Mark Seymour writes about plans for a desalination plant in Victoria.

Author: Mark Seymour.

Date: 17 July 2008.

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When governments decide to build big infrastructure it pays to analyse the impact well in advance. Whether they like it or not, the welfare of ordinary people is the cornerstone of good government and dare I say, democracy itself.

Big construction, like freeways, pipelines and dams, though often unavoidable, usually causes social dislocation of some sort. Homes are lost, businesses closed, and the mysterious concept of “amenity” affected.

Transparency is needed at every step, not only for the political fall out but for the basic human respect that is due to the people directly affected. It’s all a matter of degree. Sometimes, if ad hoc decisions are arrived at through political pressure, the consequences for every party involved can be catastrophic.

Governments fall, communities are torn apart, sometimes, even blood is shed. The consequences can resound for decades.
A case in point is the proposed desalination plant slated for construction in Kilcunda on the South Gippsland coast near Wonthaggi and expected to be up and running by 2011.

2006 was a bad year for water; Victoria’s lowest annual rainfall on record. It was also an election year. The plant was announced immediately after the election, completely out of the blue it seemed. Nobody was warned. Land was taken through compulsory government acquisition. But was it needed? Well, two years later the ground is being prepared and the jury’s still out on that one small point; but more of that later.

The important thing is, the locals were furious… with good reason. They’d been treated with complete disrespect. And here’s the rub. The desalination plant will be an industrial monster standing some five stories high, about as big as the Southland shopping complex, planted right in the middle of some of the most exquisite wilderness on the Victorian coast.

It’s an environmental tragedy on an absurd scale. It will suck ocean water in through a four-metre pipe that will be bored through the massive dunes, (home of an Aboriginal Midden) process the water, then pump the salt back out into the sea, through another four-metre outflow pipe. Of course there’ll be other “stuff” collected too, like mud, fish, seaweed, and other surplus life, that’ll only clog up the outflow pipe. So, the operator will provide a permanent fleet of trucks to cart the waste away to a land fill site yet to be found.

And how to power up this great industrial beast? Why brown coal of course. We’ve still got mega tonnes of the stuff. So what about the global warming issue you ask? Isn’t brown coal a carbon baddie? It certainly is. In short, “Wonthaggi Desal” is an unbridled act of environmental stupidity and contradicts every measure the Federal government is attempting to put in place in lieu of the proposed carbon-trading scheme to be launched in 2010.

Watching the news last Monday, July 14, as police cleared protestors from the site, I was moved by the sheer magnitude of their discontent. This “Water Factory” will shatter the very core of the Bass coastal Community. Nothing short of political violence is being done down there and it will resound for generations to come. It’ll be huge, hideous and permanent. It’s that simple. And it’s tragic that the Wonthaggi police are compelled under orders to clear a protest which they almost certainly agree with.

In the shire of Bass, the political stakes are off the dial. In local terms the damage to the Brumby government is probably permanent. And given the importance of regional support for the ongoing success of state Labor, the government can’t afford for this kind of passionate dissent to spread. After all, we are dealing with ordinary working people here, not your so called “rent-a-crowd” which is why the Victorian government is underwriting an equally massive publicity campaign throughout the shopping centres of suburban Melbourne to shore up it’s argument that desal is needed.

Which begs the question, why are they trying so hard? Well, when you look into the history of the so called ‘water crisis’ you begin to smell a rat…

Let’s begin with the prevailing wisdom which is that Victoria has a water-supply problem that will get worse in time due to “global warming”, (which is an exquisite irony of course, given the kind of energy this water factory will use).

The problem is of course, that in Australia ordinary people are scared of “global warming” and fear effects how they vote. Things “green” have crossed over into mainstream politics in a big way, which means governments are scrambling for position, sometimes too quickly.

Whereas, up until late last year, before the numbers came in on the side of federal Labor, “green” issues were still perceived as somehow warm and fuzzy, good for school projects, off in a utopian category of their own, where tree-hugging ferals chained to bulldozers were held in scant regard by suburban Australians, and wood-chipping was still something that only swung a few seats in Tassie.

Now “Global warming” has it’s own portfolio and sits on the front bench in the form of Penny Wong, alongside industrial relations and the treasury. It is implicit in Prime Minister Rudd’s decision to anoint “global warming” in this way, that it’s impact on the broader economic and social welfare of the nation is seen as a real and present danger to the lives of ordinary people. It cannot be shelved or palmed off any longer, tossed around in the senate, watered down or forgotten about. Which is of course, a good thing. But it’s also true that by moving it out from under the umbrella of the Environment portfolio it has been elevated above the more ordinary nasties like wood-chipping that have been around for much longer and which Labor took a political bath over during the Latham campaign.

