Image for Huon Valley Guessing Games:  Smoke and mirrors

Something pricked someone’s conscience before the November 10 meeting of Huon Valley Council — it might even have been Tasmanian Times’ ‘Trial by Water’ article the previous day (HERE).

That article suggested that the recommendation for a “media protocol” between council and Southern Water (the utility HVC owns with 11 other southern Tasmanian councils) presented councillors with choices between “skulduggery and integrity” and “spin and truth”.

There was little doubt that the recommendation would be approved, but clearly someone had become concerned before the November meeting that council might be seen to be acting, shall we say, not entirely in the best interests of its owners. So, when the item came up, the public gallery was given the impression that a fourth clause was to be added to the recommendation that would make it clear that support for it would not in any way legally compromise council’s ability to comment on SW’s behaviour.

That assurance seemed enough to persuade council’s two sceptical Greens members, Rosalie Woodruff and Liz Smith, to make adoption of the recommendation unanimous.

Mayor Robert Armstrong at one stage of the debate said something about there being no limitations on “freedom of speech”, missing completely the more sinister implication of the protocol: that, by signing it, council — even at the expense of the public’s interest — was more interested in protecting its own reputation and that of Southern Water.

It now looks as if there might have been a bit of smoke-and-mirrors at work on the evening of November 10. In the online minutes of the November meeting, there is no sign of that promised fourth clause.

Which means that the minutes — as inadequate as they always are in terms of giving an idea of what transpires at council meetings — this time are just plain wrong on the subject of the “Southern Water Media and Communication Protocol”.

Debate on the adoption of this protocol — which, by staff’s own report, was designed to protect the “reputations” of both council and Southern Water — involved nary a mention of care for the interests of the people both organisations are meant to be serving (and are owned by): the residents of the Huon Valley. It certainly appeared at the meeting that the support of the Greens councillors was elicited by the promise of that fourth clause.

The protocol issue, covered in Trial by Water, seemed to reflect a degree of paranoia on the part of both council and Southern Water. If so, it is a paranoia that may be justified considering the publication in recent months in various media of well-argued questioning of the viability of the Huon Valley Regional Water Scheme; the manner and extent of its implementation; and its spiralling cost.

The scheme is a project that was conceived and drawn up by HVC staff under a previous management. With its details kept under wraps, councillors never had a chance to publicly debate the scheme and the public largely remained in ignorance of its existence — until the Bartlett government came up with its half-baked idea of regional organisations to relieve the state’s councils of their water and sewerage responsibilities.

There was no doubt that the western side of the Huon had water-supply problems, especially from Franklin south — and something had to be done about that — but the scheme really was a knee-jerk response to financial bribes offered by both major parties in the 2007 federal election campaign.

A lot of water has since flowed down the Huon River from which, upstream of Huonville, the scheme is sourcing its supply. Originally costed at around $24 million (half of the money promised by Canberra), the scheme is now estimated at a minimum $30 million (presumably before loan interest) and almost certainly rising.

Southern Water, which looks to have done little or no due diligence on the scheme it inherited from HVC, is pressing on with the pipe laying. So far, east of the Huon, the pipe has been laid from Balfes Hill (just south of Cradoc) to Cygnet, and, west of the river, as far south as Franklin.

But where the money to pay for the scheme is to come from is still clear to very few — possibly even to SW’s management. Talk about an invisible, possibly drowning, elephant in the valley!

There is no avoiding owner connection charges for all houses along the route of the scheme. But when the supply bills start coming in, there will surely be a bonanza for rainwater tank manufacturers.

Which will mean a big hole in Southern Water’s capacity to find the money to pay its debts.

Which will mean more state (possibly federal) handouts.

Which will mean higher rates and taxes — not just for those along the pipelines but for taxpayers generally — for a scheme half of which a lot of observers feel is unnecessary.

Back to that Southern Water protocol. The recommendation as it appeared at the November meeting resolved that:

a) The report on the Southern Water Media and Communication Protocol be received and noted.

b) The mayor be authorised to sign the media and communication protocol.

c) A signing ceremony be held for the signing of the media and communication protocol.

In a political world in which Greens at all government levels — if they are to have any clout at all — are feeling that they must at times compromise on hitherto hardline positions, it was not really surprising that valley Greens councillors were willing to be talked into making unanimous a decision on the protocol. As a moral issue, it was, after all, fairly small beer.

But it now looks — unless the minutes as they are now presented are amended at this Wednesday night’s meeting (December 8) — as if the Greens councillors voted for a recommendation that each had expressed concerns about in its original form. They should now be asking questions about what happened to the mooted clause ‘d)’. And if it isn’t written into the minutes, they should be demanding their votes be changed to “nay”.

Don’t know what made them vote for the recommendation anyway. The concept of a media protocol designed to protect public organisations’ reputations ahead of the public interest is anti-democratic whichever way you look at it.

Mayor Armstrong
Liz Smith
Rosalie Woodruff
*Pictures: Taken at recent Cygnet Primary School fete ... where only kids were given a chance to give their elected reps a wet sponging.

Bob Hawkins is a Huon Valley ratepayer and an advocate for transparency in all democratic institutions. He is not a member of a political organisation.