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Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Page: 6965

Mr IAN MACFARLANE (Groom) (13:06): I rise to speak on the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Amendment (Scheme Enhancements) Bill 2012. As you and I both know, Deputy Speaker Scott, water is not only an essential commodity in our day-to-day lives, and particularly for those from rural industry, but it is a finite resource, and anything that we can do here in this parliament as the overseers of water in Australia to improve the efficient use of that water is a challenge that we must step up to. Those of us who have used appliance in houses that are run by tank water—and I particularly refer back to the days when I was an active farmer—know the importance of preserving every drop. It is not just about using a glass when you are cleaning your teeth or making sure you turn the tap off; it is about ensuring that you put in place in your household the most water-efficient appliances you can buy. There is an incredible range of water-efficient appliances available on the market. It is not just washing machines and dishwashers; it is things like an addition that I made to my house—in fact, I put two of them in—on each of my instant gas heaters. When you turn on the instant gas hot water system, which has a five-star energy rating and in one case boosts my solar system, there is a flow of water through that appliance before the water actually gets hot, and that water is in fact wasted. As I say, those of us who have known all our lives that water is a precious commodity are keen to rectify that. I have installed these new appliances that are currently available that can be fitted after that hot water system which actually holds a small amount of hot water ready to be used while the other system heats up.

This bill allows the Commonwealth minister to determine changes to the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Scheme without changes being required in state and territory legislation. What that means, of course, is that this legislation will allow far more efficient operation of the WELS Scheme, which of course was a proud achievement of the previous coalition government under Prime Minister John Howard. As I say, it is important that consumers know the efficiency of their appliances when they are using water.

Town water these days is a commodity which we no longer take for granted. If I look back at the history in Queensland and going back to the 2005, 2006 and 2007 period, we saw South-East Queensland almost run out of water. In my home town of Toowoomba we had a fairly controversial debate about whether or not we should recycle sewage into the drinking system. Whilst there are certainly some strong arguments for that, I believe that debate was badly mishandled by the then mayor, Di Thorley, who went for far too large a proportion of recycled water, despite my advice to her to perhaps start with 10 per cent and work forward from there. She was determined to push through 30 per cent or more. The community, whilst they were keen to play their part in saving water, simply rejected that proposal. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight it would have been a significant white elephant, being about halfway or perhaps just completed by the time the floods hit Toowoomba and the surrounding region. Our dams in that region have been at about 104 per cent capacity ever since.

The story is not so good for South-East Queensland, of course. The previous Beattie Labor government went for a rolled gold, gilt edged, water recycling system and water grid which I understand cost around $9½ billion. I am not saying that something should not have been done in that case but I am saying that there were far, far more economical ways to achieve the outcomes we needed. Yes, South-East Queensland and Brisbane were running out of water and, yes, something had to be done. But the reality is that a lot of that work was simply done in an unsupervised economic sense. Contractors were just given blank cheques. Things like even base metal gravel for the pipeline was being supplied at exorbitant cost. So little wonder that we now have an extraordinary white elephant in terms of the southern Queensland water grid and a desalination plant at Tugun that is not only rusting but posing an enormous cost to taxpayers.

Rather than get ourselves into a position where we need to make these almost panicked decisions about what we do about providing water to our community, a far more rational way to do it is firstly have a program of ensuring that, as the population grows, we build dams that the community needs. This, again, was one of the problems we had in Toowoomba and is one of the problems in South-East Queensland, because the previous Prime Minister when he worked for Premier Wayne Goss killed off the Wolfdene dam, a dam which would have provided extra water for Brisbane and would have prevented this situation we had a few years ago. In the case of Toowoomba, Toowoomba did nothing to address the fact that no dam had been built in the time that its population doubled, and Toowoomba is the largest inland provincial city in Australia. But what makes it more complicated is that we sit right on top of the Great Dividing Range, so we can rely on no-one else but ourselves for our water and we need to ensure that we have capacity to catch water virtually at its source.

Along with building adequate water storage facilities we need to do two other things. We need to remind the community of the preciousness of water. As I say, Deputy Speaker Scott, you and I and perhaps others in this chamber who have grown up on tank water know that every drop is precious. Since that water crisis and particularly in Queensland, people now have a far better understanding. That is the first thing we need to do in terms of education of the community. The second thing we need to do is ensure that consumers when they go out to buy appliances have more than adequate information to buy an appliance which is very water efficient.

