As expected, the voters of the Queensland town of Toowoomba have rejected the advice of their mayor Di Thorley and voted convincingly against the proposal to treat recycled sewage for drinking water. The compulsory referendum took place on Saturday July 29 and resulted in a 61.6% vote against the proposal out of an eligible voting population of over 60,000 people.
The question posed was ““Do you support the addition of purified recycled water to Toowoomba’s water supply via Cooby Dam as proposed by Water Futures – Toowoomba?”
The poll was the first of its kind in Australia and is being used to gauge community attitudes to recycled effluent, which is already in widespread use overseas and in some parts of Australia. The outcome was hailed as a resounding victory for the no campaign, led Rosemary Morley, coordinator of a group calling itself Citizens Against Drinking Sewage. Morley had insisted Toowoomba would not be a guinea pig for the rest of Australia in adopting the plan. They ran an emotional campaign and warned of the damage the plan would do to Toowoomba’s reputation. Their advertising had phrases such as “People won't come here; others will leave. Property values will drop and jobs will go.” Mayor Thorley meanwhile had argued that recycling sewage for drinking water was the most economically and environmentally effective way to fix the city's critical water shortage. But as ABC reporter Peter McCutcheon described the result, it was “science versus the yuck factor, and the result was emphatic”. In other words, people thought their water would taste like shit.
However the vote against science is not the end of the road for recycled water in Australia. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie said regardless of the referendum outcome, other parched south-east Queensland communities would likely have to vote on the same issue in the future. He conceded that a program of education may be necessary to sell the idea when he said “we will have to go out and explain the truth about recycling". The NSW town of Goulburn may take up the cudgels now that Toowoomba’s citizens have decided against it. Goulburn was so desperate for water last year it considered trucking it in at a cost of $1million a week. Their mayor believes that a $40 million recycling plant is now the only viable solution. Unlike Toowoomba however, Goulburn’s elected officials are unlikely to conduct an election to implement the proposal. Given the current drought, the National Water Commission has asked for volunteers to trial new schemes to recycle effluent for drinking, but apart from Goulburn no other town or city has so far come forward.
Opposers of the recycled sewage plans have come up with some bizarre reasons as to why it’s not safe. Queensland National leader Lawrence Springborg claimed that recycled water can turn male fish into females. When he was questioned on why he did not support plans to use purified recycled water for drinking, he cited what he said was research detailing its sex change powers. Mr Springborg said studies had shown high levels of the female sex hormone oestrogen in recycled water, which impacted on animal life and potentially humans. Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett labelled the claim as "a red herring" and "alarmist misinformation". He has launched a petition calling for south-east Queensland to fully accept the idea and recycle all waste and storm water.
It is possible that the entire state of Queensland may be asked to vote on the matter in 2008. But as Patrick Weller, professor of politics and public policy and director of the centre for governance and public policy, at Griffith University has argued in today’s Australian: the democratic process of referendum, while appealing on face value, may not be the best way to solve issues like the water problem. Firstly, referenda are usually stated in black and white terms whereas public policy needs to grapple with many complex grey issues that can't turned into a yes or no answer. Secondly, they encourage a coalition of negatives. Though who disagree don’t have to agree with each other on why they disagree. Weller points out how the republican model was defeated in the referendum of 1999 by a coalition of monarchists and direct election republicans who otherwise were polls apart in their views. Because the solution to the water issue was going to be unpopular whatever the result, it was sent to referendum. But it was precisely the sort of hard choice that should have been taken by an elected government. Ultimately, that is a Federal government decision.
Parliamentary secretary for water policy, Malcolm Turnbull, played down the national significance of the vote, and he defended the Government's decision to make the poll a condition of Commonwealth funding. He said “the majority of the Toowoomba community does not support the indirect potable reuse of recycled water." He said the offer of Government assistance for the Toowoomba Water Futures project has "by that vote" been declined. Turnbull said he respected the decision but rejects the rationale. "Reuse of recycled water for drinking purposes in the manner proposed is sustainable and it is safe," he said but, "it is not compulsory”.
It may not be compulsory for Toowoomba now, but its citizens will pay a longer-term price for their decision. People worried about their property value will see then slump soon enough when the real water crisis becomes apparent. As the water dries up, maybe the emotive nonsense spouted by anti-recyclers will dry up with it. In the meantime, Toowoomba remains a safe haven for real estate and male fish alike.