In other words, Rudd has made a very astute political move here, and at the same time knobbled Garrett, who I suspect remains in his heart a green warrior, whose comments might venture too far into the realm of idealism if “Climate change” were still within his jurisdiction.

In other words, the government must play a balancing act. There is a pressing need for strong policy but economic stability remains paramount. It’ll be no easy task and the last thing the federal government needs is to see local issues like “Desal” that arise from bad state planning, infringing on broader national decisions.

The Gunns mill in Tassie was a huge embarrassment for Labor and if the environment portfolio had remained as sweeping in it’s scope as it was before the election, then such infrastructure debacles like the desalination plant in Victoria would be by now a vexing and complicated thorn in the federal government’s side. The effect of separating “climate change” from “Environment” has been to disconnect Melbourne’s water needs from the bigger federal picture of carbon reduction.

Garrett is forced to “sign-off” on one environmental impact assessment after another simply because his portfolio no longer has any teeth. And of course, the states set the criteria of these environmental studies, rendering them intrinsically toothless anyway.

Meanwhile the state government is gambling that most Victorians fear climate change far more than they care about the impact of desal on the Community of Wonthaggi. The fear factor is being used to convince them that we have no alternative.

But is it actually working? Well, that remains to be seen. The plant is still an engineer’s dream and as to whether the government has won enough heart and minds to shore up it’s long term political fortunes over this, well as with all things political, the devil is in the detail.

Don’t think for a moment that just because the health of the planet has now become as much an imperative as the economy, that there isn’t any wriggle room for industry lobbyists and big business to exploit environmental issues to their advantage. Just because the politics are “green” it doesn’t make them “clean”.

In short, the health of the planet is big-business and as the stakes escalate, caring for it is going to make some people very rich, that is, if they can get in on the ground floor by influencing the direction of government policy.

After all, when governments act the one thing you can guarantee is that they’ll spend money. Yours! And the big political question is of course, who gets it? Given that we live in a full-blooded market economy, anything ‘built’, any service concession granted, any environmental ‘initiative’ launched will always invite private business interests to tender and what usually follows is a highly secretive and competitive process where huge consortiums vie for the government’s favour. And Wonthaggi Desal is a doosie when in comes to vying for government favour. To start with, it’ll cost 3 billion+ dollars. That’s a lot of money, guaranteed to draw out any weasel.

But consider this. Six months prior to the last election the state Labor government declared the Desal option “too expensive, intrusive and energy intensive”. Back then the government was in step with Melbourne Water and the C.S.I.R.O. Victoria’s water strategy was to be sustainable, based on the reconfiguration of existing supply, new dams and the introduction of recycling and storm water control, (domestic water tanks in layman’s language).

Then Melburnians stopped hosing their lawns. Consumption plummeted. It looked like the problem was covered. The projections I’ve seen definitely indicated this. Needless to say, all of these other measures are still in the pipeline, so to speak, which is a good thing. But for some mysterious reason, the Brumby government suddenly decided to throw the desalination option back into the mix. So what shifted? Well, when you look at how the factory will be run the explanation becomes clearer.

A simple practical analogy is to look at “Citylink.” A private consortium is subsided by YOU the taxpayer to build it, on a 50/50 cost basis. Upon completion the consortium takes over and charges YOU rent on your water consumption, in the same way YOU pay to use the citylink freeway system. After all, it wants its money back. Simple really. The deal is sealed over a period of decades and the neat thing for the government is that management becomes a private-sector issue. The government, quite literally, walks away and YOU KEEP PAYING.

What also makes Wonthaggi Desal such an attractive proposition to Brumby is the largesse involved. It’s a catch-all solution that, if they can get the marketing right, will look good to the broader public and Brumby can retire knowing he secured Melbourne’s water supply. And what of the energy source? What of the effects on the immediate coastal environment? Well, these are complex long-term issues that can be absorbed over time and will end up becoming some one else’s problem anyway.

But Desal has a fundamental image problem. It just ridiculously HUGE! The factory will produce 150 gigalitres of water a year, which by the latest estimate, along with all the other measures to be introduced over the next decade, will mean that Victoria’s water supply will be almost constantly overflowing because come rain or shine you’ll have this industrial monster pumping away regardless of how much water we’re actually using and we’ll get hammered in the hip pocket anyway because company that gets to run it will have it’s thirty year contract and we’ll have no choice but to pay and pay and pay.. just to keep the thing running. You’ll have the absurd situation where the factory will have no option but to regurgitate unused “clean” water back into ocean when consumption drops off.

