Report a victory for water users
Canberra's decade-long drought, which drove dam levels below 20 per cent of capacity, is now, thankfully, a fading memory. The same cannot be said, however, of the impact the big dry has had on water usage and pricing. The release this week of the Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission's draft report on proposed pricing for water and sewerage services will be a painful reminder for ACTEW Water and its owner, the ACT government, of the costs of the past decade. Consumers, however, may view the report differently.
During the drought, ACTEW Water quite rightly instituted measures intended to conserve water. Price rises and public awareness campaigns helped restrain consumption but they also suppressed demand and revenue at a time when the utility was investing hundreds of millions of dollars on new measures to drought-proof the city, as well as paying hefty annual dividends to the ACT government. In 2009-10, when dams were at their lowest level, the utility delivered more than $91 million to government coffers. In 2010-11, when rain suppressed demand for water even further, it paid a dividend of $65.7 million. This rose to $67.4 million in 2011-12.
With the $400 million-plus Cotter dam project nearly complete, and revenue projections looking no healthier than they were two years ago, it is not surprising that ACTEW Water chief Mark Sullivan should have reacted strongly to the ICRC's recommendation that water and sewerage charges be cut by 16.9 per cent and 19 per cent respectively from July 1. On the other hand, consumers who have complained that their "reward'' for conserving water was to be hit with larger bills will be delighted.
As ICRC senior commissioner Malcolm Gray has made clear, the commission is well aware of ACTEW's need to pay for water security initiatives developed in response to the drought and its desire to recover revenues eroded by lower-than-expected water sales in recent years. The regulator is also mindful, however, of ongoing concerns about water price rises. Those who have questioned the tendency of ACT governments to use water prices to raise revenue rather than simply to recover the cost of service provision will welcome the ICRC recommendations. They might even argue that a price cut is a way to stimulate demand and increase revenues. That is unlikely to be the view of either ACTEW or the government.
Whether the regulator will change its position before making a final determination remains to be seen. It seems likely, however, that the government will have to wean itself off high water dividends, which will no doubt mean cuts to spending or higher charges for other services. Regardless of the outcome, one thing that cannot be compromised is the standard of water provision to the households and businesses of the ACT.
This city has never wanted for public-spirited individuals but few have been as determined, methodical or as hard-working as Chris Peters.
The long-time chief executive of the ACT Chamber of Commerce, who died this week after a long illness, spent two decades championing Canberra, its business potential and its cultural assets, particularly the Australian National University School of Music.
Like many others before him, Mr Peters came to Canberra for work, in his case as CEO of the Australian Institute of Architects. His fondness for Canberra was mirrored in the belief that what made the city "fabulous'' was that "we are small enough that we can make things happen but large enough to make it worthwhile happening''. Mr Peters was not blind to Canberra's faults. He believed the city was, on occasion, not as welcoming as it should be and he was disappointed at the changes that occurred at the School of Music last year.
Nonetheless, Mr Peters loved his work and was so good at "making things happen'' that he was named the 2012 Canberra Citizen of the Year.
Mr Peters approached his illness as he did the rest of his life, with spirit and determination. His attitude was that while cancer was a setback, it had to be dealt with in a way that did not interfere with his work or detract from his enjoyment of family and friends.
He was, to the end, a staunch believer in Canberra.