opinion: peter whish-wilson

Sewage. It’s a Launceston perennial. I’ll explain, and leave the puns for others.

In the 1850s, the fear of cholera was a catalyst for Launceston becoming a municipality. Forming a local government created the ratepayers that funded Australia’s very first underground sewer system.

But another problem soon arose. An anonymous letter to The Examiner from 1875 says: “it cannot be too much impressed on the minds of our Aldermen that pouring sewage into the river is not getting rid of it”.

Sewage farms were considered for a good time. In 1904, Dr T. M. Kendall recommended that it was “merely a question of arranging for a suitable site”. A number of smaller facilities were built. But it was not until 1954 that council and the Marine Board agreed to pipe sewerage to Ti-Tree Bend, and not until 1974 that a treatment plant was built at the site.

Unfortunately, the system that took a century-and-a-half to build has never been good enough. Launceston has always been one step behind population growth. That’s still the case today. Sewage is not treated to a modern standard, and when the heavy rain comes, raw sewage flows directly into the Tamar as the pipe network and treatment plant fail to cope.

To say this isn’t good enough is a cliché. What’s more important is finding the estimated $300 million to upgrade the pipe network and sewage treatment facility.

The answer also lies in history: borrowing. It was debt that funded the world-class sewerage system in 1854 and it is debt that we should use now.

A couple of months ago I launched the Greens’ policy to establish the Australian Infrastructure Bank. I developed this policy after spending a year chairing a senate committee looking into the role of the federal government in financing and funding of infrastructure.

A unanimous recommendation of the inquiry was that the government should issue infrastructure bonds to raise money to finance infrastructure. Interest rates are at record lows but the economy remains sluggish. Regulators, businesses and unions are all imploring government to borrow to build productivity enhancing infrastructure.

Australian government debt levels remain low by international standards. Launceston City Council is actually $25 million in the black. This might sound like a good thing, but when essential infrastructure is going unfunded then it actually points to a lazy government.

The Greens’ plan is to give state and local government access to debt raised by the federal government. Because of its size, the interest rates the Commonwealth pays are significantly lower than that of regional cities or a small state like Tasmania.

It’s estimated that access to Commonwealth debt would shave $1.5 million off the annual borrowing costs on a new sewerage treatment plant.

TasWater and council need to settle their differences and take on this project. Yes, the people of Tasmania will have to pay. But they will benefit too. Taxation is the price of civilisation.  Borrowing spreads the cost over time, which makes sense with an asset of this type, which has a long life span and will service communities well into the future.

A cleaner Tamar is essential to the economic future of the region.