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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 154

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (11:18 AM) —Water is one of the key critical environmental challenges for Australia, and there have been some clear manifestations of this in recent times. The member for Hasluck referred to the fact that over in Perth they are now examining a desalination plant which would cost an estimated $350 million. They are looking at that in Perth simply because there are no alternative local sources of water to meet that city’s needs.

The member for Hasluck referred to the fact that Perth’s water reserves are down to around 30 per cent. He referred to this as being a cyclical process. It sounded suspiciously as if he is just one more of those coalition members who is in denial over the cause of our water problems. The situation of reduced water in Perth over the course of the last 25 years is climate change, pure and simple. You have a different climate from the climate you used to have. Unfortunately, there are too many coalition members who simply do not get it and are in denial over the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the world’s climate. I encourage the member for Hasluck to follow the example of the Western Australian Farmers Federation, who do get it and who have written to the Prime Minister urging him to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change and get serious about cooperative international efforts to tackle this problem.

In Adelaide a great deal of work is being done on salt interception schemes around the Murray River aimed at preventing the deterioration of Adelaide’s drinking water, which, if nothing is done, by the year 2020 will not meet the World Health Organisation guidelines for two days out of five. In Melbourne, my home city, we are now on stage 2 water restrictions, and in Sydney and many other cities there are very serious water issues as well.

The question of water use and water efficiency that is before us in the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Bill 2004 is a very serious challenge facing this country. The purpose of the bill is to provide for the establishment and operation of a scheme to apply national water efficiency labelling and minimum performance standards to certain water use products. The aim of water efficiency labelling is to encourage the uptake of water-efficient products and appliances in domestic and commercial areas. The bill’s objects are to conserve water supplies by reducing water consumption, provide information for purchasers of water use products and promote the adoption of efficient and effective water use technology. It provides for the establishment of a national water efficiency labelling and standards scheme to be implemented cooperatively by Commonwealth, state and territory governments; for penalties to be put in place for those who fail to comply with the registration, labelling and minimum efficiency and performance requirements; and for an enforcement regime.

It is estimated that the bill would reduce consumption of water in households and non-residential buildings by five per cent by 2021. That is an objective which the opposition supports and I am sure all Australians would support, but I rather think it is inadequate. We really need to use water better and reduce our consumption of water in households and non-residential buildings by five per cent in a much shorter time frame. We need to reduce water consumption more rapidly by 2021. It is also expected that there would be some greenhouse gas reductions through reducing water heating associated with these measures.

This bill is being funded from savings identified in the Measures for a Better Environment package, and it picks up on recommendation 4 of the Senate inquiry into urban water use. It is my understanding that those who have been consulted, including the product suppliers and retailers, have actively supported the introduction of this scheme and that it has not been opposed. It addresses the mandatory labelling of most water use products, but in relation to mandatory performance standards it only applies to toilets. It is the view of the opposition that the legislation is weaker than it might have been, that environmental benefits will not be fully realised and that there is a case for standards to apply more broadly. It is our belief that water efficiency performance standards ought to apply to more water use products, and on that basis I support the second reading amendment moved by my colleague the member for Grayndler.

Labor have developed a framework for national water policy, which seeks to get better water management in urban Australia. We note that Australia is one of the highest per capita consumers of water in the world. In Australian households each person uses around 350 litres per day, yet our national reuse of effluent is at just 14 per cent. If we could do more to reclaim and reuse storm water, treated sewage effluent, treated industrial discharge and grey household waste water, we would be in a much better position to deal with shortages and it would boost our environment and our economy. I heard the member for Hasluck indicating his support for a greater emphasis on harvesting storm water and grey water reuse. I would support that. I hope he has more success than some of his colleagues, because so far the federal government has been doing precious little in this area.

