owners would receive an unlimited warranty period”].
6. TRRA Report: Something very dodgy going on at Bluewater? Indications of apparent corruption (etc) linked to the secretive Townsville northern beaches development project https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rual84zG-FAuZX8Na8lU052qd4BMSpX7/
7. Updated lists of related TRRA Posts re: Tiong-Townsville Council secret deals https://drive.google.com/open?id=1yIYsliiAs0gHlpcDm_hqRcZOqJIo-Vs3
12 Parkes, Kevin (2011). Submission to the Queensland Floods Commission of Enquiry, http://www.floodcommission.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/file/0018/1809/Parkes_Kevin.pdf