So how did the government get swayed? It got lobbied of course. As soon as the Desal option was hoisted, and we don’t know exactly when that was, the desalination industry went into redline. And you’ve got to remember, big-business has Brumby’s ear ALL THE TIME.

The government may simply have posed exploratory questions but the political conditions were ripe for exploitation. 2006 was a bad year for water and the media was all over it. Brumby had to do something fast.

You see, normally most people pay minimal attention to the day to day of politics. Voters aren’t interested in complexity. And don’t think the “She’ll be right ” factor goes unnoticed which is why I’m moved to comment in this way when protestors start talking up issues of free speech and democratic process.
Normally these local environmental issues are easily bumped off simply because of the nature of the electoral system. The bay dredging fiasco was never going to be curbed simply because the Mornington Peninsula is a blue blood liberal constituency from Mount Eliza down to Portsea. They’ve NEVER VOTED LABOR so therefore they don’t count. The government had nothing to lose so it totally ignored them.

But there is something politically interesting about the Wonthaggi scenario which could introduce a new twist to the story of green politics in this country. Let me explain.
We assume that the effect of voting every three years guarantees us some protection from capricious decision-making by governments. Sure, voting is a hand-brake, but for that very reason politicians go out of their way to sure up their policy projections by spending mega-tax bucks campaigning in advance.

To some extent, governments are always in damage control because despite the broad indifference most punters seem to show, every so often an issue comes along that captures the public imagination, and politicians never know exactly when that will be. There’s a list of events that have occurred throughout the nation’s history where public opinion has had a spectacular effect on policy, BETWEEN ELECTIONS.

Without listing them here, it is worth pointing out how effective the outcry was over Garrett’s knobbling of the solar energy rebate in the last budget. It is currently being re-examined simply because the correspondence was so explosive.

The one thing governments fear most in situations such as the Wonthaggi protest is what I call “effective dissent.” And clearly the government is worried otherwise it wouldn’t be conducting it’s shopping mall campaign. Wonthaggi Desal is the latest in a long line of regional protests that have been spawned by Brumby’s hard line political style. And it may well be a bridge too far. Put simply, people just don’t like him.

And lets face it, it’s not as though dissent doesn’t work. After all, the very democratic institutions we enjoy are the direct result of dissent itself. Ours in particular, was created through the bloody conflict of the Eureka Stockade which was nothing more than a “local community” much like Wonthaggi, but what makes the political mix in this instance that much more volatile is the fact that we are also dealing with the new overarching issue that is bringing people together on a global scale. “Climate change” has turned politics on its head and water is a sub-set of that. We are living in very unpredictable times.

Local dissent over Wonthaggi Desal may well have the potential to spread for a whole lot of reasons than the government hasn’t considered.

The very fact that the public responded so effectively to the water crisis in the first place indicates a ground swell of real concern and a willingness to embrace the problem at the level of first principles.

It may well be that the electorate is ahead of the government when it comes to water.

After all, the consumption savings that were made were all “micro-environmental” which is the much vaunted strategy being used in European countries to tackle energy consumption and the problem with “desal’ is that it’s so “old school.” It’s the “big and the ballsy”, the “grand plan” and it’ll cost far too much.

But what appears to be really new in all of this is that Brumby’s political instincts seem to be up the pole. It looks like he’s totally mis-read the public mood and jumped on the idea of the “big fix” so that people won’t have to put up with restrictions anymore when it remains to be seen that they were unhappy about the restrictions in the first place!

Given that the cost of all the vital utilities are destined to rise, especially given Penny Wong’s announcement of the new carbon trading scheme recently, people are hypersensitive to cost and in this brave new green world, cost is waste. The logic runs like this…

“Why should I pay for what I’m not using?”

That’s the question on everybody’s lips and it’s quite possible that the Wonthaggi protestors will have a far greater political effect on the future of this government than they are currently giving themselves credit for.

Wonthaggi Desal is beginning to look like the policy stuff up that it actually is and in politics, perception is nine tenths of the law.

* * *

As I write this, I’m sitting in my Brother’s surfing bolt-hole down among the dunes at Kilcunda. The site of the desal plant is right behind me. There’s a howling south-westerly belting in from the beach. The waves are ten foot plus. It’s raining outside. In fact it’s been raining constantly all day, all of last night and will continue at least for another. The access road is flooded. To put it bluntly, I’m stuck.

In fact, it’s raining, right now across the state. (I just checked foxtel weather… just to get my facts straight you understand.) The point is, you could easily be fooled into thinking that the State of Victoria doesn’t have as big a water problem as the government says it does, or did, back in 2006.

RAIN! Bring it on…