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Thursday, 31 August 1972
Page: 605


Senator DAVIDSON (South Australia) - I want to take up the discussion on the report on Canberra sewage effluent, which has been tabled in this Senate by the Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Environment. The report was tabled against several backgrounds. One was the expression of concern at the alleged pollution of waters downstream to the north-west of Canberra. The alleged pollution was in New South Wales territory. A claim was made that the pollution was from sewage effluent discharged through the treatment works at Canberra. Another background was the terms of reference of the Standing Committee on Social Environment. I take the liberty of quoting them, as they are in the report. The terms of reference were:

That there be referred to the Standing Committee on Social Environment the following matter:

(1)   the continuing oversight of the problems of pollution, including ways and means of preserving the environment from pollution; and

(2)   the recommending, as soon as possible, of what further measures might bc taken to overcome the problems revealed by the Reports of the Senate Select Committees on Air Pollution and Water Pollution, and which measures, if any, should be taken urgently.

As the report states, the terms of reference were wide-ranging and gave the Committee a continuing charter - a charter to exercise, on behalf of the Senate, an oversight of the problems of pollution and ways and means of preserving the environment from pollution. I am sure that honourable senators would agree that that charter was a wide one. It gave the Committee considerable power - a power which had to be discharged very carefully. The Committee was entrusted with something which was described as the continuing oversight of the problems of pollution including ways and means of preserving the environment from pollution, and making recommendations. That charter certainly gave the Committee considerable power. So the matter of exercising its discretion and fixing priorities was not easy. I draw the attention of the Senate to the degree of responsibility that the Committee had to exercise. In determining which aspects of pollution problems should receive attention, the matter of careful discharge of responsibility and of the careful use of the authority, power and influence that the Committee had was taken into account very seriously. I think it is fair to make the observation that terms of reference such as the ones laid down for the Committee carry with them not only responsibility but a warning to the Senate and to the Committee that care should be taken that a committee, with these terms of reference and with this degree of operation, should not be placed in a position in which it might be said, rightly or wrongly, that it could be subjected to pressures and influences which would make it very difficult for the Committee to operate in the effective way that it would like to operate.

I have referred to a number of backgrounds to the tabling of the report. A further background was the situation in relation to the various areas of Commonwealth and State authorities and the limitations of Commonwealth and State authorities, particularly in regard to the control and quality of waters and streams. Another background was the reference in the Committee's terms of reference to the report of the Senate Select Committee on Water Pollution, which was tabled : in the Senate some time ago. It has achieved considerable distinction and enjoys considerable leadership in the field of discussion about water quality and management. I refer again to the conclusions and recommendations of the Select Committee. Honourable senators will know that I have referred to them on many occasions. Members of the Select Committee have referred to them. I am talking about the area of Commonwealth and State authority in relation to the management and quality of streams and waters. I draw attention to the first conclusion of the Select Committee. It reads:

Water pollution is only part of a much broader pollution problem which' is threatening our whole national environment. .

It can be solved most effectively: by tackling it as a national problem.

In doing so, Australia must . recognise its responsibilities in an international movement to clean up 'spaceship earth' and it must recognise that it may be both polluter and victim in 'international' problems such as that presented by oil pollution. , . .

Another conclusion of the Select Committee was:

There is nothing in the present piecemeal and parochial administration df 'water to prevent the insidious growth of pollution excesses.

The problem of pollution is so vast, the responsibility so diffused, and the ignorance of causes and consequences so widespread, that only a concerted national effort can save many Australian water resources from becoming unusable.

Adequate constitutional powers for such an effort are already available to the States and the Commonwealth.

Water pollution control in Australia lacks authority, co-ordination and planning, and clearly defined objectives.

Honourable senators who remember the particular exercise in which the Select Committee was engaged will recall the urgency and emphasis that it placed on its leading recommendation, which was:

1.   A National Policy. Australia should adopt a national approach to the management of its water resources which sets out accepable standards, coordinates the aims and aspirations of State and local government authorities, and creates the machinery to achieve them in balance with other national goals such as those for growth and development.


Senator Byrne - That urgency was underlined by resolution of the Senate.


