Senate debates

Thursday, 7 September 2006


Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee; Interim Report

10:25 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the interim report of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee on its inquiry into Australia’s future oil supply and alternative transport fuels.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

As people know, the references committees are winding up. The committee felt that it was very important that we put our thoughts on record and record where we are up to in our inquiry. This is an extremely important issue and it was largely prompted by the question of whether Australia should be concerned about peak oil. Peak oil, in this case, refers to the fundamental geological reasons global conventional oil production will reach a peak and then start an irreversible decline soon enough to be of concern. In their arguments, proponents of peak oil commonly predict a peak somewhere between now and 2030. They suggest that this could cause serious economic hardship if mitigating action is not started soon enough.

There was a great deal of interest in this inquiry. I think part of that was prompted by the most recent oil prices and subsequent flow-on to petrol prices. We received 192 submissions, which we felt was a large number of submissions. The submissions were very comprehensive and they came from a broad section of stakeholders, including the petroleum industry, peak oil groups, various academic experts, government agencies from around Australia, the renewable energy industry, non-conventional oil industry representatives and local government. We held nine hearings around Australia. If it was not already clear in people’s minds, it became obvious during those hearings that this is an extremely complex area. There was a very large range of issues that were covered during our hearings.

I would say that most of the submissions we received generally agreed that peak oil was an issue; I think where they disagreed was the timing of it. We heard from peak oil proponents, who gave a very detailed critique of official estimates of the world’s future oil supplies. I might add that everybody agreed that Australia’s oil supplies were declining. There was much more debate around how rapidly global oil supplies were declining. But the peak oil proponents actually dealt with these arguments in a lot of detail, as is articulated in the report, and the committee felt they had very plausible arguments. The committee, however, is not aware of any official agency publications which attempt to rebut the peak oil arguments point by point in similar detail. In other words, the committee received a lot of information critiquing the figures of the oil industry, in particular, on global oil supplies but there were not similar arguments from the reverse perspective.

In the committee’s view, the possibility of a peak of conventional oil production before 2030—even if it is no more than a possibility—should be a matter of concern. Exactly when it occurs—which, it points out, is very uncertain—is not the important point. The committee feels that Australia should be planning for it now, as Sweden has with its plan to be oil free by 2020. The committee also felt that it is clear that gas should be carefully looked at and that there was a need for longer term planning. As was aired in the media, there was a lot of criticism of ABARE’s predictions on oil prices and our reserves. Their predictions came in for a great deal of criticism in, I think, virtually every hearing that was held.

The range of issues that the committee considered was extensive. We were asked to look in particular at Australia’s oil vulnerability and we looked at issues at a national, international, state and local level. We looked at our cities’ vulnerability to oil depletion. We looked at agriculture, and agriculture is particularly vulnerable. We received a lot of submissions on that. We also looked at the impact on, in particular, people living on the outskirts or in our inner urban fringes. We looked at the economic and social impacts. We particularly noted the convergence between the issues of peak oil and climate change and felt that any solutions that we reach for peak oil also needed to be reached for climate change.

The committee looked at issues around oil demand and oil supply. Of course, propositions were put to us that Australia needs to increase its oil exploration activity. While the committee felt that it remains to be seen whether the government initiatives will have a significant effect on oil activity, they pointed out that, if significant reserves are found, extraction of the oil from these new sources, which are likely to be in deep water, would come at a much higher cost. So, in fact, they might not address the issue of oil prices, which we were asked to address. In fact, oil prices would continue to rise if new resources were found.

As to whether the appropriate level of resources was being allocated by government and corporations to explore for more oil, there was a question about whether those resources should in fact be redirected to look at other alternative sources of fuel. The committee have not yet reached a conclusion, but we did note that the costs and benefits of more exploration must be assessed against the costs and benefits of other options to reduce our oil dependence. The committee felt that they are significant issues that need to be addressed and that will continue, I hope, to be addressed in the final report.

The issue of biofuels came up and we heard a lot of evidence from people working on biofuels and looking at the various options, whether they be from waste or grain, for ethanol and biodiesel. Again, we heard a lot from the agricultural industry on these areas and we also heard about the promise of lignocellulose in providing a more sustainable long-term source for biofuels.

