As part of his campaign to takeover TasWater, Tasmanian Treasurer Peter Gutwein says the Commonwealth government will not provide any funding for water and sewerage infrastructure in this state while the corporation is owned by councils.
Yet there is a long history of the Australian government directing funding to councils for water and sewerage upgrades, through state governments.
In Tasmania, 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.
Mr Gutwein says the Commonwealth will not provide any funding for TasWater under its current ownership structure 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.
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 Museum of Old and New Art 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
David Downie is the Mayor of the Northern Midlands Council and chief representative of TasWater’s owner councils.