The Perilous Politics of Reconstruction

The fact is that few people are ever happy with the way that any disaster is handled. It is simply inevitable that the aura of Anna’s splendid leadership through two disasters will steadily fade as reconstruction proceeds. Her image problem will be made worse by the fact that millions of Australian’s now identify closely with the enormous death toll from the tragedy that has hit Christchurch, the consequences of which will make Queensland’s problems seem to be less important.

Which brings us to the manner in which Reconstruction will be carried out in Queensland (and in north-eastern New South Wales, north-western Victoria and Darwin — all of whom have been omitted from the Federal Government’s plans for spending the Flood Levy, because they seem to be overly concerned about winning seats in politically volatile Queensland).

Nothing should be restored to the way it was before. If this happens, it will be an act of utter irresponsibility. We have a marvelous opportunity to get it right, not just make a quick fix. Disaster has provided an opportunity to create modern, long-term assets. Most of the damaged infrastructure was already outmoded and needing replacement. Much is in the wrong places, following the old cow tracks of a hundred years ago.

A prime example is the ancient Toowoomba Range Railway which, at its best, could only carry small loads of freight because it has half a dozen low and narrow tunnels which make double stacking impossible. They should have been replaced 50 years ago but, because they have splendidly ornate stone entrances, they have been classified by the National Trust, even though the only people who ever see them are the train drivers, most of whom aren’t into antiques.

Someone has to tell the ridiculously ideological National Trust that these useless tunnels must be blown up immediately to make way for a genuine upgrading of the track to take large heavy loads. I have got some mates who will help me do it one week-end if Anna agrees to turn a blind eye.

Tough human decisions must be made too. One of the toughest will be to tell those who want to rebuild houses in flood prone areas that they must lift their houses above known flood levels or move to a safer area. I can’t see any point in spending money so they can be flooded again.

Another will be to tell every community that they must build a permanent disaster centre where people go in time of need. The use of shopping centres and church halls is totally inadequate. They do not have the facilities and equipment to handle scores of refugees.

It will simply be a belated acknowledgement that disasters are going to happen regularly and every community should get ready for the inevitable. It will be good expenditure. We did it in the Second World War. Toowoomba, where I grew up, had lots of air raid shelters where we all went regularly for training in bombing preparations. No one complained that they were a waste of money.

As reconstruction gets under way, I hope that our Federal Parliament will take note that New Zealand has had a National Disaster Fund for decades. Everyone pays a levy on their insurance policies every year. The voters don’t complain. They will be grateful for it now that the Christchurch tragedy has hit them so hard, and they won’t complain if their government doubles it for years to come.

One off levies are always political. Long term solutions rarely are.