Tom Uren and me

AT THE TIME OF THE DISASTROUS BRISBANE FLOODS of January 1974, I was acting for some months as Whitlam minister Tom Uren’s media officer in Canberra.

Planners in his new Department of Urban and Regional Development explained to me that the flooding was exacerbated by laissez-faire development, whether chopping down trees upstream that hastened run-off, further speeding up rivers as flood “mitigation” or, incredibly, subdividing housing blocks on flood plains.

Brisbane, January 1974 (Qld Archives)

I suggested to Uren that he issue a media statement about the environmentally-destructive policies. Tom refused. He believed it wrong to score political points when people were losing their lives and property.

While humbled by Tom Uren’s decency, I’ve never been sure that he chose, at least in this case, the better way to practise his unchallenged love for humanity and nature.

Back then, the Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was famously pro-development, and never let up as a ferocious and ignorant detractor of the Whitlam Labor Government.

The pattern has continued until now, nearly five decades later, and with incontestably worsening floods.

With storms continuing, immoral N.S.W. Premier Dominic Perrottet demanded more housing, whether on flood plains or not (“NSW Planning Minister scraps order to consider flood, fire risks before building”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 March 2022).

One difference now is the featuring of climate change. Back then, the more generalised fear was that too many people were sold too much technology, destroying biodiversity and unleashing harmful chemicals in a race to disaster.

This broader concern about resource depletion, loss of species, pollution, etc, might yet prove more realistic. For example, with pandemic lockdowns, investigators found that the rate of heart attacks dropped, in synch with the clearer skies.

That health improvement was detected in the U.S., and much of the air there is cleaner than other parts of the world.

A WHO report recently recognised air pollution as the “the single biggest environmental threat to human health”. That’s illnesses and deaths from the same fossil fuels that produce the greenhouse effect.

I did successfully organise photo-ops for Tom Uren opening bike paths (ACT Archives)

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