We heard that there does not seem at present to be an overall approach or national approach being taken to the issue of peak oil and oil depletion. The committee felt that that was an area that needed to be looked at. We also looked at the areas of energy efficiency, conservation and public transport. Again, those were areas that we heard a lot about. We made a number of comments further on in the report about where we need to be looking in the future with respect to the committee process. A lot of concern was expressed to us about the lack of public transport services in many of our cities. I add a bit of home-grown parochialism here—that is, many of the submissions to the committee praised Western Australia, Perth in particular, for its foresight in providing the excellent train system that we have in Perth. I think it is fair to say that we heard people around Australia commenting on that, but people expressed concern that in other cities the public transport system at this stage would not be up to meeting increased demand for services if people made a sudden switch from private vehicles to public transport.

Another issue that came up very strongly was, as I said, how peak oil intersects with climate change and also how the cost of carbon in the future needs to be taken into consideration. The committee have not reached a conclusion on that. We made some comments on that, but it is certainly an area which has been flagged for future work and which needs to be taken into consideration in future options.

Those are some of the issues that the committee highlighted. I am sure my colleagues on the committee will raise other issues. I believe it was an extremely important area of inquiry, and I look forward to seeing the final committee report.

10:35 am

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a very important inquiry that the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee has been conducting. It is an inquiry that has attracted quite a deal of attention and has canvassed a range of issues to do with the propulsion of the Australian public in the future in various vehicular modes and what will happen with the fuelling systems that are needed to continue that. It is regrettable that the government’s concertinaing of the Senate system has forced the committee, which has been looking at this report, to provide an interim report before the inquiry had time to fully consider all the ramifications of the submissions before it. That is because the government has a majority in this place and has decided that it wants to take complete and utter control not only of the Senate but also of the committee system, and that it could not tolerate the fact that there were committees of this Senate that were chaired by persons other than members of the coalition.

We have seen an important inquiry effectively concertinaed, and we have seen the committee forced to present an interim report. What does that mean? It means that there may or may not be a full consideration of this matter, and there may or may not be a continuation of the deliberations of the committee—depending upon the structuring of committees that results from the considerations currently taking place. The committee structure may or may not be torn up and a new one put in its place and different issues placed with different committees. I understand there is some talk of the transport section of this committee being moved to another committee, which I must say concerns me.

This report in its draft form reached members of the committee earlier this week, and for that reason it has been given as much attention as possible in that very limited time. In a general sense, it has the support of the opposition. But we are not in a position to rewrite sections of the report as we might have wished them to be. I direct no criticism at the secretariat or the chair of the committee for the situation that we find ourselves in. As I say, this is an action forced upon this committee by the actions of the government, acting in their own interests and not in the interests of the Senate or in the interests of this committee.

I will quibble with one of the passages in the report, the last passage in the report talking about the future for hydrogen as a replacement fuel for oil. The committee report suggests that that fuel might be considered in the distant future but is not a useful option to consider in Australia’s ‘current or medium-term transport fuels mix’. I am not sure what ‘medium-term’ means in that context. We had evidence from Hydro Tasmania of a proposal for a project which they were not able to proceed with, with assistance from the Low Emissions Technology Development Fund, because of the limitations of funding available under that fund for what would have been, in my opinion, a very useful project to develop an understanding of just how useful hydrogen would be. On 30 June this year, evidence from Mr Titchen on behalf of Hydro Tasmania outlined the nature of a project that was being considered to be run in the state of Tasmania that involved a small fleet of buses, a fleet of approximately 200 vehicles, and a number of refuelling stations involving hybrid hydrogen-electric technology. I know there are hydrogen buses operating in, I think, Perth at the moment, but this would be a very useful project for this country.

Tasmania has a renewable energy system, with wind and hydro power overwhelmingly providing the energy resource for the state. The generation of hydrogen to fuel those vehicles would be a completely renewable resource and, of course, the development of a technology involving electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles with no emissions would be a very useful study for this country. But, unfortunately, what was seen to be a $60-plus million project could only receive $20 million in funding from the Commonwealth, from the Low Emissions Technology Development Fund. It is not unsurprising that Hydro Tasmania decided that the risk to Hydro Tasmania—for a very limited return, one must say—given an investment of in excess of $40 million, while the Commonwealth would only put $20 million towards the project, was high. That meant that the board of Hydro Tasmania decided it was not appropriate for them to continue to pursue such an application. While levelling no criticism at them for making that commercial decision, it is regrettable in terms of the national interest that we are not able to pursue that.

Some people might say that it is all very well for Tasmania to talk about renewably generating hydrogen given the energy sources that are used in Tasmania. But it surprises me that no-one is connecting the vast development of wind farms in this country to the potential for the use of renewable energy in the generation of hydrogen for vehicle use right around this country. Certainly wind and solar power create some such options right around this country. But there seems to be a blinkered approach by this government to wind power. We have even seen the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry rail against wind farms in a quite unseemly fashion, almost, in my opinion, depicting himself as somewhat of a troglodyte in terms of the development of new technologies. There is no doubt that in Europe wind power is a very important energy source. It is being used to replace fossil fuels. It is being used to generate clean energy in the Northern Hemisphere.

