Raising of Warragamba Dam ‘spun’ in New South Wales election campaign

Mar 22, 2023
Water catchment Warragamba river and dam in Greater Sydney at Blue Mountains

An interesting comment was made this month about the New South Wales Coalition’s intention to raise Warragamba Dam in order to store floodwaters and thus mitigate the problem of flooding downstream. The comment as retailed by ABC Online came from the Liberal MP and candidate for the seat of Hawkesbury in the coming state election, Robyn Preston.

Preston was quoted as saying of her party’s policy on raising the dam that “The certainty that we would provide would help those [downstream] people going forward”.

Certainty? The best that raising the dam can offer falls far short of providing any ‘certainty’ that flooding will be eliminated. It will provide, at best, a measure of mitigation, reducing to a degree the levels which floods reach downstream and sparing some people from the effects of some floods. But should the flood-producing rains fall over the tributaries that enter the Hawkesbury below the dam (especially the upper Nepean and Grose rivers), or should the volume of rainfall above the raised dam exceed its capacity to store the resultant runoff, flooding will still occur in the Penrith and Hawkesbury areas.

Both scenarios will occur at some stage, possibly soon but possibly not for a very long time. When they do, houses will take in floodwaters and people’s lives will be upended as always happens as a result of big floods.

These are the certainties. Preston’s declaration was misleading, even dangerous because it implied that raising the dam would eliminate the problem in its entirety as distinct from merely reducing its frequency of occurrence or bringing down the flood levels reached.

Perhaps Preston did not comprehend what she was saying. Perhaps it was merely ‘spin’, something we are all familiar with. But with the intended raising of Warragamba Dam, the narrative from the government has been like this all along: Premier Dominic Perrottet and his Liberal Party deputy Matt Kean have been fond of saying that they want to “keep floods out of people’s living rooms”. That objective is obviously worthy, but it is far from achievable in full merely by raising the dam. The statement, like Preston’s about ‘certainty’, implies that the initiative will overcome the problem in its entirety.

There has been no clear qualification to indicate that the goal can or will be achieved only in floods up to a certain magnitude and/or of certain configurations as regards the tributaries whose floodwaters will inundate properties on the floodplains.

Part of the truth about what a flood mitigation measure can achieve is hidden by such statements. This should not be taken as accidental; it is part of the game of political discourse. But it can amount to withholding a significant part of what people need to know in order to cast an informed vote.

This happens all the time in politics, of course. To tell the whole truth can be problematic, because the telling can become complicated and confusing. Telling the whole truth risks that truth getting in the way of a simpler, more easily rendered and more convenient version of the matter at hand.

It is the same with the federal Coalition’s line, lately tendered in the argument about changes to superannuation arrangements, that “when Labor runs out of money it comes after yours”. This has the potential to be a ‘killer’ line in the public arena, easily repeated by community members, which is why it is used.

Never mind the reality that the tax relief provided by the superannuation regulations is the nation’s gift to superannuants; the relief contributes to the size of the nest-egg that superannuants can build. But the Coalition cannot acknowledge that reality because to do so would get in the way of its highly-effective propaganda line and undermine its attack on its opponents.

Or take Stuart Robert’s declaration to the Royal Commission on the ‘Robodebt’ scheme. Robert saw truthful utterances on television as being in conflict with his obligations under the principle of Cabinet solidarity. His position much bothered the Royal Commissioner, Catherine Holmes AC SC, who in response wondered aloud about the legitimacy of Robert’s version of the meaning of Cabinet solidarity permitting the deliberate misleading of the Australian public.

But let’s return to the raising of Warragamba Dam. For reasons of effective public communication it is best from a party-political standpoint to reduce complex matters like this one to simple terms. Mitigation is in effect portrayed by strategic omission as complete even though it can only ever be partial. Keeping things simple helps forestall difficult questions from the media while at the same time maximising the political effectiveness of the message as far as the nature of the electorate’s comprehension is concerned.

But telling only part of the truth can be dangerous. In the field of flood mitigation, it helps people to see devices such as levees and flood mitigation dams as fool-proof, designed to fully solve the flood problem by keeping all floodwater at bay in all future episodes of flooding. In fact engineered structures can never do that, as the overtopping of several town-protecting levees in New South Wales over recent decades has demonstrated. But this has not stopped people becoming complacent in accepting that their flood problem has been ‘fixed’ in its entirety, and then petitioning for more development to be permitted in what are now thought to be ‘flood-free’ areas behind the levees.

Thus the ‘levee paradox’ takes hold, development being increased or intensified. In due course there are more assets to be damaged, and more people to suffer, when a big flood overtops the levees and thus overwhelms the protective capacity they offer.

Something similar is likely to happen if the dam wall is raised. After a time, it can be virtually guaranteed, there will be pressure from development and other interests for increased residential and other urban uses to be permitted on the floodplains of the Hawkesbury. Under this circumstance the perverse impact will be that raising the dam will eventually increase the level of assets and the number of people exposed to the risk of flooding in areas which will not have been made immune.

But that inconvenient reality won’t be discussed by the Coalition in the days leading up to the election. Better to keep it simple, even seemingly promising more than can be delivered. The integrity of the message might be secondary.

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