A Royal Commission on the Queensland floods should be set up by the Bligh government as soon as possible, an expert in public inquiry says. But unlike the review into Victoria’s deadly Black Saturday fires, any flood inquest is unlikely to become a witch hunt, with the focus on how any future disaster can be avoided.

Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman yesterday called for an “open and transparent” inquiry into the flood disaster, which has so far claimed the lives of 15 people and left thousands of houses and business inundated. Premier Anna Bligh is yet to support Newman’s call for a public inquiry, preferring to focus her efforts on the immediate reaction to the flood disaster.

Professor Scott Prasser, executive director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University and author of Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia, advises Bligh to install an inquiry as soon as possible.

“The Bligh government should seize this opportunity, tell the people ‘we’ve been working our guts out and when things have settled we’ll set up a review of how things were managed and how they can be done better’,” Prasser told Crikey. “She shouldn’t get herself in a tizzy and think that people are out to get her.”

Prasser says that there had been a “pretty good track record” for public inquiries in Australia, citing the Royal Commission on the Longford Gas Plant Accident, the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission and the Royal Commission on the loss of HMAS Voyager as examples.

“What makes a Royal Commission so effective is that it can collect evidence in the way a court does,” he said. “They can make you give evidence or appear as a witness, even if down the track it will see you end up in the clink. It’s a public inquiry, not an internal inquiry run by politicians.”

The floods inquiry is likely to draw comparisons with the review into the 2009 Victorian bushfires, which claimed the lives of 173 people. Premier John Brumby instigated the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission on February 16, nine days after the horrific Black Saturday fires tore through the state.

At the 2009 commission, chaired by ex-Supreme Court judge Bernard Teague and assisted by Ron McLeod and Susan Pascoe, former Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon came under scrutiny for her actions on Black Saturday, in particular keeping a hairdressing appointment, a meeting with her biographer and a dinner reservation at a restaurant.

Many questions are set to be asked in the aftermath of the flood waters, including the actions of emergency services, the location of housing developments and the performance of flood mitigation devices like Wivenhoe Dam. Still, Prasser believes it won’t become a witch hunt like the Victorian commission.

“Royal Commissions into disasters can often fall into two categories,” Prassar explained. “They can be looking to find someone responsible, someone to blame or they can be more of a fact-finding exercise. I think any potential Royal Commission into the foods will fall into that latter category; at this stage it doesn’t look like there is anyone really to blame for this disaster.”

One disaster which did not result in a Royal Commission was the 2003 ACT bushfires, which claimed the lives of four people. A coroner’s inquiry was held on that occasion, but Prasser says more needs to be done in response to the Queensland floods to scrutinise policy processes that have been put in place.

“What I would do is commission a multi-member inquiry, preferably chaired by someone with real expertise about water; a hydrologist or an academic-type person,” he said. “I don’t think you necessarily need a judge in charge or an ex-judge; maybe a QC-type person would be appropriate. I would also get someone in who was an expert in disaster management, preferably someone from another state or overseas who is not directly involved in the floods.”

Prasser says an issues paper should be released in the first month, detailing everything up for discussion, with the entire process resolved in six months.

“There are some complex technical issues which don’t have black and white answers,” Prasser said. “We want to review how we handled it, what are some of the things we can do better, were response times appropriate and so on. Things that can be improved in the future.”

Campbell Newman says residents want to under the deluge. “Many people have died and it is appropriate that this be done,” Newman said in The Australian. “I certainly think there needs to be a public inquiry into how the state and local governments, across Queensland, can better protect their communities from the risks of flooding that we will have in future with extreme weather events.

“I would be more than happy to front up and put my views on the table about these matters and I welcome such an inquiry. Everyone has to front up, accept what has happened and be accountable.”

Peter Fray

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