We have similar opportunities here. We do have a lot of coal, but coal is a major source of CO emissions. We cannot ignore the evidence of global warming, which grows daily. The findings from that ice core that was reported earlier this week, showing that the level of carbon emissions in the last 100 years has exceeded those of the thousands of years before it, should be telling us that we need to make some changes in the fuel use that we have so that we do not impose upon this world enormous climate changes which, I should not have to tell the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, will have a devastating effect on agriculture in this country.

We are talking about drought in south-eastern Australia at the moment. We have seen repeated drought circumstances in south-eastern Australia over the last decade. But here we have the responsible minister railing against one of the technologies which can contribute to the reduction of CO emissions, the reduction in greenhouse gases, so we can try and do something about climate change. But this government has no intention of doing anything about climate change; this government is content to sit back on its haunches and let things go wrong and hope—and, frankly, that is not good enough. This report starts to address some of the issues. Perhaps we will do some more after this report has been handed down. I am not going to hold my breath. We need to look very closely at these issues and we need to make sure that we have a government which looks at all of the issues and makes sure that this country proceeds down the path of alternative fuels, because we are going to need them.

10:45 am

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to comment on the interim report of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee inquiry into Australia’s future oil supply and alternative transport fuels. I am absolutely delighted with the way this inquiry has proceeded. When I moved for this inquiry last year it was because, from the minute I got into the Senate, it was apparent to me that no thinking is going on at the highest levels of government about the fact that the world is facing a convergence of two megaproblems that we have not faced before: global warming—climate change—and oil depletion. We are facing these problems at the same time and there is absolutely no thinking going on in Australia about how we take on our global responsibilities, mitigate climate change to stop it from getting worse, adapt to climate change and, at the same time, adapt to oil depletion.

I moved for this Senate inquiry to get some thinking going on Australia’s future oil supply—where we are going to get our transport fuels from—and to make sure that, in thinking about alternatives, we do not make the greenhouse gas problem, the global warming problem, worse. We moved for this inquiry, and I am delighted that it was supported in this chamber. We have had 192 submissions. I would argue that the inquiry has raised a great deal of interest in the Australian community about what is going to happen in Australia in the future.

It is timely to recognise that, on Geoscience Australia’s figures, over the next 20 years Australia’s self-sufficiency in oil and petroleum will decline from 84 per cent to 20 per cent. I would argue that that is a very optimistic figure. Globally, we are facing the end of the age of cheap, plentiful and easily accessible oil. Australia’s self-sufficiency in oil is running down at a very fast rate. That means Australia will have to import oil and be subjected to higher and higher global oil prices.

Those who believe in the operation of the free market, including some of the agencies that came before the inquiry, say: ‘That’s all right. Australia will just buy oil on the international market.’ ABARE argues that we can just go out and buy oil, at whatever high price, and that it is not going to make much difference to us, because we will also be exporting energy in the form of gas, and the high prices we will be getting for it will offset the high price we have to pay for oil. This argument takes no account of the depleted global supply and the fact that Australia is busy selling off our major transition transport fuel—gas—to China and other places on long-term contracts. That is why the Premier of Western Australia has moved to establish a gas reserve. I am delighted that the committee has decided that Australia should have a national gas reserve.

The other thing that came out very clearly is that there is no thinking at the highest levels of government about the need to reduce our dependence on oil. Sweden moved for an oil commission tasked with finding out how Sweden could reduce its exposure to world prices in the future and, at the same time, reduce greenhouse emissions. They came up with a plan to make Sweden oil free by 2020. Whether or not they achieve that is not the point. The point is that, by establishing that goal, they are now investing in a whole lot of alternative technologies that might get them there.

In Australia, what we have found from talking to a number of people who have come before the inquiry is that all this talk about trying to have just a marginal change in the price of petrol does not address the fact that we need to redesign Australian cities to make them less car dependent. We have to invest heavily in public transport—that was an overwhelming response from the inquiry. We need more bicycle lanes and much better public transport, not only to make us less car dependent but also to address obesity. There are lots of issues this would address. It would reduce city congestion, improve air quality, improve the health of Australians and make our cities more livable and efficient. If Sydney and Melbourne want to be regarded globally as competitive international cities, they are going to have to have much better public transport than they currently have.

