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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