The unedifying battle between the Tasmanian State Government and TasWater over who will control the state’s water and sewerage services has been shunted out beyond the next state election, due to be held by May 2018.
Premier Will Hodgman’s Liberal Government (there are no Nationals in the Tasmanian Parliament) has tried to take control from TasWater, but has been unable to do so and has conceded defeat – fore now. It will now take the policy to the election, which opinion polls show the Government will find difficult to win.
The Government is only in its first term, but the Tasmania electorate is notoriously volatile and the Hare-Clark electoral system, plus the Green’s strong presence in the state, will make it hard for the Liberals to maintain their current five seat majority.
TasWater has been responsible for all water supply and sewerage in Tasmania since it was formed in 2013 from the amalgamation of the state’s three previous water authorities: Ben Lomomd Water, Cradle Mountain Water, and Southern Water. Also included in the amalgamation was Onstream, a shared services organisation owned by the three authorities.
It has 900 employees, has an annual turnover of just over $300 million, and total assets of $2 billion. It is owned by Tasmania’s 29 Local Government Authorities.
In its short life TasWater has had a chequered history. The three corporations from which it was formed themselves date only from 2009, when the state’s water market was rationalised after a State Government inquiry found that the previous fragmented system had major problems.
TasWater has had a rough time of it. It has been accused of overspending, including the now notorious ‘million dollar duck’ incident in which it launched an inquiry into an employee running over a duck, which involved the hiring of external consultants.
That and other accusations of waste and mismanagement led the Government to announce that it would take over TasWater, and bring forward expenditure on various capital works programs. But a select committee of Tasmania’s upper house, the Legislative Council, last month decisively rejected the Government’s plans.
The plan was voted down 10 votes to 4 in the Legislative Council, which is dominated by Independents. The matter became a major issue in the recent Pembroke Legislative Council by-election, which saw Labor’s Jo Siejka replace the retiring Liberal Vanessa Goodwin, who has resigned for health reasons.
Also standing in that election as an Independent was Doug Chipman, Mayor of Clarence and a former Liberal Party state vice-president. He is also past president of the Local Government Association of Tasmania. He was opposed to the Government takeover of TasWater, and his preferences were instrumental in Labor winning the seat.
Mt Chipman criticised the Liberal’s ‘dirty’ campaign, in which they consistently referred his age (71) That became a major issue in the campaign, in is believed to have harmed the Liberals.
The Liberal’s campaign to take over TasWater has also not been helped by three separate reports casting doubt on whether it would be any improvement. TasWater chairman Miles Hampton referred to the Government’s plans as a ‘full frontal assault’.
“The legislation to takeover TasWater had been assessed in detail by three independent bodies – the Productivity Commission, the Tasmanian Audit Office and the Legislative Council Select Committee – and each had reported on the deficiencies of the State Government’s plan, the risks and inappropriateness of the proposed takeover,” said Mr Hampton.
“The only response from Treasurer Peter Gutwein is that these three expert bodies are wrong, but now he wants to hear suggestions.
“Well, it is not that simple to counter the findings of three independent expert bodies and particularly as the Legislative Council Select Committee correctly pointed out, there is no crisis in Tasmania’s water and sewerage services as claimed by the Government as the basis for its takeover.
“Further, the Government has no feasible plan, no business case, and a doubtful financial model, while TasWater has a sensible, engineering-based plan that is fully funded and we are already delivering on our commitments.”
Now everything is on hold until the State Election. The TasWater takeover will be Liberal Party policy at that election, so the plan’s future is very much tied to the Government’s.
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