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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2047

Mr JENKINS (12:27 PM) —The debate on the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Bill 2004 is a timely opportunity for this House to discuss matters to do with the sustainability of our cities. There can be no greater and more important resource than water, and the way in which we handle it is very important to the way in which we develop truly sustainable cities. It has been my pleasure over the last few months to be involved in the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage inquiry into sustainable cities. As we have toured Australia, amongst the numerous issues that have been raised with us the sustainable use of water has been one of the very important ones.

The purpose of this bill, as has been discussed, is to establish a national scheme to apply water efficiency labelling to appliances and to subsequently set minimum water efficiency standards for certain water use and water saving products. As has been discussed in the debate, the initial emphasis of this bill is on the labelling rather than the efficiency standards, and the opposition believes that this is a weakness in the legislation as presented. Having said that, I think that what we have here is an opportunity to discuss matters that are really very important, need ventilation and require that we as a legislature show leadership. One of the most important aspects of sustainability is to get proper understanding throughout the community. I believe that this piece of legislation, the labelling of products, is one way we can achieve this better understanding.

As we go around Australia, there is debate about whether people are switched on to these issues. How important are these issues in people's mind-set when they go forward as consumers to buy products? Slowly but surely we are seeing that people understand their importance. The energy efficiency ratings that you see on white goods are slowly but surely being used by consumers as an element in the decision making involved in making purchases. I believe this type of labelling about water efficiency will add immeasurably to people's understanding of the importance of these decisions.

This bill does not go to the way in which we tackle the issues of retro-fitting. Products that are old technology, that are not as efficient as they should be, are used in housing and commercial premises. But, if we add this step to the purchase of new products, slowly but surely people will explore the way in which they can retrofit. That may be by buying new appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines. It may be that people improve the types of shower heads and the like that they use. It is important that at a governmental level we come together and put in place measures that lead people's understanding of the problems we confront. Major cities are undertaking measures to control the use of water because the dams are insufficient for the way in which the urban sprawl has developed. Throughout the inquiry into sustainable cities we have had a dilemma: people have been saying that the infrastructure that is required is perhaps outstripping the community's ability to supply it. Water infrastructure is one important aspect that has been discussed. We can achieve greater outcomes by the more efficient use of that resource.

In many developments that we visited throughout Australia we saw subdivisions and housing developments where effort had been put into managing the use and reuse and reclaiming of water. We saw the use of grey water for different purposes, such as for the flushing of toilets. To achieve that, separate pipes and separate infrastructure are required throughout households. That can only occur if we have in place a mind-set where people ask it of their builders, of those designing homes and of those planning subdivisions. Again I stress that that is the importance of this piece of legislation.

Often the appliances with the more efficient energy ratings have a higher cost. Quite rightly in this bill it is assumed from the outset that the more efficient appliances and devices for the use of water may have a premium. But if you analyse the economic life of those appliances, you find that the savings in the reduced use of the resource—whether it be energy or, in this case, water—mean that the appliances pay for themselves. But still there is an economic impediment because of the higher purchase price. These are the important elements to make people aware of in the continuing debate about sustainability. This is not just important to the individual; it is important to the wider community and to the nation. Despite the impediments that our quaint federation put in place which require this Commonwealth legislation to be mirrored by state and territory legislation, we can achieve outcomes in the stewardship of our environment and resources that will enable us to pass on to future generations sustainability of the environment and resource use.

The member for Wills in leading the debate for the opposition has outlined some of our concerns about this bill and about elements of the national water initiative. I want to stress one of those aspects—I see the honourable member for Flinders is in the chamber—and that is the question of ocean outfalls. In the new technologies being developed for sewage treatment, there is so much that can be achieved in the greater reuse of sewage as a resource. The national water initiative in part addresses the need for greater research into water reclamation, recycling and reuse and into the health and safety aspects involved. One of the impediments that we see for communities adopting these new technologies is the great fear about the health and safety aspects of the use of this water because of where it is sourced from. But we can see—and it has been proved in a number of cases—that these are not problems that cannot be surmounted and that these technologies to reuse water can be put in place efficiently.

One of the often intriguing things in the sustainable use of resources such as water is where we place economic triggers. In the development of national water policy and a national water initiative we have to be cognisant that in the past water has been seen as being available in infinite volumes. I do not think that we really understood until recently that we have to be wiser in the way that we use water. One measure that can be implemented to some extent is the price trigger, but for governments at any level that is a very hard decision to make. I do not raise this matter to promote an extended increase in the price of water over and above the way in which we are gradually looking at the issue. But it is an important trigger. It makes people more alert; it makes them more conscious of their use of water.

