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Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities
Australian government's role in the development of cities

ASHTON, Dr Linda, Convenor and Leader, Water for Townsville Action Group

CHAIR: I now welcome Dr Linda Ashton. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Dr Ashton : Thank you. My opening statement is a little disappointment in that I'm not sure that the committee would expect greater attendance. I only found out today, as a representative of this very large group, that the hearing was on. I would indicate that this is not an indication of the level of interest in what's going on. Thank you for the last-minute invitation. I'm going to give a very honest but fairly spontaneous reflection—I haven't had much time to prepare—from the ground up on what it's been like to be involved in the first City Deal as a community partner for a very important piece of critical infrastructure. It's a micro view. I hope you don't mind me focusing on some specific details.

We are predominantly a social media group. I think, from what I've heard this morning—the talk about catching up and being reactive—that some of the ways of gathering information from the community could be in a much more contemporary form, having engagement through things like Facebook and dedicated forums. The community has such a wealth of talent. Our experience has been that the City Deal seems to be owned and belonging to three tiers of government. We feel very much, as the major community representative, that we are an add-on. There is absolutely no funding for our work. We have a group of 15,000 on Facebook and about another 10,000 in the community who are not digitally literate.

Without water security, no other project that we are talking about for infrastructure matters, particularly in Townsville in the dry tropics, and with a cyclical drought experience. Until we get that right first—and it's full security, not patch-up, quick jobs that are electorally expedient—we don't have full water security.

We convened this group in December 2016—coincidentally when the first city deal was signed by the three leaders of government—in response to a comment from council that Townsville did not have a water problem. The city had been on severe level 3 water restrictions for three years in a row. We have a 30-year-old single pipeline from the Burdekin dam, which is five times the volume of Sydney Harbour and two-thirds the area of Victoria. The pipeline, which needs replacing, is 36.5 kilometres long.

In 1987, when the Burdekin Falls Dam was finished, it was kind of an early city deal, because Hawke and Bjelke-Petersen got together—whether they put the partisanship aside, I'm not sure—and got the dam built in three years from sod turning to opening. We are looking at the fourth year of designing this 36.5 kilometre pipeline, and the design is still not completed. In a formal report commissioned by council, also in 1987, the demographic and geographic prediction for Townsville was that we would need 200 megalitres of water per day by 2020. To give you an idea of the restrictions we've been on, we've only been allowed 100 megalitres per day, and it's 2018. So we are now on half the predicted supply, and we knew in 2008 that the first pipeline, which was also built in the late eighties, would not cope.

Part of our problem is the Ross River Dam. It is very shallow and has a huge evaporation rate. Councils and the state government have always known that this infrastructure, built in 1971, was going to be inadequate by now, but nothing has happened. We also have one main treatment plant in Townsville. If that treatment plant were to suffer catastrophic failure, this city of 200,000 people would have three days of drinking water. It's almost our mini Cape Town, you might say.

We're very fortunate to have the Burdekin dam very close. But we're very unlucky that the problem is not water supply; the problem is politics. The decisions we make today, I hope, are going to be decisions that benefit the Townsville community over the next 70 years. What we, as a community group, are seeing are continuing partisanship and short-term electoral cycles—not the 15-year city deal as pledged—to provide the quickest short-term result. I'll elaborate in a moment. A reactive approach is absolutely what our community is seeing. The city deal is supposed to improve on the previous state-council negotiations for designing and funding water infrastructure, but to date there's been no change. The council has not finished a design, the state has provided $225 million to duplicate the old pipeline and the federal government has been silent.

We are definitely an activist group. We are applying scrutiny not hostility, but you're getting it from the horse's mouth. You're getting an honest reflection on the first city deal. We are definitely in contact with all the other cities that are to follow so that they can learn from our experience through community partnerships. We are a nonpartisan group of volunteers, and we know the City Deal back-to-front. Our submission to the City Deal was put forward when the Townsville Water Security Taskforce was convened in early 2017, and we have worked very closely with the water task force, chaired by local businessman and long-time resident Brad Webb. There's a talent pool in the community. We have 'ologists' and engineers—you cannot imagine the depth of talent in this community group. As well as reporting on the history, geography, cultural commitments et cetera, including Indigenous views on how water should be managed, we also have an infrastructure team of techs—they volunteer their expertise and time; no consultancy fee—who have reviewed and rated and prioritised various infrastructure options.

It was our submission that largely influenced what the task force wanted, but it's now being staged. We went for an unstaged option that would give us 80 years of water security. There was a state government election last year. The money came forward from the state—$225 million in an election year—before the water task force interim report came out, and we still do not have a local council finished design. As far as I can see, collaboration amongst the three levels of government could improve. I'm from a long-time education background, and if we ran a school like that we would have the education department breathing down our necks very heavily.

I was listening carefully to Councillor Walker's list of priorities that he mentioned to the committee. I'm not a very popular ratepayer in Townsville because of this activist involvement. Water was not on the list; it certainly was not on the top of the list mentioned by Councillor Walker. And why, you have to wonder, is that? It comes back to this not being about water; it's about politics and partisanship. I've mentioned the state government contribution. What our three Labor state MPs, and the Labour council, are saying now shows a very dangerous shift of language. Stage 1, recommended by the water task force, was for short-term water security, so 10 or 12 years perhaps and then our next generation will be fighting the same fight. What is happening now, in the latest comments in media releases and the like, is Townsville's pipeline—that is, the 36.5 kilometres—is being called 'long-term water security'. That's an alarming slippage in language. We are really, really concerned about what will happen with stage 2, which is an extension of approximately another 30 kilometres. So we're talking about a 70-kilometre pipeline to give this city 70 or 80 years of water security.