A social justice issue that emerged very clearly is that the poorest people generally live furthest from the centre of the city in the areas least well served by public transport. The upshot is that those people are going to suffer the double whammy of higher interest rates and higher petrol prices—and they often have the oldest and least fuel-efficient vehicles; that has been mapped quite clearly. That is why we need to be thinking about redesigning cities.

I must say that my colleague from Western Australia, Senator Siewert, the chair of the committee, was not expressing a bias when she said there was overwhelming evidence congratulating Western Australia. Western Australia came out of this inquiry very well, because it has seriously started to address these issues. That is because Western Australia has a vibrant NGO sector, which is looking at transport issues, an engaged academic sector and a state government that is prepared to listen. Western Australia has invested heavily, without Commonwealth help, in public transport—the railway system in Perth. At the same time, they have invested heavily in alternative fuels—and I congratulate them for that.

We need a combined effort. We need to reduce our oil dependency by investing in public transport and redesigning our cities. At the same time, we need to have vehicles that are more fuel efficient—and mandatory fuel efficiency standards are an absolutely sensible option. Another strand to this is that we need to invest heavily in alternative fuels.

If you look at the Australian car fleet, you find that Holden and Ford are becoming increasingly uncompetitive. If you look at the private vehicle fleet, you find that people have moved to smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles. It is the fleets that are using Holden and Ford—the big six-cylinder vehicles—because the drivers are not paying for the fuel; it is on the fleet.

One thing that came up very strongly was that we need to get rid of the fringe benefits tax, which encourages people to use their vehicles more. One of the recommendations has been that we should look at a way of using concessionary approaches to assist employers to make available public transport options instead of the fringe benefits tax.

Another clear thing that came out of this concerned the role of ABARE. I think that all the evidence we have before us shows that they are out on their own. Nobody takes them seriously anymore, except the government. It would be laughable—and people did laugh about ABARE’s predictions about future oil prices—if it were not so serious. But the tragedy for Australia is that ABARE advises government and that advice is the basis on which AusLink makes its projections about interstate transport. As a result, they are building more and more freeways instead of getting into upgrading the railway network and the internodal transport connections that we need. It is a tragedy for this country that they have got it so wrong. And why have they got it so wrong? Because they are relying on going to coal to liquids. They are saying: ‘There’s no problem. If we run out of oil, we’ve got plenty of coal; we’ll just liquefy coal.’

The point I made at the beginning, and which I return to now, is that coal to liquids is not an option for Australia if you are serious about addressing global warming. In this inquiry it came out very strongly that, to achieve even exactly the same oil emissions as we have now from coal to liquids, you have to have geosequestration. So, in other words, we have to spend millions on geosequestration to achieve tailpipe emissions from coal to liquids exactly the same as those from conventional oil. That is not acceptable.

We should be investing in ethanol, particularly lignocellulose. That, again, is where Western Australia is leading the way. I would argue—and this is not a committee recommendation but it certainly came out of the evidence as far as I am concerned—that we should switch all of the investment we are currently putting into coal to liquids across to lignocellulose. That would have the benefit of improving salinity and biodiversity. If you went with the mallee, as they have done in Western Australia, you would get the biodiversity and the salinity outcomes you want, you would produce an oil which could be used to make biodiesel and you would have a biomass which could then be converted, via lignocellulose, to ethanol. Going down that path would be a fantastic option for Australia, which would have many benefits. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

10:55 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I present an interim report on the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee’s inquiry into water policy initiatives, together with a document presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Once again, because the references committee is about to come to an end, the committee felt it was important that we report progress in our inquiry. We have been extremely busy with both the water and the oil inquiry. I would like to talk about where we have got to in our ongoing inquiry and some of the issues that have been raised to date. The committee has received 59 submissions to date and has held three hearings: in Canberra; in Toowoomba, four days after the well-known vote; and in Canberra again just a few weeks ago, taking evidence via teleconference from Perth. During the period of the inquiry, the level of public concern about the security of our water resources has increased and is becoming increasingly apparent. The issue is featuring in the media on virtually a daily basis and we are seeing increasing conflict over water issues.

This interim report focuses on the major issues arising from the hearings and the submissions. It is very clear that there is strong community concern over the issues of reduced rainfall, overallocation, and water security. Because the development of the National Water Initiative and the grants going out are at an early stage, the evidence received on the effectiveness of these policy initiatives under the initiative has been limited. But we see this issue as being an important focus in the future for this inquiry.

