By TONY FOSTER*
HIGH quality water and sewerage services are a fundamental right of every modern community.
That is why the current debate, and the proposed legislation about to be considered by the Tasmanian parliament to determine the future ownership of TasWater is crucially important.
If we agree that effective water and sewerage services are fundamental to the community, then it is appropriate that all levels of government should at least have an interest in their provision.
That is not to say that TasWater should be taken over by the State Government, or indeed the Commonwealth, but both these tiers should share some financial responsibility without assuming ownership.Indeed, previously when individual councils owned and managed water and sewerage services, the State Government, as well as the Commonwealth, on occasions, provided funding for specific services and works.
There is actually a long history of the Australian Government directing funding to councils for water and sewerage upgrades, through State Governments. In Tasmania for example, the Northern Midlands Council received more than $1 million in 2000/01 to upgrade the Campbelltown, Evandale, Perth and Cressy sewage treatment plants and in 2008/9, the Clarence City Council received a $10.5 million grant from the Commonwealth for the Clarence Recycled Water Scheme in 2008-09.
Similar funding arrangements are regularly made interstate. As an example, from 2006 to 2010, Queensland’s Wide Bay Water on the Fraser Coast, received nearly $10 million in Commonwealth funding.
TasWater is now part-way through a major 10-year infrastructure upgrade program that will elevate our water and sewerage services to relevant national health and environmental standards and in doing so, make a major contribution to Tasmanian employment and economic activity. It is achieving this at a sustainable cost that fits within TasWater’s financial capacity, includes only modest price rises for consumers and provides a reasonable return on the investment councils have made in the corporation.
This, as well as the legal impediment to the proposed State Government takeover, already widely canvassed, is reason enough for TasWater to remain under its current local government ownership. Added to this is the strength of the experienced independent Board of Directors and expert management team and workforce, many of whom would be placed at risk by a State Government takeover.
It is true that the State Government claims to offer savings on water and sewerage charges, but in reality this is simply a politician’s promise for a slightly smaller increase in annual charges – no detail, no modelling, just a promise. At the same time, the Government intends borrowing an additional and unnecessary $600 million that will have to be repaid, if not by TasWater’s current customers, then by their children and grandchildren. So, the promised lower price rises than those proposed by TasWater, may in fact be higher in the medium to long term.
Treasurer Peter Gutwein has said that the Commonwealth will not provide any funding for TasWater under its current ownership model and the concern is that he may well have done a deal with his Federal counterpart to this end. If that is the case, he has done a gross disservice to Tasmania and Tasmanians.
At the most recent Federal election, the Labor Party offered $75 million to assist the upgrading of Tasmania’s water and sewerage infrastructure. Councils were also promised $400 million in Federal funding at the outset of the reform process, however nothing was forthcoming. But the point is there are precedents for Commonwealth funding and Mr Gutwein cannot claim that it won’t be provided now, unless he has told his federal colleagues to adopt this position for his own political purposes.
The State Government is also able to provide funding, particularly where it wants to facilitate major developments such as the relocation of the Macquarie Point sewerage plant for its pet Mac Point development project, or the Cameron Bay plant to assist the proposed MONA expansion. There’s also Launceston’s historic combined water and sewerage system that requires major investment to avoid ongoing discharges into the Tamar River at times of high rainfall.
All this can be achieved without the angst, agony, cost and legal doubt of the proposed takeover of TasWater.
The best outcome for Tasmanians is for the three tiers of government to work together to continue the upgrading of Tasmania’s water and sewerage services, cost effectively and in a reasonable timeframe.
This is the course the State Government should be adopting, rather than mounting its pointless takeover and continually attacking TasWater and its local government owners.
* 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.