Bligh’s dry gully

There is good reason to believe Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, might think in her darkest hours that she had killed a Chinaman in a previous life (as the politically incorrect but memorable saying goes). With a curse of a lifetime of bad luck, Bligh appears to be reaping her overdue rewards with interest.

Having led an apparently successful life and reaching the pinnacle of her state’s first female premiers and one of the primary echelon of female leaders in the nation, Bligh’s achievement soured almost from her victory speech.

It is hardly worth recounting the number of gaffes and decisions that have alienated her from popular approval from one end of the state to the other and even from great swathes of her own political base. Truly there are times when even political opponents must wonder what she has done to deserve such widespread condemnation.

But there is one thing that has gone in her favour and saved her from even more bitter denunciation: the weather. Queensland’s decade-long drought has ended and the prospect of imminent gut-wrenching water restrictions (even harsher than those imposed for the past couple of years) has been staved-off. This drenching has stolen the limelight from what might well have been the wooden stake through Bligh’s heart – the monumentally-flawed Gold Coast desalination plant.

This $1.2 billion lemon is a complete embarrassment for everyone involved from contractors John Holland to operator Veolia and, in particular, to its commissioning agent, the Queensland Government. It is a sad and sorry saga of Labor mismanagement and incompetence.

The plant has been supposedly operational for 18 months now yet the Bligh administration still refuses to take ownership because of faults yet to be rectified. The white elephant operates at only one-third capacity and has to shut completely in a few months for major repairs.

Were it not for the drenching rains that have flooded most of Queensland, including the populous south-east, in recent months, Bligh would have been lynched by now as taxpayers watched their quality of life being desiccated while this lemon failed to work.

Yet there is a potentially bigger scandal bubbling away in some of the corroded pipes and couplings that beggar this plant. Given the monstrosity is 18 months behind schedule in full production and that it is only operating at one-third capacity and that it has to be shut completely in June for repairs, you’d have to expect that costs would be skyrocketing. But, no, Bligh’s Infrastructure Minister says there’s no problem. He assures us that all “repair costs are expected to remain within the plant’s total project budget of $1.2 billion with no additional cost to taxpayers.”

So . . . at what price should this plant have been commissioned if all these massive delays and rectifications still allow it to come in under budget? The government is playing us for fools or there is something dreadfully wrong with its tendering process. They can’t have it both ways. Taxpayers deserve an explanation that has been withheld so far.