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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 137


Senator WEBBER (9:52 PM) —The National Water Commission Bill 2004, as has been outlined by my colleague, creates the National Water Commission, a new statutory commission that is to have two key aims: firstly, assessing the implementation and progress of the National Water Initiative and, secondly, advising on the financial assistance to be provided under the Australian water fund. The simple fact is that, as far as water is concerned, Australia is living beyond its means. Our consumption of water is rapidly eating into our supply. The dams supplying our major cities are running at record low levels, the use of groundwater is seriously affecting the water table and the flow through our creeks, streams and rivers is vastly inadequate. Australia faces this water crisis largely as a result of past policies and inaction in the face of a changing climate—a matter that we have debated often in this chamber. There is no doubt that rainfall has the single largest influence on the availability of water for consumption. It is also clear that southern Australia is experiencing the prolonged below average rainfall that in some places, such as my home state of Western Australia, has taken place over many decades. Increasing population, new industries and more water intensive agriculture demonstrate that we have not adjusted quickly enough to these changes. We have continued, whether in the cities or in the bush, to consume water like there is indeed no tomorrow. The single greatest problem that we face is that we treat water as a single-use commodity. We turn on a tap, have a shower, use a washing machine or fill our pools, and once we have done all that we simply pull the plug.

Although our habits at a domestic level are slowly starting to change, over the last five years we have concentrated purely on the domestic consumption of water. Even though the domestic consumption of water is a minor section of overall consumption, most if not all government action to date has been aimed at the domestic consumer. Inefficient water consumers, such as industry and agriculture, have been immune to the restrictions that we all face, increased prices or requirements to actually recycle water. Now that we are at crisis point, the federal government wants to take a leadership role and invest significant funds to start to address this problem. Whilst this is a very good thing, one wonders about the wasted opportunities over the years to address our record levels of water consumption.

One example that springs readily to mind is rainwater tanks. I am sure that many of us can remember a time when many houses and sheds had attached rainwater tanks. Over time government agencies, in their desire to see all of us connected to scheme or town water because they had built these wonderful dams and had the capacity to charge us for the use of that resource, started to push us to stop using rainwater tanks because of contamination concerns. Of course, this had the desired aim in that people stopped using their rainwater tanks or no longer installed them as part of new residential developments. But now we are in the situation where various governments are offering rebates and other incentives to encourage households to again consider installing rainwater tanks. In fact, a recent study by the University of Newcastle concluded that a family living on the eastern coast of Australia that had a 10,000-kilolitre tank would meet 65 per cent of their annual water needs through the use of that tank. It needs to be pointed out that no longer are rainwater tanks large cylindrical structures that require a lot of space and are a potential eyesore. The newer products on the market these days are designed to sit next to the exterior wall of the house and do not extend beyond the eaves. They come in a variety of designs, shapes and sizes. You have to ask yourself whether the many and varied programs could be reduced to getting people in urban areas to install rainwater tanks.

As it is, what little rain there is that currently falls on the urban areas of Australia becomes stormwater and ultimately passes out to the sea, so surely a program that aimed to at least use this water capacity in some way would be a major step forward. Indeed, just yesterday in the paper there was an article about two inventors who have designed a device that attaches to a hot water tap that stores and then blends the cold water in the pipe with the hot water as it comes through from the hot water system. This simple device—likely to cost in the vicinity of $300 to $500—would save some 25,000 litres per year in the average household. This method and many more would make a significant difference to water consumption within our domestic market.

However, the two major users of water— agriculture and industry—do not seem to attract the same level of regulation, encouragement or restriction. Why is more emphasis not put on industrial users recycling and reusing water? Water used in most industrial processes does not require the same water quality standards as are required for our domestic consumption. The question becomes one of providing sufficient incentive to industries to go down the path of water recycling and reuse. Perhaps a more realistic pricing structure for industrial consumers is also required. If industries can see the bottom line benefits of introducing recycling and reuse, then there is a significant opportunity for them to invest. As long as industries have access to cheap single use water, we should not be surprised that they will always choose that option.

Agriculture, water rights and water flows in our rivers have been areas that have attracted significant research and interest over the last few years. Indeed, to many urban Australians it appears that farmers having to give up rights to water is equated to compensation, which of course means that taxpayers' dollars are to be expended to get farmers to stop taking so much water out of our river system. Perhaps it will see the end of cotton and rice production in one of the driest countries on earth—Australia. It has always seemed to me to be counterproductive in a dry place to grow crops such as cotton and rice that require such huge amounts of water to thrive. Australian farmers are looking at innovative and efficient means of water usage, but we have to break the habits of lifetimes to ensure that our rivers regain an adequate flow. Most of us have been through studies early in high school that teach us the water is a closed system—there is no more or less water in the system at any one time than at any other. However, human consumption of water is reducing the amounts of fresh water, and with decreasing rainfall we can no longer afford to do nothing.