Senator DAVIDSON - It was. Senator Byrne played a leading part in underlining that urgency by successfully having additional words added to the motion for the adoption of the Select Committee's report. The Select Committee also recommended:

2.   A National Body. The Commonwealth should take urgent steps to establish a National Water Commission.

The functions of the Commission should include:

(a)   the formulation of a national policy on water resources management;

(b)   an assessment of water resources and quality;

(c)   programming for the conservation and orderly development of water resources.

I presented that background in some detail and with some emphasis largely because of personal involvement and largely because of personal conviction.

The Senate Standing Committee on Social Environment, having a particular job to do, was confronted with a situation in which there was a water question which involved a national capital area and State geographical areas. Its study was in relation to a city which is a national capital and a city which is associated with rivers and streams over which it has no management because the streams are part of another geographical territory. Because the national capital did not manage the waters of the rivers and streams referred to there were particular problems. I turn to the report of the Standing Committee. Honourable senators will remember that the Standing Committee pointed out in its conclusions that as in other instances where waters are common to several political jurisdictions effective management of the resources and of the use of the resources can be achieved only by co-operation of the authorities concerned. Honourable senators who served on the Committee will recall that it referred to the co-operation of the authorities in the 2 jurisdictions in a joint effort directed towards assessment of the present and future waste disposal and the water resource requirement so as to achieve the most economically acceptable and practical solution in the light of their needs. This led the Committee to recommend that the authorities in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales should engage in a further joint testing programme.

The Committee set out in its report that it commended both authorities for the joint testing programme as the first step towards co-operative joint management that could bring under control all sources of waste water in this part of the Mumimbidgee basin and would protect all beneficial uses of the water. I am placing great emphasis on the recommendations of the Senate Select Committee on Water Pollution in its reference to a national water authority of some kind. We called it a national water commission'. I am not suggesting that a national water commission would be the answer to the kind of problem about which we are speaking but this set of circumstances has arisen because of diffusion of authority. While there has been joint effort, concern by both authorities in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales and a very good degree of co-operation, this only highlights problems that stem from a proliferation of authorities relating to water quality and management throughout Australia. Indeed, I am suggesting that it underlines the very essence and content of the earlier Senate Select Committee's report relating to water pollution.

I turn very quickly to deal with one or two of the main conclusions and recommendations in the report and to move away from the area which deals with the proposed authority. I want to look quite briefly at the reference to quality of water in the report. Members of the Committee will recall that in its conclusions the Committee pointed out that the quality of water in a stream should be assessed in relation to its use and not just set down as a reference to an absolute standard of a predetermined quality of water without any regard for the particular use for which the water would be put at a given time. We also came to the conclusion that the allegations of harmful pollution by Canberra's sewage effluent have been based on the assumption that drinking water standards should be maintained at all times in the Mumimbidgee River and the Burrinjuck Dam.

These allegations have not been substantiated by evidence given to us. We were also quite convinced that there was no conclusive evidence of harmful effects from overflow or from leaching from the Coppin's sludge lagoon. As members of the Committee will recall, the discussion related to the chemical known as 'Solvex' which is used as a masking agent particularly to reduce odour problems at the Weston Creek treatment works. We were convinced from the evidence put before us that the chemical had not been found to produce any harmful residue in effluent.

The Committee moved finally to the recommendations which very briefly made a plea that the joint testing programme to which I have already referred and which is currently being conducted by the Commonwealth and State governments should be continued permanently as the first step in the joint management of the waters involved, and that in the joint management suitable water quality and water disposable standards should be determined according to the use required. We recommended that they should be not only determined but also maintained. We said that in the continuing surveillance of the receiving waters attention should be paid to the long term effects of the masking agent known as 'Solvex'. I have already indicated that we did not discover any harmful effects. The Committee was concerned about long term effects and therefore we recommended continuing surveillance through a progressive and effective programme for the phasing out of non-biodegradable detergents.

I think that the activity of the Senate Committee on Social Environment represents the first step towards taking a responsible decision in relation to its pollution terms of reference. I hope that the Senate will examine the report and comment upon it, but not only on the legal issue to which it refers. I think the Senate should also see it as a guideline resulting from the very important terms of reference which have been laid down by the Senate for the Committee.







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