When Debbie’s done? The challenge of regional rebuilding

by David Everton, Director Government Relations

Published on
March 30, 2017

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As harrowing and challenging as Cyclone Debbie has been for the communities of North Queensland, the collective response before, during and in the immediate aftermath cannot be faulted.

Admittedly as I write, the post-Debbie deluge is still in full swing. But what is abundantly clear is that due to extreme weather variability, northern  Queensland is at a competitive disadvantage to the south-east, and by extension most of Australia and the world.

Within a few hours of Debbie making landfall, the basics for sustaining human life started to be affected — food, water, shelter. Other modern ‘necessities’— power, transport, telecommunications — were also severely impacted.

History shows that any business operator, not requiring access to the region’s natural assets for tourism or agricultural activity, would be given pause in considering major operations or investment because of this unreliability.

The following ideas are neither new nor proven. However, if we are to restore and hopefully build the economic strength and sustainability of our regions, it’s time for some big ideas to create competitive parity.

An inland highway

It rains, and the Bruce Highway closes. Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, but perhaps we can go around it with upgrades to the:

  • Capricorn Highway from Rockhampton to Emerald
  • Gregory Highway from Emerald to Charters Towers
  • Flinders Highway from Charters Towers to Townsville.

I’m no engineer but I assume that, as these roads are already there, their location was chosen for a good reason. I have no idea how much this would cost, but I’m sure it compares quite nicely to an urban tunnel at $1 billion per kilometre.

This route extends what is a 720km trip from Rockhampton to Townsville to an 882km trip, but it provides additional options and redundancy during extreme weather events. It would also improve access to Townsville for those in inland Queensland.

The winners would be Emerald and Charters Towers as transportation hubs, and  everyone from Townsville north who would have previously been cut off from the rest of Australia. Perhaps it also takes a few road trains off the Bruce Highway in normal times, making the Bruce a more attractive tourism route.

Water supply and irrigation

It’s a cruel twist of fate that during major storm events, we often run out of drinking water. I live in inner-city Brisbane and we were within hours of running out in 2013. With 85 per cent of Queensland in drought, water security continues to be a concern.

Yet you will have to look far back to 1938 to find a significant proposal — known as the Bradfield Scheme — to supply water to Queensland’s inland. It would have been on the scale of the Snowy Hydro scheme, one of our nation’s defining projects from not only a technical perspective but as a contributor, through its workforce solutions, to the  diversity and multiculturalism we enjoy today.

With Snowy Hydro back in the spotlight as a potential partial fix for the southern states’ energy crisis, here in south-east Queensland we have an unused desalination plant rusting away and a dam with water so mineralised, it isn’t connected to the water grid.

There are a lot of smart people in Queensland,  but will we have to find the ‘Elon Musk of water supply’ to figure this out?  Perhaps we need to take a leaf out of The Martian’s Mark Whatney’s book? (Language warning.)