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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 95


Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (6:21 PM) —On average, Australia uses 350 litres of water per person per day. This figure has already been mentioned several times in this chamber and no doubt will be again. The problem is that overall demand is increasing and that is putting greater pressure on our limited water resources. It is clear to the Democrats that urban centres in Australia are using water in ways and quantities that are unsustainable. A great deal is being done, but we still see a specific need to increase the pace of change. We see a definite role for the Commonwealth to play in managing national water resources and setting national standards for efficiency.

At the time of the announcement of the Australian water fund, the Democrats were very pleased to see recognition from the Prime Minister of the role the federal government can play in achieving significant cultural shift in water use and management. However, the reform is not keeping pace with the damage being caused by the expanding ecological footprint of our cities and nor are water efficiency initiatives keeping pace with growth in water use. I am convinced that Australia already has most of the knowledge, the technical expertise and the systems to solve the problems in urban water management. In fact, many of the initiatives that have been taken in this country have gone offshore, where other countries are much more interested in conserving water than we have been to date.

I welcome the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Bill 2004. This comes as a result of negotiations between the Democrats and the government a year or so ago. The government wished to shift moneys that were not required from the oil recycling program to a range of projects, and we asked for water efficiency standards for appliances to be funded as part of numerous projects under Sustainable Cities, including extension of the photovoltaic scheme for 12 months.

Moving to national water efficiency standards was one of the recommendations, as has also been mentioned, of the 2002 Senate Inquiry into Australia’s Urban Water Management. I chaired that inquiry, and we looked in great detail at the adequacy of policies to reduce urban water use, the performance of urban stormwater systems and the potential to improve water quality and environmental outcomes. The final report of that inquiry calls for the government to play a more prominent role in driving the changes needed for sustainable urban water management. Since that time the government has set up the National Water Initiative and the National Water Commission, and we hope these are the first of many steps to be taken in that direction. We look forward to what will initially be mandatory labelling showing water efficiency ratings for domestic fittings and appliances as we have already for energy, and on to mandatory standards. That has the potential to result in very significant water savings.

My understanding, Senator Wong—and, if Senator Campbell is back in time, I am sure he will say this—is that toilets are the first step and that there is no requirement for other appliances to be in the legislation but they will be dealt with by regulation shortly. We hope to see continued work towards a similar water and energy efficiency rating scheme for buildings and for best-practice water management standards to be incorporated into Australia’s building and plumbing codes, particularly to pave the way for much greater recycling of water. Re-use of effluent on gardens and domestic use of grey water in cisterns, for example, could have a major impact on water conservation in this country.

Efficient water use within households must be coupled with water sensitive urban design principles, which currently remain the exception rather than the rule. Substantial water savings can be made through stormwater infrastructure and management being changed and reformed by minimising stormwater run-off and encouraging structures that contain rainwater on site. I have a 1,100-litre rainwater tank which fills up on a regular basis, especially in recent storms, and it is very useful.


Senator Patterson —It would be overflowing since last Tuesday.


Senator ALLISON —It overflowed probably several times, Senator Patterson, but it is very useful for watering my small garden.


Senator Patterson —When you are home.


Senator ALLISON —When I am home, exactly. We know that large volumes of drinking water are used for maintaining urban gardens. Initiatives to re-use grey water must be more fully explored and we must also have efficient garden watering systems so that this incentive on household appliances is supplemented by other sensible measures.

The Democrats also urge the Commonwealth to lead by example and develop a strategy for progressively upgrading all Commonwealth buildings for high standards of water efficiency. The cisterns in my suite are certainly still single flush and I think it is time we moved to dual flush throughout this building. There is little doubt that water use in both urban and rural areas is of primary importance to Australians and fundamental to establishing a sustainable and enjoyable standard of living in this country. At the time of its announcement, the coalition’s $2 billion Australian water fund was welcomed by the Democrats. A national approach to water through the Council of Australian Governments is crucial for Australia to move forward to the end goal of sustainable use of water resources.

The Senate has provided a clear basis for water reform strategy through both the urban water inquiry and the later rural water inquiry, which was chaired by my colleague Senator Ridgeway. Considering the importance of this issue and the absolute necessity of bringing the states on board for all negotiations, the Democrats encourage the federal government to engage with the states in order to establish an effective water reform strategy. It would be good to move quickly from mandatory labels to labels plus mandatory standards and for these to be progressively improved. The minister has notified us that he will see that minimum standards for water efficiency are identified and determined by the end of 2007. For the record, I thought I would read the relevant paragraphs of the minister’s letter. He says:

As you may be aware, the Bill establishes a regulatory framework for the Scheme. Standards for specific products will be set by ministerial determination, once the Bill is enacted. The Government has foreshadowed, in the explanatory statement and regulatory impact statement tabled with the Bill, its intention to introduce a mandatory minimum standard for toilets. I anticipate setting this standard shortly after the Bill is enacted.

I intend to consider the need for further mandatory minimum standards once the scheme has been in operation for 12 months. This will allow time for industry to adjust to the new regulatory requirements and also allow the Secretary of my department, as regulator, to gather information about the performance of products and the potential for further water savings and to recommend additional standards. I would then consult stakeholders through a regulatory impact statement in the normal way. I expect this process would be completed, ready for my final decision, in 2007.

We strongly encourage the minister to act on that commitment. Without identification of the absolute minimum water efficiency baseline for manufacturers, efforts to reduce water use through the sale of water efficient appliances may well be offset by the sale of much cheaper products with no efficiency benefits. While labelling is a very important first move, plumbers and builders would of course be free to select or recommend products irrespective of water efficiency, as many do now, and would be able to remove the water efficiency labels before end users see them.

Wasteful water practices have resulted in the degradation of many of our water resources and in ongoing rationing in many of our capital cities and rural areas. The Democrats believe the commitment to funding to secure the National Water Initiative is extremely important. So we hope that state and federal governments will adopt the second unanimously agreed recommendation from the Senate inquiry into rural water—namely, that COAG should negotiate an ongoing shared program for funding reforms in the Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Water Initiative.