If I could go back to the WELS Scheme and to the amendments that we are looking at today, the scheme was originally introduced by the coalition in 2005. It was at the time—and this showed the vision of the Howard government—the world's first national scheme of its kind, providing for water efficiency labels on showerheads, washing machines, toilets, dishwashers, urinals and taps. Having been a minister for innovation I should just mention that Australia was the country that invented the dual-flush toilet. Our consciousness of water usage has now been raised, and the use of dual-flush toilets in modern housing developments in cities is saving a huge amount of water. It is part of that and part of identifying those water-saving devices and giving them a star rating that this legislation seeks to address. These labels have given consumers an easy to understand star rating, and water consumption information on the water efficiency of different products is contained within this system. Consumers generally look for three things when they buy an appliance. The first thing, obviously, is that the appliance works. They also look at its energy efficiency. That is covered by a star rating. Consumers understand that; they know how that all works. Also, for washing machines, dishwashers and showerheads, they look at their star rating in respect of water consumption. Given that information, and perhaps provided with some incentives from time to time, consumers do want to do the right thing when it comes to saving water.

This bill amends the WELS Act and allows the Commonwealth minister to determine more of the scheme's details but equally those relating to the registration of products and cost recovery. It differs from the current position in that some aspects of the scheme, such as the five-year period for product registration, cannot be changed without changing nine sets of legislation. So it makes sense to give the minister those powers and to ensure that the level of bureaucracy, red tape, paperwork and, of course, cost associated with simply trying to get the scheme to work better is eliminated—and these amendments go towards doing that.

Under these amendments the minister will make changes by disallowable legislative instrument, the terms of which must be agreed to by the majority of states and territories. It is an important facet of the scheme that we actually involve the states and territories in it. If this legislation is passed it is expected that the minister will make a number of changes to the WELS scheme, including revising registration fees to meet the cost recovery target of 80 per cent recovered from the industry. Further amendments are proposed in the bill to enforce provisions of the WELS Act, and civil penalty provisions have been added to provide a more cost-effective enforcement response.

The bill will also apply strict liability to more provisions, because it is currently difficult to prove intent in relation to breaches of the act—for example, for not labelling a product properly. Dare I say that whilst Australian manufacturers do their utmost to comply we have seen examples in this system and also in the energy star rating system where some unscrupulous importers have incorrectly labelled their product. That is not only bad for the scheme and bad in terms of trying to save water and encourage the efficient use of water, but it also creates an unfair situation in terms of Australian manufacturers who are doing the right thing. We want to make sure that within this legislation there is the ability to penalise those people who deliberately do the wrong thing.

Some other changes of an administrative nature have also been made through this amendment, including removing the requirement for gazettal of registration of decisions and instead requiring decisions to be published on the WELS website, and providing further reviews of the operation of the WELS scheme at five-yearly intervals. Even though each time we look at the scheme we make it a little better, who knows what technologies there will be and what efficiencies can be gained from this scheme as innovation takes its part? We want to be sure that we go back and look at the scheme every five years, not just to take up innovation but also to improve the efficiency of the scheme. We are also looking at a number of other ways we can improve consumer information.

The coalition supports this bill, as it builds on and improves a successful scheme which, as I said, was introduced by the previous Howard government. We all need to be mindful of the commodities that we use in our day-to-day life, and there is no more essential a commodity than water. It does not matter whether you are an irrigation farmer at St George or in one of the valleys in northern New South Wales such as Narromine or working off a large dam system such as the Fairbairn up at Emerald: water is important to farmers. But as we found three or four years ago, perhaps to our surprise, people who live in the city see water as an inexhaustible commodity. Much of our water is now consumed by residents in urban situations. Not only do we need to ensure that we have the infrastructure to supply water on a reliable basis—and, let's face it, the Romans did it over 2,000 years ago, so I am not sure why we cannot do it in Australia—but it is imperative that we have a set of arrangements and an information system and a ratings system that allows consumers to use that water efficiently and make sure that we preserve this very vital commodity.

I commend the bill to the House.