Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Matters of Public Interest


12:45 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Many of us in this chamber have developed a relatively new policy focus and interest of late. I speak of water resource policy. I say ‘a relatively new interest’ not as a criticism of anyone on either side of the chamber but for the simple reason that water has historically been the responsibility of states. In our minds, and in the minds of the public, if state governments are responsible for anything at all it is for the provision of the most basic services: electricity and water. Quite frankly, we did not think of water as a core Commonwealth responsibility, but circumstances and public expectation have dictated otherwise.

We have seen the Prime Minister recently seek to exert Commonwealth influence to take control of the Murray-Darling system to bring the national interest to bear. We did not create the Murray-Darling mess, but we are determined to fix it. We all hope that the water summit this week confirms the Prime Minister’s plan. The plan will address one part of Australia’s water crisis. It will bring rationality and more certainty to water supply for agriculture for many towns and indeed for the city of Adelaide as well.

But there is another element to the crisis which is, and will remain, the responsibility of Labor states to address: the water supplies for our great capital cities. Some critics of the state Labor governments have advanced the idea that the likes of Premier Bracks and Premier Iemma do not have a metropolitan water policy. I actually think that is unfair! I wish to rise to defend those state Labor premiers! State Labor do indeed have a water policy for the capital cities. It is a two-point policy. It is a policy to transfer guilt and it is a policy to transfer responsibility. As far as Labor are concerned, our current water shortage is caused not by a complete failure to invest in infrastructure but by the irresponsible wastage of water by ordinary householders. It is their fault—not the governments’—that we are in this position and it is up to them to fix it. Everyday Australians are Labor’s scapegoats.

Let us take a bit of a look at Labor’s approach. First, they shift the guilt. State Labor governments, we know, are guilty of enormous incompetence for not investing in the infrastructure that our cities need to supply enough water. But Labor would prefer that ordinary Australians carry that guilt, so they blame them. They say they use too much water. They say their showers take too long, they water their gardens too often, they fill their pools too much, they should not wash their cars and they should not have green lawns. All of these activities are a waste of water, they say.

Rather than building and managing the infrastructure needed to supply urban areas with adequate water, state Labor governments are engaging in what they term ‘demand management’. Like some Stalinist command-and-control regime, they restrict supply, impose restrictions and tell ordinary Australians what they can and cannot do with their water. People are being made to feel guilty for wanting to use their water in completely legitimate ways. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to have a nice, lush, green garden. There is nothing wrong with topping up swimming pools or having a clean car. Why shouldn’t people have long showers if they want to? Why shouldn’t kids run through sprinklers on a hot summer day? Under the Labor policy of shifting guilt, these perfectly normal activities almost become crimes and ordinary Australians almost criminals.

The second plank of state Labor water policy is the shifting of responsibility. Not content to make us feel guilty for causing the current water crisis, state Labor governments put the responsibility on citizens to fix it. You ask a state government what they are doing to fix the water crisis and they will tell you that they have introduced stage 3 or stage 4 water restrictions. They will tell you what those water restrictions involve. They will tell you on which days odd-numbered and even-numbered houses can water, at what time and for how long. In my own state of Victoria, they will tell you that you cannot fill a new pool and that you can top up an existing pool but only using a bucket. They will tell you what the trigger point is for the next stage of water restrictions. In Victoria, water minister John Thwaites has promised that Labor will legislate to require all homes to have low-flow shower heads and dual-flush toilets before they are sold. And, following this ‘demand management’ mantra, Victorian Labor want to ban the sale of full-flow shower heads altogether.

Water restrictions are not the state government doing something about water; water restrictions are the public doing something about water. Making citizens feel responsible for state government failings, though, can potentially be a dangerous thing. It can put some people at risk. Many elderly people now feel compelled to shower with buckets for use on their gardens. One wrong step in the shower and our elderly are liable to suffer serious injury. But, if they survive the shower, they risk injuring themselves whilst carrying the full bucket of water outdoors to tip on their dying gardens. They have the weight of Labor’s guilt on their shoulders as well as the weight of the heavy buckets in their hands.

An often forgotten fact in all of this is that Labor’s focus is on ‘demand management’ of households, which account for only 11 per cent of Australia’s overall water consumption according to the ABS water account stats for 2004-05, and these measures are producing dismally small savings. Rather than focusing on what needs to be done on building the major water infrastructure that is desperately needed, Labor prefers cheap media stunts with little actual effect on the water supply.

Again in Victoria, the Bracks Labor government will spend at least $100,000 to cart six million litres of water from the temporary World Championship swimming pool at Rod Laver Arena for use on the city’s historic trees in Melbourne’s magnificent gardens, with fantastic ancient European trees. I guess that is a bit of an improvement on Labor’s previous policy, which was to chop those trees down. On 1 February this year, Premier Bracks announced that $1.2 million would be spent to capture 20 million litres annually from the roof of Spencer Street Station. That is less than half the water lost through leakage in Perth’s southern suburbs in a single day alone.

These little stunts and severe water restrictions constitute Labor’s response to this serious crisis in our capital cities. Rather than treating water restrictions for what they are—a short-term measure—Labor see them as a long-term excuse not to properly invest in water. And Labor’s water investment record is a disgrace. They cancel major infrastructure projects and criticise the constructive solutions put forward by others. To top it all off, they have been pocketing billions of dollars from water authorities—not to mention the GST windfall. In Victoria alone, water companies have paid out more than $1.8 billion over the past seven years, yet hardly a cent is spent on water infrastructure.