Rural versus urban usage has emerged as a major issue of concern, suggesting that unless these issues are dealt with effectively they will lead to increased bad feelings between growers and city folk. Managing our water resources is a difficult balancing act. We are a growing nation living on a dry continent with extremely variable weather patterns. Recent years have brought water supply security problems to a number of our cities, agricultural industries and major rural centres. The challenge for policy makers is how to best balance competing demands for a limited and precious resource in a manner that ensures the sustainability of the resource; equity among competing users; predictability and security of supply for our industries, towns and cities; and still guarantees the survival of our environment.

The issue is made more difficult by the complexity and uncertainty of the science of assessing the resource and predicting the impacts of drought and increased climate variability. Ultimately, we need to be able to make good decisions, ones that can guide us safely into an uncertain future, on the basis of incomplete information. In this context, we need to give serious consideration to the flexibility of our water management systems to adapt to variations, to unpredictability, and to reductions in available water, at a time when demands on that resource are continuing to grow. Taken together with the other very important issue that the committee has been looking into, that of Australia’s oil supplies, we have a combination of issues—in effect, a double whammy—that could potentially have massive implications for the future of our agricultural industries, the viability of our regional towns, the sustainability of growing cities and the nature of our economy.

This interim report focused particularly on the issues of climate change; water re-use and recycling; over-allocation, with which comes water titles, systems and trading; and the managing of our rivers’ health and the need to protect our northern rivers. A very big issue that emerged very quickly was climate change, in terms of reduced rainfall, extended drought periods, increased climate variability and greater evapotranspiration. Many see this as the elephant in the room of water policy that is not being acknowledged.

While the exact scope of climate change may be uncertain and open to dispute, it is clear that any significant change in rainfall and temperature patterns could leave a major hole in our water accounting processes. This has major implications for our resource management policy, legislation and practice. We need to give serious consideration to the implications that this could have for our agricultural industries, our economy, the sustainability and limits to growth of our cities and the preservation of our environmental assets. We need to develop adaptive management options that allow us to respond to likely rainfall, run-off and evapotranspiration scenarios in a timely and effective manner. While there is inherently some uncertainty involved in predicting the likely impacts of these changes, there is very little point in disputing the exact numbers when there is a pressing need to make management decisions to avoid catastrophic outcomes.

When it comes to the impacts of climate variability and climate change on water resources in WA, the change in Perth’s dams is so starkly evident that no-one is arguing the impacts. All stakeholders acknowledge that the situation is serious. We received evidence from Dr Jim Gill, the CEO of the Water Corporation of Western Australia. He told the committee:

... there has been a phenomenal shift of climate and weather in the south of WA and it does appear to be unique worldwide ... there seems to be no other place that is drying quite as fast as the south of Western Australia ... We have had to cope with that over the last 10 years. It has been a trend, we now know with the best of hindsight, for about 30 years ... for the last eight or nine years the rainfall has been down by about 21 per cent on what it was up until 1974, and the run-off has been down by 64 per cent. Actually now it is becoming clear that for the last four or five years, since 2001, we seem to be down still further.

The concern that a relatively small decrease in rainfall can result in a much larger reduction in stream run-off was reiterated by Professor Michael Young, who told the committee:

... a rule of thumb ... if you have a decline in rainfall, normally the decline in water available for use is roughly twice the reduction in rainfall ... A 15 per cent reduction in rainfall, which is what a lot of people are talking about, means a 30 per cent reduction in yield.

The CSIRO, in its latest analysis of the risks to the shared water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin, in 2006, suggested that the implications of climate change for the basin are likely to be significant. They documented reductions in rainfall.

The dam levels in all our capital cities and major rural centres have been dropping. It presents a challenging picture. Brisbane has 28 per cent capacity in the dams, Perth is down to less than 30 per cent capacity, Sydney has 41 per cent and it is dwindling, Canberra has 49 per cent, Melbourne has 47 per cent and Adelaide has 54 per cent. The committee is concerned that the potential impacts of climate change may not have been significantly factored into water entitlements and management plans. Essentially, it could affect them significantly.

The issue of water recycling was a hot topic, particularly when we were in Toowoomba. Australia has a poor record in the use of recycled water in comparison to international standards. Given the sustainability limits on Australia’s supplies, together with increasing demand as our nation grows, it is inevitable that we will have to embrace water recycling on a much larger scale. We should stick to the principle of using the highest quality water for the highest value use and be creative about how we use substitution of recycled water, at a standard that is fit for purpose. Public education on these issues is also significant. That was the point made by the Mayor of Toowoomba when we heard evidence there. She felt that there needed to be a much stronger public education campaign. She said that, in her opinion, three to four years were needed to educate the public about the scientific aspects of the decisions. It is ironic that the legitimate public concerns about the safety of their water ultimately led to people in Toowoomba rejecting a water source that is cleaner than their current supply.