The water task force, headed by Brad, put their interim report out on 30 June last year and made some key recommendations. About two months ago, the City Deal's first annual progress report was released. Brad's team had expert engineers employed to advise, and, as I said, they recommended a staged pipeline. He didn't want to lose the state money as the bird in the hand: stage 1 was approved; stage 2, we are still waiting for some money. He also recommended, other than the two stages, that it be a steel pipeline for durability, longevity and to maximise local jobs because, as you heard, we've had the QNI hit. We understand some metal factories and the zinc factory, if the power prices don't drop, are also at risk, so we really have concerns that not only was it the best option, but it maximised local employment.

When the tenders went out the recommendation for steel was ignored and we have now accepted, with no justification, a fibreglass reinforced plastic pipe. We have an expert who has worked 45 years in the plastic pipe industry, and the only real reason we can find that it's going to be a fast-tracked option is—the tender was supposed to be advantaged if it promised longer term local work beyond the construction of stage 1, and that was to set up plant here to manufacture the pipes here, provide training for people to then run the plant for at least six years after stage 1, and hopefully to build stage 2 here. We've now found that the plastic pipes will be made in Adelaide and trucked up using possibly 1,000 trucks, because we can probably only fit two of these 12-metre long by 1.8-metre in diameter pipes on each truck. So it's a disappointment.

This was only announced last week and at no stage was the public, or our large group, which had provided thousands of hours of input to the water task force recommendation for steel, given any impression or were we advised that plastic would be an option. I actually had a phone call on the hotline, which is unfortunately my home phone number, from a plastic pipe manufacturer. He was in tears. His company did not put in a tender because he understood, as we did emphatically, that it was only for steel to tender.

I'm sorry it's jumping around a little bit, but these are my quick notes. I might add the federal government says, 'We've assisted Townsville already with funding; we've given you the stadium.' We're also very aware that the stadium was from a previous initiative, urban renewal, and the money and the project have been slid sideways into the first City Deal. If we'd had a say, obviously a second stadium to seat no more than the original stadium would not have been our top priority with the water security problem that we do have. So as far as our group is concerned, we've not yet had our top priority addressed by the federal government.

We're also very conscious of the fact that there are two feasibility studies by the NWIDF into Hells Gate, which is the one vastly preferred by Bob Katter and Barnaby Joyce, and raising the Burdekin Falls Dam two metres for hydro. Neither of those projects assists us with the urgency that we have. If they happen in 15, 20 or 30 years, fine, they would probably be NAIF eligible; however, we are talking about urban infrastructure—critical urban infrastructure—which is not eligible. We don't have an agriculture component. Another alarming thing in that annual progress report was that City Deal is now being talked of in terms of 'regional water infrastructure'.

To conclude—I imagine I'm close—in our report there is an observation about City Deal and its 'plonk' factor from the UK. Obviously for vast areas in Australia, the dry tropics and the driest continent inhabited on the earth, we need to be much more proactive. So I suggest there is urgency for $225 million from the federal government to honour their part of the first city deal; involving youth, because they are the ones who will live with our legacy, whether it's good or bad; money for future community partnership groups—if you want serious community partnership, you have to pay for it; we haven't been—to try to eliminate the partisanship that we believe is very, very much holding back the good concept of City Deals. It is still going on. I don't know how you solve that. But the short-term, cyclical gain—example: this election coming up. They're now fast-tracking this plastic pipe so it's rushed to be finished in two years, even though the state funding is over four years. Why rush it? The dam is full. It's a delicate process to lay this plastic pipe. If they don't do it properly—like the first one wasn't—we'll have the same problem.

There are two final things. We seriously need to consider full potable water recycling from toilet to tap in Australia and in the dry tropics. It's successful in other countries, and has been so for 30 years. We're very much behind. That needs a lot of education money. And, if we're really looking ahead, our sugar-rich industry in the region will be the tobacco of the future in 10 years. If we keep relying on the sugar industry in this area, there will be a lot of trouble, because we're all aware of the costs to the community and to the health system. Thank you.

CHAIR: We are out of time. Could we have your report?

Dr Ashton : Yes. It's not our latest; it's an interim only. But, yes, you may.

CHAIR: We want the latest. Don't you try to cheap us out!

Dr Ashton : We will give you our latest—due out in July.

CHAIR: Okay. Thank you for that last comment, because the problem of sugar is something that we discussed over lunch. We've got to make policy for now but also with a view to the future, and a lot of what you said rings through very loud and clear regarding the need to align the three levels of government, as does the pursuit of insulating good policy and good planning from political interference. I think they are the keys that you have talked to us about today.

Dr Ashton : Absolutely, yes.

CHAIR: You are consistent with nearly everybody who has given evidence throughout our inquiry. Thank you for your attendance here today. You have been asked to provide some additional information. If you'd be so kind as to provide that to the secretary by Friday, 11 May, that would be appreciated.

Ms BIRD: Chair, that would have to be the interim, because the final one's not out till July.

Dr Ashton : This is just our interim, but, yes, you're welcome to have that.

CHAIR: Okay. You'll be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thank you very much.