In New South Wales the Iemma government scrapped a plan to raise Tallowa Dam by seven metres. Former Premier Bob Carr took land that had been set aside for the Welcome Reef Dam and turned it into a nature reserve. In Victoria, residents in many regional centres are on even harsher restrictions than Melbourne. Lawns, gardens and sports fields there are shrivelled and as good as dead. When Ted Baillieu and the Victorian opposition put forward a plan at the last election for a new dam in Melbourne’s north-west, John Brumby could only criticise. Critics might ask what good a dam is in a drought, when the storages are less than half full, but two half-full dams are always better than one half-full dam. In Queensland’s south-east the cancellation of the Wolffdene Dam in 1989, by the then Labor Premier, Wayne Goss, stands out as one of the worst water-planning decisions ever made by any government. I think all senators know that Wayne Goss was advised by Kevin Rudd at that time.

We have seen Labor’s poor record on major water infrastructure, but let us look at some of the serious impacts of their approach. Tens of thousands of jobs in water-dependent industries either have been lost or are under serious threat. In Victoria alone, 10,000 jobs in the swimming pool and spa industry are at risk, with water restrictions preventing the filling of new pools and spas. This is despite the fact that water used for pools accounts for less than one per cent of total state domestic water use. In the ACT, a further 150 jobs in the pool industry are at risk and $40 million in annual turnover could be lost to the territory’s economy. Lives will be ruined and family finances destroyed, all for the sake of an industry that accounts for less than half a per cent of water used.

In South Australia, the state’s largest grower and supplier of instant lawn has gone broke after 25 years in business. Victorian turf growers estimate that 15,000 jobs could be lost across that state. There are numerous other examples—from landscape gardeners to window washers. Tens of thousands of livelihoods will be destroyed because of state government incompetence.

Sporting competitions are shutting down across the country as sports clubs are banned from training and competing on parched, rock-hard sports fields. State government restrictions prevent local governments from irrigating most of their sporting assets, and ratepayers face massive bills to repair the damage that is being done.

But perhaps most disturbing of all is the effect that these Labor failings are having on the fabric of Australian society itself. Gone, potentially, are the days of friendly neighbourhoods built on trust and goodwill. Nowadays, ordinary Australians are being encouraged to spy on their neighbours and dob them in for wasting water. The Victorian government has even set up a hotline so that people can ‘dob in a water cheat’. Labor wants our communities to be the barracks for a new army of water vigilantes.

Margaret Norris, a retired teacher living in Melbourne, told the Sunday Age of her daily paranoia and fear. She, like many Australians, has been using water from a rainwater tank to water her garden for some time. In the current climate of harsh restrictions, her green lawn raises suspicions. When watering her front garden, she cops abuse, shouted at her from passers-by, and dreads a visit from the so-called water police. She has even taken to hanging a sign on her front fence to inform others that she is using not drinking water on her garden but tank water.

David Dunstan, of Monash University, has described this situation emerging across Australia as ‘unhealthy and potentially dangerous’, with neighbourhoods now shrouded in ‘a climate of suspicion’. Who knows when the Victorian government’s new army of 140 water inspectors will come knocking?

Even the federal parliament has not escaped the clutches of the restrictions inspired by the state and territory governments. With severe water restrictions having been imposed in Canberra, there was a recent trial in which the Parliament House air-conditioning system was running at two degrees higher than normal to save water. Members and senators received an email from the Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services advising them that they should consider carefully how they dress during the trial and choose suitable clothing. As fond as I am of my colleagues, the prospect of seeing them in sarongs and shorts does not overly impress me!

We are, however, in a serious crisis, and the state Labor governments are the real culprits. They have failed to invest in the infrastructure needed to supply Australians with the water they need. Instead, they shift guilt and they shift responsibility: it is everyone’s fault but theirs. So much for the new Leader of the Opposition’s ‘ending the blame game’ rhetoric. His state colleagues are doing nothing but shifting the blame—blaming ordinary Australians for Labor’s dismal failings. Will Kevin Rudd have the courage to confront the state premiers about their alarming stuff-up?

No-one can make it rain, but Australia has always been drought prone and governments need to plan ahead and invest properly to ensure that, when there is a drought, its effects on our lives are minimised. State Labor governments need to plan for the fact that cities grow. If a city grows, you need to increase the capacity of its water supply

The Howard government has a plan to save the Murray-Darling Basin, with the Prime Minister committing $10 billion to solve the problems created by the states in that area. That includes $3 billion to save up to 1,500 gigalitres of water per year, simply through a program of piping and the lining of irrigation channels. This measure alone will dwarf the dismal impact of the water restrictions in capital cities.

But responsibility for ensuring adequate urban water supplies rests solely with the state governments. It is time they stopped shifting guilt and responsibility and got on with the job of building the major infrastructure needed to provide long-term water security for Australia’s great cities. Australians deserve much better. The Daily Telegraph editorial of 2 November last year said it best:

You can’t blame them for the weather. You can blame them for rank incompetence.