Then we came to the issue of water allocation. We had a lot of submissions about water allocation in some systems in Australia. The impacts of reduced rainfall on the viability of growers are going to make it an even more important issue. We face four major challenges in Australia when we deal with water allocation: how to develop a uniform system to water entitlements and trade across state and territory borders; how we can reform already overallocated systems in a manner that is just and equitable; how we can best manage allocation of water to the environment; and how we can account for the impacts of climate variability, reduced rainfall and increased evapotranspiration on water availability within these systems. Over a third of submissions dealt with the vexed issue of those living downstream who were suffering the consequences of overallocation in the water licensing systems. These are significant issues that the committee will continue to look at and will hopefully come up with some recommendations.

We looked at river protection. Many of the river systems in southern Australia, as many people know, are already degraded and suffer from excessive demands of both water extraction and, of course, drought. We also heard evidence that Australia’s northern rivers are still in very good condition, but, of course, eyes are turning north, and we heard some evidence about that. Various submissions to the committee called on governments to grant special protection to those rivers that are still in relatively pristine condition. In conclusion, these issues are extremely complex and difficult to deal with. (Time expired)

11:06 am

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Science and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to speak briefly to this interim report of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee on water policy initiatives. I begin by saying that, since this inquiry began, water has become one of the most hotly discussed topics in Australia. It has been a quite beneficial process for those involved in the inquiry to have such a level of public debate about the vexed issue of securing Australia’s water supply. I congratulate the chair, Senator Siewert, for her great competence in dealing with this vexed issue. We had a few tetchy hearings, some witnesses who were aggrieved and certainly very conflicting evidence to the inquiry, but we seemed to be able to get through some of those issues. The report pays testament to the calm approach that Senator Siewert provided for the inquiry. The report raises the very important issues that we are all confronting and will continue to confront under the new committee arrangements when they come into place.

As Senator Siewert said, ‘Managing our water resources is an extraordinarily difficult balancing act.’ Our nation is a dry continent. We are now experiencing extraordinarily variable rainfall patterns and we are now seeing quite significant water supply security problems in many of our cities, our agricultural industries and our major regional centres. Addressing Australia’s water crisis is an urgent task. It requires leadership and action from all levels of government, particularly from the Commonwealth government.

As a nation, until now, until this suddenly became a pressing issue, we have never really valued water in the way we should. Our water supplies have been taken for granted. They have been undervalued, they have been overallocated and they have been misdirected—and we heard plenty of evidence about that during the inquiry. At the same time, our population has grown and so too has competition for water from the agricultural sector, from urban development, from industry and from the mining sector. And we received plenty of scientific evidence and evidence from our farmers and the agricultural sector that the health of our water supplies and the environment have suffered, and, in fact, that we have been squandering the water resources of the nation.

But nobody who has been involved in the inquiry has failed to notice just how great the level of public concern is about how the lack of rainfall will affect the security of our water resources. It is certainly a significant policy challenge for us at state and Commonwealth levels. Whether the reason is a lack of rainfall, be it drought or permanent climate change, as is the case in south Western Australia—the evidence there was compelling, and the initiatives taken by the Western Australian government to deal with it were compelling and quite reassuring—it is having a severe impact on water resources.

We have an extraordinarily poor record on water recycling compared to many other Western countries, and we received significant evidence on that. That is really where I would like to concentrate my comments about the inquiry—how prominent the issue of water recycling has become. We heard evidence about Israel recycling 70 per cent of its water, yet Australia’s record is so poor. But we were able to get some evidence about the commitment and the change in attitude from state and Commonwealth governments that are thinking about the recycling issue. Having heard what is happening in Western Australia—and there are significant efforts going on in Western Australia to address the issue of recycling—I was very pleased to see that in New South Wales, my home state, the government has also committed to increasing the current level of recycling by more than fourfold, from the current 15 billion litres a year to 70 billion litres a year by 2015. The establishment of the Water Savings Fund, which is $130 million over four years, has contributed $26.2 million to councils and businesses for water recycling projects. We have a series of state based initiatives, not just in New South Wales—that is my home state and I wanted to acknowledge the initiatives there—which are actually grappling with the issue of recycling. Of course, in my hometown of Goulburn that is an issue that we have been following very closely. We need to do very serious work there.

As Senator Siewert said, we heard about the issue of recycling in Toowoomba. Queensland’s largest inland city is in danger of running out of water within 18 months if it does not receive good rain over its catchments. We were fascinated by the referendum that occurred there and how the debate around the positions for and against recycling took place in the public domain, and how that affected the vote on the day. On the one hand, the fact that there was exposure to the Toowoomba referendum escalated public awareness about the recycling issue. On the other hand, it actually generated quite significant discussion of options other than recycling.

