03/08/2011 - 10:49

Barnett goes for water insurance

03/08/2011 - 10:49


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Colin Barnett has moved to sideline water as a political issue as the state heads towards an election in 2013.

PREMIER Colin Barnett has his predecessor Alan Carpenter to thank for being able to more than double the capacity of the new desalination plant at Binningup, south of Perth, which will start making a significant contribution to water supplies later this year.

When Mr Carpenter announced the previous government’s decision to build the plant in May 2007, the initial annual capacity was set at 45 billion litres, at a cost of $640 million (latest figure $955 million). But there was also scope for an output of 100 billion litres, if and when required.

There was no hint then that the expansion lever would be pulled before stage one was even completed; but a combination of factors has forced Mr Barnett’s hand.

The first was last winter’s extraordinarily low rainfall. That led to the spring watering ban in the South West, followed up by a similar ban for this winter. Sprinklers were allowed on two days each week during the summer, even though dam levels were unusually low.

Fortunately, falls for this winter have been very close to the June and July averages, and there was some optimism of significant increases in metropolitan dam levels.

The levels last week were still less than 25 per cent capacity, however. For example, The South Dandalup Dam was at 8 per cent capacity, the Serpentine Main Dam 21 per cent, and the North Dandalup Dam 28 per cent. The healthiest supplies were at Mundaring Weir at 38 per cent, Canning Dam 33 per cent, and Stirling Dam 31 per cent.

It must be acknowledged that groundwater, sourced from several well-endowed aquifers, has become the dominant source of domestic water in recent years.

But dam water, provided there are adequate amounts, remains the cheapest option. Even with an encouraging start to August – when storage usually rises quickly thanks to steady run-off, presenting the possibility of healthy supplies for the start of summer – the government felt it had to bite the bullet. Given the stage in the electoral cycle, the stakes were pretty high.

One option was to rely on near-average rain for August and September to push dam levels up around a manageable 40 per cent capacity, or better. That would take care of the approaching summer, with an expectation of more good winter rains next year.

The other option was the safe, but expensive, one – trigger the desalination expansion choice provided by Alan Carpenter four years ago, so that guaranteed extra water is available for the start of the summer of 2012-13.

In the end it was a no-brainer. Leaving things to chance meant there would always be the possibility of winter rains next year being well below average, with Mr Barnett having to decide whether that summer’s restrictions might have to be even tougher.

So far the public has been extraordinarily accepting of water restrictions, but there is always a minority of critics who say it is the government’s responsibility to ensure there is abundant water and that restrictions are evidence of incompetent planning.

So one choice was to gamble on nature to provide abundant rain again next year to boost dam levels – and dam water is relatively cheap.

The other choice was to play safe and take chance out of the equation. That is, take up the expansion option at Binningup flagged by Mr Carpenter four years ago, despite the extra cost involved.

After all, with an election due in March 2013, what would the voters prefer: an adequate water supply, even though they might be paying more for it, or even more savage restrictions as they prepare to go to the polls?

Mr Barnett has opted for the latter. Labor leader Eric Ripper will understandably hammer home the fact that households are being slugged again, on top of escalating electricity and gas charges.

However, it is the foresight of the government in which Mr Ripper was deputy premier that has given Mr Barnett the choice, albeit an expensive one at $450 million.

The premier is gambling on voters backing his decision on the grounds that it guarantees future supplies, even though water costs will rise. In doing so he has effectively moved to eliminate the supply of water as an election campaign issue.

If there are good rains in August and September, and again next year, however, expect Labor to hammer home the point that the desalination expansion decision is premature, and the consumers will pay through dearer water.

The verdict will be delivered in the 2013 ballot box.

Say that again

HAVE you ever listened to a politician speak and wondered what has been said, not only because he/she has been long-winded, but has also succeeded in mangling some key words?

Well, it could be worse. In fact in the first survey of the speaking abilities of 61 Australian federal and state politicians, Western Australian MPs have emerged as the second clearest speakers – behind Tasmanians – in the country. Victorians took out the wooden spoon.

Colin Barnett was named the best Liberal speaker across the states, with ‘mostly good speech skills and an outstanding speech rate’. But he was taken to task for some pronunciations, such as ‘law and order’ coming out as ‘lawn order’.

Deputy federal opposition leader, Julie Bishop, was also praised for her delivery, which was ‘hard to fault’. But she has some homework, being singled out for a problem with ‘facade skills’ which can trigger distrust because they ‘can hide ... true feelings and thoughts’.

Other MPs mentioned in the survey were Attorney-General Christian Porter, for pronouncing property as ‘popperty’, and Labor’s Mark McGowan, for ‘districk’ instead of ‘district’. 

National Party leader Brendon Grylls, who speaks with a lisp, was given special mention for being able to overcome a speech problem, demonstrating ‘character in adversity’.

Being able to speak the ‘Queen’s English’ was not always considered a prerequisite, with former prime minister Bob Hawke – who was known to drop his ‘haitches’ – being identified as having ‘brilliant skills’.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh topped the list among the state leaders for her presentation, and Greens leader Senator Bob Brown was the top performer in the federal sphere even though he probably averages one ‘ah’ for every sentence.

The survey was undertaken by speech analyst and author, Dean Frankel, a graduate of Victoria’s La Trobe University. 

He says politicians are professional speakers and are obliged to speak well, adding that the level of their skills should reflect the level of their respect for listeners.


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