The bill will establish the National Water Commission as a Commonwealth statutory authority. The Commonwealth will nominate three commissioners and the states will nominate three commissioners. The commission will meet at least eight times per year. In fact, I trust that the commission will meet more than eight times a year as this issue is vital for the future of our country. Unless we can develop sustainable usage of fresh water we risk having a less affluent future. The Australian water fund will work with two main programs: water smart Australia and raising national water standards. The water smart Australia program will accelerate the development and uptake of smart technologies and practices in water use. We are told that competitive bidding will determine which projects are funded.

The National Water Commission will make recommendations to the minister, but like so many other programs there is to be a degree of flexibility with this program. It is all very well to talk about new technology and practices that may impact on improving water flows in our rivers but it can also be about improved water storage projects. It will be a program that those of us on this side of the Senate will pay close attention to. This government should not be in the business of disbursing $1.5 billion over five years through the Australian water fund unless there are some targets and firm guaranteed savings as the outcome. If some bright spark turns up with new technology that is funded and then found not to deliver the outcomes that were claimed, what action will be taken? Probably none. This program has the potential to be yet another exercise in picking winners, if we are all not careful. The Commonwealth had better put its money on sure things. I only hope that it will not be in the business of picking projects like the Asia Pacific Space Centre on Christmas Island that this year was meant to launch at least eight space rockets. That was another example of trying to pick winners that has failed spectacularly. It would be disappointing to all Australians to watch $1.5 billion being expended over five years on a bunch of projects that fail to deliver.

The other key area for the Australian water fund is the program called raising national water standards. We are told that this program will invest in Australia's national capacity to measure, monitor and manage its water resources. This program will cost $200 million over five years. Its centrepiece is the introduction of a new rating system for household appliances—something that we already have in Western Australia. Yet again we are seeing that the approach to water management is to bash the domestic consumer over the head. One of the key problems with this national approach to water management—as has been outlined by my colleague Senator Stephens—is that two states, Tasmania and my home state of Western Australia, have not signed up to the policy. As a Western Australian, I can say that it is difficult to understand why these two states should sign up to the initiative. Like many other programs this one has a distinct flavour—and that is the Murray-Darling river system. Essentially, those states which have signed up have the Murray or the Darling flowing through them. It speaks volumes that those states that do not have these rivers have failed to sign up. The clear implication is that there is no pressing requirement to do so.

Water is a major concern to Western Australians and we have the Gallop government taking significant steps to solve our problems in Western Australia. Whether it is moving market gardeners off ground water mounds to reduce the outflow from ground water, the commissioning of a desalination plant or the feasibility study with private industry to investigate the possibilities of canals bringing water down from the north, the Gallop government have taken the lead. Why would they sign up to such an Eastern States-centric approach as is demonstrated in the Howard government's approach to water management? For not much more than is planned to be expended over the five years, Tenix plans to move water from the northern rivers to Perth via a canal. The total cost of this project is only $2 billion—not much more than is planned for the Australian water fund.

The simple facts are these: Perth uses about 310 gigalitres of water per year and the Fitzroy River pushes 9,000 gigalitres out to sea each year. What has been the position of the Howard government on this approach? Western Australia will not sign up so they can go it alone! Going it alone is something that Western Australians are getting used to doing. So far we have introduced policies that have restricted water consumption in our domestic markets, we have moved agricultural producers off ground water mounds, we have looked at new and innovative ways to increase water supplies through existing methods and we are building a desalination plant. We are examining proposals to solve Perth's water needs for the next century.

What is the benefit for Western Australia to sign up to this national approach when we are doing it ourselves without the need for the creation of a new water bureaucracy? For at the heart of the Howard approach to water management is the creation of a new bureaucracy—more bureaucrats dispensing more public moneys for projects that may or may not deliver. Over in Western Australia we are taking action, while the Howard approach is to fund projects that may or may not deliver. I support the approach of the current Western Australian government, which is working to solve its water management problems without the need to create a new bureaucracy. Over time I am sure that the people of Australia will see which approach will deliver a sustainable water future.