For all of us, the recycling issue is something that we will have to confront. If we do not, our world is going to change dramatically in a short period of time. The committee believe that water recycling should be a priority. It is cost-effective, it uses less energy than alternatives and it has minimal waste. We heard from Mr Ken Matthews, Chair of the National Water Commission. Mr Matthews also sees water recycling as one of the key policy areas that needs to be addressed by the National Water Initiative. As Senator Siewert said, the National Water Initiative has not really been in place long enough for us to be able to evaluate the outcomes of some of the initiatives that are part of that. Some of them will take a long time to deliver outcomes. Mr Matthews had this to say to the committee—and I thought it was very wise advice:

There is a need for more widespread and objective consideration (of water recycling) across Australia. Surely Australia, as the driest inhabited continent in the world, should be an early adopter of a new and cost-effective recycling technologies that are now becoming available.

Certainly, a Beazley Labor government will take action to ensure Australia’s towns and cities have a sustainable water supply. Labor actually has a plan for recycling. It has four elements: to set a national target of 30 per cent of waste water being recycled by 2015; to develop consistent, comprehensive national guidelines for water recycling; to provide the leadership, support and investment necessary to achieve the 30 per cent recycling target; and to encourage innovation and new technological solutions to deliver a sustainable water supply for Australia. We expect that greater use of recycled water by industry and agriculture will free up valuable drinking water and help to increase environmental water flows, which was such a significant part of the evidence the committee received in the inquiry.

Labor’s position certainly is that governments must work together to build confidence in water recycling by establishing national guidelines for its use, and we must build the infrastructure we need to reuse water. COAG is working on guidelines for water recycling, but overall Australia’s water recycling guidelines remain inadequate. Australia needs consistent and comprehensive national benchmarks and guidelines for water recycling which acknowledge different needs and circumstances, which ensure water infrastructure is maintained and which apply strong, consistent and high standards. Labor is developing such guidelines in consultation with state governments, water experts and Australia’s water users: farmers, businesses and households; and city and country consumers.

Over the past 10 years, the Howard government has done nothing to address the ongoing problems of salinity. Quite desperate evidence was provided to the committee about the impacts of climate change and growing water shortages. We need to prioritise water policy and show real leadership in water management. In the next phase of this inquiry we are looking to address those critical issues. We know that this is a challenge that needs responsible leadership and I look forward to participating in making some of the hard decisions.

11:15 am

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to take the opportunity to speak briefly on this interim report. Because of my responsibilities on other committees, including being Chair of the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee, I have not been able to involve myself directly in this inquiry beyond reading some of the Hansards and submissions. Today is my last sitting day in the role of chair, so perhaps I will have more time and be able to involve myself a little bit more fully in this inquiry, because it is a very important issue.

On the same theme, I take the opportunity to note that it is the final sitting day of Senator Siewert as Chair of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs References Committee. Her chairing of this committee in the time that she has done so has been an example—among many, I might say—of how having non-government senators chairing committees does not mean that you get a barrage of nasty, malevolent Senate committee reports coming down, deliberately undermining and working against the government of the day. There are many examples of Senate committees chaired by non-government senators, Senator Siewert amongst them, able to produce very comprehensive and balanced reports and run very balanced inquiries across party lines. I think that it is appropriate to mark the contribution of Senator Siewert as chair of this particular committee. Even in the relatively short time she has been in that position she has clearly shown that non-government chairs—even, God forbid, from the crossbenches!—can allow Senate committee inquiries to run effectively. I would suggest that in many cases they are able to run more effectively as cross-party nonpartisan inquiries. Be that as it may, the government takeover of all the Senate committees starts from next week, so we will see what happens.

The City of Toowoomba in my home state of Queensland was mentioned by both the previous speakers. A hearing was held in that city just after the referendum into water recycling. I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Toowoomba City Council and staff, and particularly Mayor Di Thorley, for their courage in pushing the need to address the chronic water problems that Toowoomba faces and looking at it in a balanced way, considering all the options and going with the one that provided the best option for Toowoomba. Clearly, it was not the best option politically for the Toowoomba City Council but it was the best option in my view, having looked at it fairly closely, for the people of Toowoomba.

