Transcript of Interview, Radio National Breakfast
24 August 2006
FRAN KELLY: After years of drought with most of our cities facing water restrictions of some kind or another, water has become a big political issue. Water, or the lack of it, is right at the centre of the Queensland’s state election campaign at the moment with Premier Peter Beattie conceding yesterday that some farmers in south-east Queensland might have to be paid not to farm because there’s just not enough water around.
Yesterday, Labor federally raised the stakes by setting a target to recycle 30 per cent of waste water by the year 2015. And Federal Labor’s environment spokesman Anthony Albanese joins us now from Melbourne Airport. Anthony, welcome to the program.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Yesterday you declared that a Labor government would set a national target of 30 per cent of waste water being recycled by 2015. Now, at the moment, if we just look at Sydney, Sydney’s only recycling, I think, something in the order of three per cent of its water. If that’s any guide, your promise is not only an ambitious one, it’s well nigh impossible, isn’t it?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, it’s not. It is an ambitious target but it’s realistic and it’s absolutely necessary. We’re going to have less water because of climate change, particularly in southern Australia and we need to respond to it and we need national leadership. Sydney, in fact, is starting off a low base but Sydney has the largest water recycling plan in terms of domestic households in Australia at Rouse Hill. So there’s substantial progress being made and they’ve got a target to get it up to around about 13 per cent in coming years.
So what we need is to make sure that we take innovation and technology; apply it in the best way possible; develop consistent, comprehensive national guidelines and make sure that we can get to that 30 per cent target by 2015.
FRAN KELLY: Now, you’re being careful to say it’s a target, not a fixed promise, you know, that you can’t necessarily guarantee you’re going to do this. I mean, it will be difficult; it will be expensive. You’re already talking about a national strategy here when, of course, the states are currently in charge of their water supplies. I mean, this will cost a lot of money, won’t it, to achieve?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, it needs to be done through the COAG process but there are also efficiencies, of course, to be done, and we need to look at what the cost will be of inaction. Common sense tells you that if you increase recycling, you increase the supply and therefore decrease the cost that would have been there otherwise. And that’s the reality that we confront, and that….
FRAN KELLY: How do you do it though? I mean, it’s not like this water shortage is a new issue for Australia. Now, suddenly we’re talking about it as though we’ve suddenly got all these new ideas but these ideas, if they were any good, would have been tried by now, wouldn’t they?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, we have taken it for granted for a long, long time. Most Australians wouldn’t recognise that we actually have enough water in this country. The problem is that it falls in the wrong places. We settled in a pattern that doesn’t suit our natural environment. We have our main agricultural area in the Murray Darling where 6.1 per cent of Australia’s run-off actually occurs, and yet 65 per cent of Australia’s run-off is in the tropical north which is very sparsely populated.
So we need to come to terms with that and I think for a long time we’ve taken our natural resources for granted. We haven’t priced them accordingly. We haven’t traded them. We haven’t had those economic signals and mechanisms to make sure that water was regarded as the precious, valuable resource that it is.
FRAN KELLY: Well, when we talk ‘recycling water’, ‘recycling waste water’, what really are we talking about? Are we talking just sort of gutter run-off from rain or are we talking recycled sewage?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, recycled sewage is a very small part of any equation and that’s why what we’ve said, as part of this target, is that recycled sewage isn’t necessary. What we’ve had is a situation whereby we haven’t prioritised water recycling. Most of the water that we use, there’s something like 10 per cent or under of water used in Australia is actually used in the household. Now, a very small proportion of that is, of course, sewage. What we then have….
FRAN KELLY: But why are we so shy of sewage? I mean, you made a point yesterday of saying that Labor’s plan focuses on recycling water for industry and agriculture, not for human consumption. And, you know, there are countries in the world, I mean, the city of London drinks—the people drink eventually—recycled sewage. In Singapore, recycled sewerage is for human consumption ultimately. If it can be done and it can be done safely, why are we so frightened of putting it forward as a policy?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Because what we need to do is build confidence in recycling, and what Toowoomba showed is that it is very easy to have a scare campaign about recycling sewage water. And what occurred there is that in spite of the fact that you had both federal Labor and the federal coalition advocating a ‘yes’ vote, they only got 40 per cent support. Now, I was surprised actually that they got to 40 per cent. What we need to do is….
FRAN KELLY: So if we got rid of that though and if we’re talking national leadership, and if we got rid of … if it wasn’t such a voter-sensitive issue, would you support it? Would you be happy drinking recycled sewage?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look, I have said I would absolutely be. I mean, what was proposed in Toowoomba would have actually been cleaner than the water out of any tap in Australia. There was actually an argument that they would have had to have put some minerals back into the water because it would have been too pure. So I have no problem with it at all. But it isn’t necessary and I don’t want to see what is an important national project derailed by a potential scare campaign, and that’s why we’ve taken the position that we have.
FRAN KELLY: Alright. Anthony Albanese, thanks very much for joining us on Breakfast.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Thanks a lot.
FRAN KELLY: That’s Anthony Albanese. He’s Labor’s environment spokesperson, joining us there from Melbourne Airport.