An integrated approach which considers all sources of water available to urban areas is needed to achieve significant improvement in water use efficiency in urban areas. Clearly, reclaimed water can be used for a whole range of purposes—irrigation of city parks and sports ovals, industrial purposes and cooling water. Surplus floodwater can be used to recharge natural aquifers, and safe treated urban effluent can be used on crops. There are many other uses besides. We think the Commonwealth government should be working with the states and territories to improve water quality and the environmental outcomes of urban water management. We think the government should be investigating incentives for promoting stormwater and waste water reuse and the integration of these issues in strategic planning of urban areas.

I want to make a passing reference to the problem of ocean outfalls. Large and growing human populations on the coastal fringe place pressures on coastal ecosystems, particularly through the disposal of sewage waste in coastal waters. There are over 140 sewage outfalls discharging into the ocean and estuaries within the vicinity of beaches in Australia. We should be working with the state and local water authorities to dramatically reduce the amount of water being discharged via ocean outfalls, and we also want to reduce urban water demand. Increasing the reuse will reduce the need to build costly water storages, which have been shown to have a serious impact on the ecology of Australian rivers.

Another area I want to mention in relation to urban water use is the research effort. The Commonwealth research effort in this crucial area has largely dried up. We need to renew the role of the Commonwealth in research and development in irrigation, water reuse and innovation. Promoting water reuse research will yield many dividends, including better design and value from environmental projects and monitoring, covering gaps, integrating project results, ensuring quality control and disseminating information effectively to those who need it. An urban water research program would support innovation in the reuse of stormwater, the reuse of effluent, water conservation, water-sensitive urban design and urban water planning, and management practices. We really need to establish a national program of research and coordinate the work presently being done to promote sustainable water use in Australia, with a particular focus on water reuse.

There is a very significant challenge facing Australia in relation to domestic water use. Domestic households account for around 16 per cent of the consumption of mains-supplied water in Australia, and we do need to do better. We have the capacity to do better. Back in December 2002, a Senate committee completed an inquiry into Australia’s management of urban water. It commented extensively on the issue of urban demand management, saying:

There is considerable scope to reduce water use and achieve efficiencies. Water efficient appliances such as dual flush toilets, low flow shower heads, washing machines and dishwashers can dramatically reduce water use in homes. This can be coupled to water efficient gardens, using native plants, minimal lawns and efficient watering systems.

The committee made a series of recommendations and was very anxious to see us implement successful demand management programs and change behaviour away from habits such as hosing down driveways and gutters, watering lawns during the heat of the day, having long showers and the like. The committee recommended that we have a national water policy, with standards including national water efficiency standards and rating schemes for appliances and building systems. That is something which the opposition strongly endorses.

According to the modelling undertaken in developing the regulatory impact statement, the impact of the labelling system provided for in the bill will be to reduce total household water use by about five per cent by 2021 compared with the business-as-usual approach. No modelling has been done for the introduction of efficiency standards across all of the six products that were considered—washing machines, dishwashers, toilets, showerheads, taps and urinals. The regulatory impact statement suggests that, for water users, the cost of water-efficient products will most likely be higher, but consumers would benefit from a net saving because their total water bills would be lower.

The regulatory impact statement also considered the impact on manufacturers and importers. It is its view that giving them 12 months after the regulations under this bill are finalised will be enough to ensure that products are labelled correctly, and it is to be expected that water efficiency labelling will have an impact on consumer preference. Our view is that that is not a bad thing. We want to encourage people to purchase the products which have high water efficiency rather than low water efficiency.

In conclusion, water is a very substantial challenge for Australia. It is a substantial challenge for our environment. It is a substantial challenge to get our water use right in rural areas and to maintain healthy river systems. It is a substantial challenge to get our water use right in the urban areas, to take action concerning ocean outfalls, to lift our water reuse and recycling and to reduce our water demand so that we do get sustainable water practices in our cities and in the country.

Against that background, we support the legislation, but we do not think it goes far enough. We think the government ought to be acting with a greater sense of urgency, and in our second reading amendment we indicate that the government ought to be delivering water efficiency standards for a range of indoor water use products and that it ought to be taking up what is a significant opportunity to reduce household water consumption.