One clear example from the Toowoomba referendum is that to make such changes there needs to be wide-ranging support and the removal of partisanship from an issue in order to make the hard decisions that are needed. Unlike some people, I do not criticise the people of Toowoomba as being somehow conservative country hicks who do not understand a good idea when it is put in front of them. It was understandable that the people were apprehensive. In some of the campaigning that I did in Toowoomba about it and in responses I got to pieces I put on my website, one of the key reasons people were apprehensive was: if it is so good, how come it is just Toowoomba? Why isn’t the rest of south-east Queensland doing it? Why are we being singled out and why do we have to have a referendum?

What is often not commonly recognised is that the referendum was forced on the Toowoomba City Council and the people of Toowoomba by the federal government in an extremely rare example of a federal government grant to a local government body being contingent upon the holding of a referendum in that local government area. It is extremely unusual, and that alone, I think, was enough to make people wonder what was going on. The contribution of the state Labor government, particularly Premier Peter Beattie in taking a different position every second day of the week and repeatedly using terms like the ‘Armageddon option’ when it came to water recycling, obviously did not soothe people’s concerns with regard to water recycling.

It is not just Queensland, of course. I heard Senator Stephens mention her hometown of Goulburn, which has very serious water problems and is considering an approach very similar to that of Toowoomba. I certainly support them in doing so. I do not know whether they will be required to be subjected to a referendum—I would hope not. These are the sorts of decisions that councils and governments are meant to take and, as long as the process is open and transparent, as it was in Toowoomba, then it is an appropriate decision for such bodies to make. I point to the New South Wales government example and regular statements by the relevant minister, Mr Sartor, saying that they could not have water recycling for potable use because the public would not wear it. If you could ever get a perfect definition of a lack of backbone, that is it. Unfortunately, that is what our country is suffering from in this area: easy decisions are being made when hard decisions are needed.

It is often said that we live on the driest inhabited continent on earth, and that is true in a literal sense, but we should not forget that per capita that is not true. Per capita there are many other places that have far less water available per person. The reality is that we cannot just keep saying that our water shortages exist just because we live on the driest continent on earth. It is because we are extraordinarily wasteful with our water, as this inquiry is showing. Indeed, previous Senate inquiries have shown it. I would point to a previous Senate inquiry on water issues by the Senate environment committee which clearly showed how wasteful we are. That is a responsibility that all of us have to take on and that governments at various levels have to seek to confront. When you combine our historical approach of being extraordinarily wasteful with the growing problem of climate change and more variable rainfall patterns, these difficulties are going to be compounded—and they are already being compounded—unless we have significant change. That does mean confronting some of those difficult decisions. That is why we need to try to keep these issues as nonpartisan as possible and based as much as possible on sound policy decision making and the science involved.

Senator Siewert referred a bit to that and also to looking again at various industries. I think we will need to look further at which industries, agricultural and other, can change their practices to reduce waste. There are certainly massive gains that can still be made there. Also, we should be looking more at which of those industries use up more water and making some decisions based a bit more on those sorts of things. Pricing mechanisms are clearly one way of addressing that, as is greater consumer awareness. I think we could do with a lot more of that. A fair few people are now aware of the enormous amount of water used in cotton production, for example, but a lot of people are not aware of the enormous amounts of water used in various foods. I would have to point out that meat is one example. It consumes a lot more water than many other foods. If some of that information were made more directly available to consumers, it might influence their choices.

Given that the Queensland election is in a couple of days time, I want to re-emphasise that, in my view, whilst there are a range of solutions to the water crisis—and clearly recycling is a key one, although it is not the only one—I do not think there is a lot of evidence around that megadams are the solution. People have said that the Queensland election is going to be all about water. Unfortunately, I am not sure that it has panned out that way in terms of genuine, useful, constructive and wide-ranging public debate about water options.

I certainly want to put on the record again my strong opposition to the Traveston Dam on the Mary River. It is going to be incredibly expensive and it is highly unlikely to produce the sort of water volume that is desired. South-east Queensland is already littered with a number of dams that could only be described as failed dams. Adding one more at great expense and with immense social harm to the people of the region—let alone the environmental damage—is a real problem. I take the opportunity to mention it while the Minister for the Environment and Heritage is in the chamber. I know it is not appropriate for him to take a position on the dam yet, but I certainly would urge him to ensure that there is a full public inquiry into at least the relevant aspects under the EPBC Act with regard to that dam.

There was one comment that Senator Siewert made that I do not think was quite accurate. She suggested that the Howard government have done nothing about salinity. I think they quite clearly have done a lot about salinity. As a Senate environment committee report recently showed, there is certainly more that can be done. But we do need to recognise what has been done and build on it rather than continually suggest that we are starting from scratch. I think this inquiry is doing that. I hope to get more involved in it now that I am no longer chair of a different committee. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.