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Remarks by Justice Catherine Holmes

The following remarks were made by Justice Holmes in hearings of the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry. The full transcripts are available here.

5 February 2012

HER HONOUR: I'm sitting this morning with only one Deputy Commissioner.

Yesterday I explained - I thought fairly clearly and painstakingly - that Mr Cummins, my other Deputy Commissioner, has not been in any position of conflict of interest because, among other reasons, he didn't know, when he agreed to do work after the end of the Commission, that the consulting company for which he agreed to do that work had been engaged by Seqwater.

The consulting company is not, despite reports to the contrary, engaged to rewrite the Wivenhoe manual; just to be part of the committee reviewing technical work undertaken as part of the review of the manual.

It remains the case there has been no conflict of interest, but a couple of days ago Mr Cummins became aware that Australian Dams and Water Consulting has been engaged in that role by Seqwater.

I've thought about what that means for the part of the inquiry we're currently engaged in, which largely concerns Seqwater's conduct. The answer is probably nothing, given that Mr Cummins has no interest - he holds no interest in the company engaged and given, as I explained yesterday, that it's I who make decisions and recommendations. But it's up to me, as I think I also made clear yesterday, to decide what help I want from each Deputy Commissioner.

I've decided it's just simpler and puts everything beyond argument if I don't seek any assistance from Mr Cummins in relation to this last part of Commission's work which concerns Seqwater. That won't present me with any particular difficulty because the decisions I have to make are essentially about credibility, and they are not ones in which I can be helped by technical advice.

Mr Cummins remains a Deputy Commissioner, but he won't participate in this part of the Commission's work.

Nothing I said yesterday has altered, particularly about The Courier-Mail's reprehensible headlines. In fact, it has since been brought it my attention that the on-line edition of the paper bore the headline, "Flood Commissioner on Dam Payroll". That is a simple untruth. No one from The Courier-Mail has explained how that headline, or any of the others I cited yesterday, could be regarded as justified by anything it reported or how they could be regarded as other than directed to diminishing public confidence in the Commission.

As a matter of fairness I should say here that I have no issue with Mr Madigan's reporting of the actual proceedings in this hearing, which have been consistently fair and accurate. But my view about those headlines remains the same as it was yesterday. I don't, however, intend to let it distract me from the issues here.

Now, as a matter of housekeeping, I don't think that we will be able to reach submissions this week. My view is that the better course is to take the weekend for preparation of submissions and set aside Monday and Tuesday for the hearing of oral submissions. That won't, before anyone gets excited, make any difference to the eventual reporting date on 16 March. Thank you.

4 February 2012

COMMISSIONER: I have some things to say at the outset.

You may have seen the front page of this morning's Courier-Mail which bears the headline, "Revealed: Flood Inquiry Sinks Into New Scandal", and across a picture of Commissioner Cummins, bears the words, "Up to his neck in it." Inside is the headline, "Flood Probe Hits Another Low".

All of that has the appearance of a calculated attempt to undermine the Commission and its worth, but I will not draw any conclusions about intent until I have given the editor and the journalists involved an opportunity to explain themselves.

Whatever the intent, the potential for its effect on public confidence in the Commission is obvious. Consequently, for the benefit of the public, and with the hope that the rational and fair-minded quarters of the press will be interested in the facts, I make the following points.

Firstly, the article exhibits a very poor understanding of what the Commission is. The Commission is under the Commissions of Inquiry Act constituted by me, alone. I am the Commissioner. It's I who make decisions and I, and I alone, am the one who makes the findings and recommendations and reports to the government.

This was not an Inquiry, as some are, where three Commissioners are appointed to report. Mr Cummins and Mr O'Sullivan are Deputy Commissioners. You can check this in section 28 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, but their functions are essentially to assist me as and when I ask them to.

Mine is a full-time role. Mr Cummins, on the other hand, is engaged as a Deputy Commissioner on a part-time basis. There was never any suggestion that he would have to cease all his work as a consulting engineer in order to fulfil the role, provided of course the work he undertook did not conflict with the Commission's inquiries. There has been no conflict.

The recommendations to which the Courier-Mail article refers are recommendations 2.8 to 2.13 of the interim report.

The principal recommendation among those is for a full and proper review of the Wivenhoe Manual. Mr Cummins did not advise me to make that recommendation. He did not need to. I was able to work that one out for myself.

The recommendations for review of the manual included a number for committees which would oversee the work. They included 2.10, the specific recommendation which The Courier-Mail article calls into question.

It recommends that SEQWater establish a technical review committee comprised of independent experts in at least hydrology, meteorology and dam operations to examine all technical work completed as part of the review.

Those more detailed recommendations were formulated by me working with my staff. Mr Cummins was asked to comment on them. I do not now recall whether he had anything to say about that particular recommendation which was one of hundreds, but I'm pretty sure he did not say it was a bad idea to review the technical work.

I made the recommendation which seemed to me then, as it does now, pretty obvious.

When the recommendation was made, the Commission gave no thought to whom SEQWater might engage for that role, or any of the other committees proposed. It had nothing to do with us.

It was not until yesterday that I learnt that Australian Dams and Water Consulting had been engaged. Mr Cummins was similarly unaware.

Mr Cummins has an arrangement with the principal of Australian Dams and Water Consulting which I gather is not a large enterprise. The arrangement is that he will do work for the company when his role in the Commission is finished. That work will not involve the manual review in any shape or form. Mr Cummins does not stand to benefit from that work. He has no financial interest in the company. He will be paid for what he does, but he does not stand to make any money or anything else the company is contracted to do.

I note that the Mayor of Ipswich is quoted in the paper saying that the arrangement is an absolute conflict of interest.

The Ipswich City Council is a party before the Commission and was represented at all of last year's hearings. Indeed, it has leave, as it knows, to appear at these hearings. If the Council thinks it has an argument that a conflict of interest exists, it can appear before me to make that argument, today, tomorrow, or any time next week.

I am concerned that the work of this Commission not be undermined by sections of the press desperate to pump a headline out of nothing.

I urge the rest of you to resist the temptation. Think about what is at stake for this State in not only this hearing, but the work of the Commission in respect of all the terms of reference, and to report soberly and responsibly.