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Emergencies and luxuries

February 3rd, 2013

The floodwaters have receded[1] and the miserable task of cleaning up is beginning in Bundaberg, Laidley and other communities. Here in Brisbane we were lucky enough to avoid another flood. The remnants of Cyclone Oswald hit us in the form of a summer storm, bigger than usual, but a pretty regular event here. It wasn’t surprising that hundreds of thousands of people (including me) lost electrical power, or that repairs couldn’t start until the wind had subsided. Even so, the restoration of power was very slow – in many places slower than in 2011. It’s become evident that, like all areas of the Queensland public sector, the electricity distributors (Energex in the Brisbane region and Ergon elsewhere) have been subject to staff cuts that have hampered their ability to respond. The union was issuing warnings about this last year, and they have been proved right. In one startling case, workers were delayed from responding to the emergency in Bundaberg, so they could be briefed on their redundancy options.

Ergon and Energex are government-owned corporations, which are normally supposed to make their own commercial decisions. In this case, however, the shareholding ministers, Energy Minister Mark McArdle and Treasurer Tim Nicholls, have actively intervened to push for job cuts. The obvious explanation is that they are trying to boost profitability (at least in the short term) to prepare the enterprises for privatisation. The regulatory system is supposed to require Energex and Ergon to meet reliability standards, but it seems likely that it is vulnerable to gaming, possibly by excluding extreme (but not uncommon or unpredictable) events like this storm from the criteria (I plan to look into this).

The cuts in the electricity sector have been matched or exceeded across the entire public sector, including the services on which we all rely in an emergency. Meanwhile, Campbell and Nicholls are building themselves a brand new office tower, demolishing the aging but serviceable building in which they currently work. They are paying off their supporters with cuts in payroll tax, grants to racing clubs and so on. But if you want a symbol of this government, you can’t go past Jeff Seeney, who tried to get a government plane, currently used for organ transplants and similar emergencies, allocated for his personal use.

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