By TONY FOSTER*
FOLLOWING the House of Assembly’s passing of the State Government’s legislation to take over TasWater, the Legislative Council now has the responsibility to do the right thing by Tasmanians and reject the bill when it gets to the Upper House.
The Legislative Council Select Committee is currently taking evidence from interested parties and will report to the House before it formally considers the Government’s legislation in coming weeks.Because of its proud and long-standing history of involvement in water and sewerage reform, Brighton Council made an extensive submission to the Select Committee. Brighton was recognised nationally for its water and sewerage reforms in the late 1990s early 2000s. It was the first Council in Australia to transfer sewerage effluent from waterways to local farm land and introduce water metres and two-part pricing to the entire municipality.
Our real concern at the Government’s TasWater takeover is that it is based on a false premise and bad policy. Governments don’t always get it right and there are countless examples of bad policy leaving a sad legacy for the future.
For example, the establishment of broad-acre housing developments in the early 1970s in Bridgewater, Gagebrook and Herdsmans Cove was not ideal and today we are still trying to come to terms with, and manage the issues associated with that decision-making. Providing affordable housing, health, education and transport services, employment opportunities and meeting energy costs are all bi-products of poor government decision-making and these issues are still affecting our community nearly 50 years on.
This serves to emphasise the point about governments making decisions based on politics and not on common sense, community interest or a realistic perspective.
It is difficult to understand why Treasurer Peter Gutwein and the State Government have embarked on its TasWater takeover strategy – one that has no basis in fact nor benefit for our community. And it is based on the false premise of a crisis in the provision of Tasmania’s water and sewerage services, which the Treasurer claims are Third-World.
If you want to see a “crisis” you only have to consider the more than 60 million displaced people in the world who do not have access to drinkable water or more recently, the 400,000, and growing daily, Rohingya people who have had to flee Myanmar and currently are ensconced in tents in squalor in Bangladesh. If you want to see “Third-World”, visit parts of Africa or South Asia where raw sewerage is running down the street.
That is “crisis” and “Third-World”, not the fact that a few small towns across Tasmania, representing less than one percent of our population, currently have issues with water that will be fixed by August 2018 – the time of the proposed hostile takeover by the State Government.
It is disingenuous, dishonest and insulting in the extreme for Mr Gutwein to make claims of a “crisis” and “Third-World” water and sewerage systems when that is patently not the case in Tasmania.
As we pointed out in our submission to the Select Committee, Tasmanian Councils stand to lose up to $45.7 million a year in lost distributions after 2025 if the State Government’s takeover is successful. These distributions are not held by Councils in their bank accounts, but are used to fund essential community projects such as roads, footpaths, community health facilities, parks and recreation areas, and other services vital to the community’s well-being.
So, Brighton and other communities, that handed TasWater a well-established and mature water and sewerage system already paid for by ratepayers, will have to pay again in the form of higher council rates and increased water and sewerage charges to pay for Mr Gutwein’s increased and unnecessary $600 million in debt. And the guarantee provided by the Treasurer of distributing half of TasWater’s future surpluses is worthless. TasWater has already testified to the Select Committee that the State Government’s plan will render the business unsustainable and unable to generate any surpluses. So, half of nothing is nothing.
The impact could be even greater. Currently, interest rates are at historical lows, but if they were to rise by just two percent, the interest payments on TasWater’s debt under the Government’s plan would rise by $30 million a year. That is an extra $30 million that would have to be paid for by TasWater’s customers – householders all around Tasmania.
The findings of the Select Committee and the vote in the Legislative Council will have very wide consequences for Tasmania. Will TasWater remain in local government ownership and run by an independent skills-based Board and expert management, or will it be a State Government GBE able to be directed by and have its balance sheet raided by the Minister in control of water and sewerage in Tasmania?
Tasmanians can only trust that the Legislative Council does the right thing and firmly rejects the Government’s ill-conceived and ill-considered legislation.
* Tony Foster is Tasmania’s longest-serving mayor being first elected Mayor of Brighton in 1993. He served as the inaugural chief representative of TasWater’s owner councils, stepping down at the end of 2015.