We have seen those supply and demand issues in capital cities such as Melbourne, where the level of water restrictions is such that people are very conscious about their use of water. They are very conscious when it comes to inefficient and deplorable practices, such as cleaning cement areas and driveways by watering them down. Individuals are looking at ways to make their gardens more water efficient—for instance, by using native plants—and at other measures to decrease the need to use water.

This legislation is really about the domestic use of water. As has been said, the main indoor domestic use of water is showering, which makes up 29 per cent of domestic use. Flushing toilets and clothes washing make up about 26 per cent each and baths, sinks, hand basins and laundry tubs make up about 18 per cent. These are the areas in which people can be conscious in their day to day lives of the measures they can employ to make a contribution.

We are asking the bulk of the Australian population who live in urban areas to be conscious of the dilemmas that are confronting all of us. Whilst it is true that greater volumes of water are used in rural and agricultural purposes, the people who work in those sectors are being asked to look at the way they can use water more efficiently. Therefore, it is quite right that people in urban settings look at how they can be more water conscious. This has to be a shared responsibility, and I believe that slowly but surely there is an understanding of this shared responsibility at the national level.

As I said, the House environment committee has been inquiring into sustainable cities for all of this year. It is going to be a photo finish between this inquiry being finalised and an election being called. If an election is called before the inquiry has finished deliberating and reported, I hope that whatever the incoming government after the election may be it will ensure that this reference is given back to the House environment committee so this work can be completed. Whether we are talking about the sustainable use of water, land or energy, or the way in which we design our houses, subdivisions or cities, this is an important debate that has been going on at the national level. It is a shared responsibility between state governments, local governments and communities and we can all do our bit in partnership to ensure that these outcomes are achieved.

As this legislation goes forward and builds upon the discussions that have happened at ministerial council level and COAG level and the aspects that arise out of the Senate inquiry, I hope this important debate will continue, because this piece of legislation cannot be the end of our discussions. As I said from the outset, this is one of the rare opportunities this chamber has to debate issues about sustainability that are so important to the future of our nation, cities and communities.

The interesting thing about our inquiry into sustainable cities is that, even in the rural context of townships and small communities, there is great advantage in highlighting the issue of sustainability. By doing that, everybody can think about the way in which they can make a contribution in their daily lives and how they plan their futures; they can understand that we have a responsibility for the stewardship of our resources—in this case, the environment—and also understand how the pursuit of sustainability has economic costs and benefits and social costs and benefits. These are complicated equations.

I believe that the government, in framing this piece of legislation, has recognised these aspects. This is not just about the way in which we try to use a resource such as water more efficiently, by encouraging people to understand the water efficiency of appliances and devices; it is also about looking at the economic consequences and the social consequences. We must look at the social consequences of not using resources sustainably and not living sustainably, because these social consequences are not directly understood. It is important that these discussions take place.

This legislation is a step in the right direction. It is an element of a rather bigger tapestry—that is, the National Water Initiative—that goes across a whole host of matters that affect different sectors of the community and the nation. It is important that we have this legislation, which gives those initiatives some impetus and gives the community a greater understanding of the importance of these issues.

I hope the government will take on board the opposition's desire to go even further and benchmark the efficiency of other devices and appliances, beyond just the flushing capacity of toilets. If it is all right to set a minimum efficiency standard of an average flush volume of no more than 5½ litres, why don't we look at ways to achieve and set standards for other appliances and devices, such as maximum flow measures for shower heads or maximum volumes used in an average cycle of a dishwasher or washing machine? These things need to be recognised. I also implore the government to continue to look at ways in which we can encourage people to purchase these devices. Unfortunately, like a whole host of things, when there are economic impediments, there is an unequal uptake. Those people in the community who would find it hard to purchase these devices need to be assisted to make these types of wise choices that this type of labelling is trying to encourage.

Whilst I support the second reading amendment that has been moved by the member for Wills on behalf of the opposition and the three dot points that are included in that amendment—the need to look at water efficiency standards for more types of products, the need to look at measures to fund some of the requirements needed to deliver the types of environmental outcomes we want and the need to encourage the government to look at a number of the items that are in Labor's framework for a national water policy—I give this bill my support. It is an important step towards the way in which we, as a nation, can encourage people as individuals, families and communities to look at the way in which their daily lives affect our ability to act as a sustainable community and to deliver sustainable cities and townships throughout Australia.