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Democracy versus leadership in Poowoomba

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Monday, 31 July 2006


Why did Prime Minister John Howard insist that the people of Toowoomba vote on the issue of waste water recycling? Why didn’t he just give the Mayor of Toowoomba Di Thorley the $23 million she requested to build a state-of-the-art water recycling facility? The project met all the criteria for funding under the National Water Initiative.

Perhaps, like me, the Prime Minister assumed the vote would get up. He assumed that the people of Toowoomba, perched on the edge of the Great Diving Range at the headwaters of the Murray Darling Basin, would accept this was the best option.

Safe water yields in Toowoomba were exceeded in 1998 and the population has kept growing. In the immediate to short term, the city needs to find an additional 7,000 megalitres a year and in the medium-to-long term another 12,500 megalitres.

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The Queensland Government has ruled out the possibility of a new dam as it would be upstream of Wivenhoe Dam, the main water supply for Brisbane. Queensland Gas Company has claimed it could supply Toowoomba with water from its coal-seam gas mines, but the Toowoomba City Council claims supply would be unreliable and the water too salty for drinking without expensive treatment.

Toowoomba is too far from the coast to consider desalination and pumping from groundwater is not sustainable in the longer term.

But all of these options may need to be revisited as the recycling option was voted down on Saturday. Over 60 per cent of residents voted “no” to the city council’s proposal for waste-water recycling.

Toowoomba’s Mayor Di Thorley has been a great ambassador for both recycling and for an independent, self-reliant Toowoomba. But in conceding defeat she suggested Queensland Premier Peter Beattie now take over responsibility for providing Toowoomba’s water needs.

Until a week ago the Premier would not publicly support the project and had ruled out the possibility of Brisbane residents ever drinking recycled sewage.

But the weekend before the referendum, the Premier had what On Line Opinion chief editor Graham Young described as a “Damascus Road conversion” and came out publicly supporting waste-water recycling. It was the same weekend Brisbane hosted Earth Dialogues and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev spoke in favour of waste-water recycling for Toowoomba.

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There was never any shortage of proponents for the “yes” vote. Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett campaigned for the “yes” vote, as did Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Don Burke from Burke’s Backyard and chair of new environment group the Australian Environment Foundation, issued a media release just before the referendum suggesting that Toowoomba was leading the way, addressing an issue that other cities had so far failed to address.

Ian Kiernan from Clean Up Australia gave his backing to the plan claiming that with the right science and technology waste-water recycling is 100 per cent safe. Even the Australian Greens support the technology on the basis it will decrease per capita consumption of freshwater.

So what went wrong? Why did the referendum fail? Who opposed the project?

Citizens Against Drinking Sewage (CADS), formed in opposition to the project, ran a simple local campaign playing on distrust of technology, aversion to human excreta, and claiming there were alternatives to recycling sewage as drinking water. Property developer and “no” campaigner Clive Berghofer said if the project went ahead the city would become known as “Poowoomba”.

The “no” campaign was also supported by local farmers who have been using the city's sewage to water their crops for about 60 years. These irrigators would have lost this water supply when the new facility was built. Indeed the outcome could be seen as one group of resource users out-smarting a city council to retain access to “cheap water” so they can keep growing lucerne for their cows.

These farmers were supported by the Queensland National Party and it is possible that it was lobbying by this alliance that resulted in the Prime Minister insisting on a referendum.

The economics and science were clear - recycling waste water was the obvious solution. The future is now less clear for everyone except perhaps the irrigators.

Australia lags behind the rest of the world in the adoption of several key technologies including genetically modified food crops and nuclear power. We can now perhaps add to this list waste-water recycling. The technology is operational in Africa, Asia and the United States but still not a reality in Australia.

Prime Minister John Howard could have approved funding for the project last year but because it was controversial he forced a referendum on to a democratically elected local government for a proven technology that polling shows is not politically popular.

In insisting on the referendum and then seeing it fail, John Howard has increased the level of participatory democracy at the expense of good governance.

Instead of planning to secure her city's water future, the Mayor Di Thorley is now reduced to just praying for rain.

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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Water futures by Dianne Thorley - On Line Opinion

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