Water Industry (Third Party Access) Amendment Bill - 13 October 2015

Wednesday 10 February, 2016

Mr TARZIA ( Hartley ) ( 17:27 :10 ): I also rise today to support the Water Industry (Third Party Access) Amendment Bill 2015.

I commend the member for Chaffey for his enlightening address to the house. He obviously has an enormous amount of experience in this area, and we are all better off for listening to his speech today.

Water obviously affects every electorate and, as my colleagues on this side of the chamber have alluded to, it is an area that we can all be doing much better in. Every single one of us has parks in our electorate. Every single one of us has reserves and grounds, either utilised by a school or a sporting organisation, in our area, and every one of our electorates and these groups will benefit from more competition. We know that competition will create much better standards. Ultimately, it should provide cheaper prices for the consumer. This is an area that we certainly need to take very seriously. We need to encourage competition in this area.

In my electorate of Hartley, for example, there is an ongoing water issue where, perhaps if there was more competition, incompetence would not be allowed to flourish. Residents in Lochiel Park have waited for over seven years now to receive the recycled water that they were promised. Many of these residents only bought into the area because this government promised recycled water to some of them. If we had more competition, if there was another player in the market, perhaps we would have a different result in Lochiel Park, and perhaps we would have better results, standards and prices across the state.

When I look at the history of water prices, I note that the latest data that we have confirms that, over the past 12 years, water prices have actually risen by 236 per cent, which is absolutely outrageous, despite inflation only rising by about 41 per cent during the same time.

There have been allegations of price gauging, and there have been allegations that water is being used to milk South Australians to prop up an ailing South Australian government budget, as some of my colleagues alluded to. There have been scathing allegations made of SA Water by people such as Mr Kerin recently. I do not have to bring up that history, but he is not the only one to cast doubt over the water issue. The bottom line is that we can be doing much better in this regard.

The Water Industry (Third Party Access) Amendment Bill aims to provide a regime in a legislated manner for third-party access to South Australia's water and sewerage infrastructure. SA Water is a monopoly provider of potable water and sewerage services for households in the city, the metropolitan area, the majority of industry, and also a substantial proportion of country South Australian customers, as we heard today.

It is argued that a third-party access regime should be designed. It would enable other stakeholders in the water industry to use, for a price, an existing supplier's infrastructure which, in reality, would be SA Water, for example, to supply services. More importantly, it would provide a level of competition in the market. We understand that bulk water has been able to be purchased through trade, as was touched on today, since water licensing was liberated. Obviously, the scheme that comes to mind would be that which is run by Barossa Infrastructure Ltd, as my colleague alluded to. I am told that provides approximately 6,000 megalitres of untreated River Murray water to irrigate wine grapes, as we heard.

If it were not for the former water minister and premier, John Olsen, driving it through SA Water, arguably this scheme would not have even happened. We on this side of the chamber have for some time now argued for a robust third-party access scheme, and this has been a key point of difference between us on those opposite.

We all know that competition in our water industry is certainly called for, and it is a requirement under national competition principles as well. The bill that we have in front of us appoints ESCOSA in a limited role as the regulator of a negotiate/conciliate/arbitrate model. There are a number of steps in the process for an access seeker to apply for access to a regulated operator. For example:

A regulated operator has 30 days to provide an applicant with a brochure regarding the terms and conditions on which it is prepared to make its infrastructure available, the procedures that it will apply, and information about prices and costs associated with access;

On application, a regulated operator must provide technical information to an applicant regarding current utilisation and the likely price or reasons why access cannot be provided. The regulated operator can also charge the applicant for providing this information;

The applicant will then write to the regulated operator to outline the access that they are seeking and their proposed terms and conditions, and then that operator would have a right to seek more information. The regulated operator would then have one month to notify the applicant and ESCOSA of its decision—

and it goes on. I note that there were several submission to the February 2013 DTF paper, and there was a preference theme for light-handed regulation that came through. Obviously, none of the submissions would advocate for full retail contestability; however, the main thing is the agreement for a light-handed regulation approach. We have actually been told privately that, obviously, for a number of companies who do bid for SA Water's business, it is going to be unlikely for them to make formal submissions, because they would have to err on the side of caution. They do not want to be accused of undermining SA Water or being critical of it. They would have a vested interest in this, and so that is why it is up to us to stand up for these companies.

There have been a number of key issues raised through the submissions, which I will in turn touch on. For example, I note that ESCOSA welcome the move towards the development of a third-party access regime, but they do remain concerned that 'the nature, strength and scope of the proposed regime is so limited as to materially impede the delivery of those benefits to South Australians'. When you go onto some of these other submissions, and I look at SA Water, they make a number of suggestions regarding minor drafting issues for consideration. I encourage the government to look closely at these, for example:

1. Transitional arrangements;

2. Appropriate qualifications for conciliators and arbitrators;

3. Clarification on accounts and record-keeping requirements ;

4. Information required from access seekers;

5. Requirements to provide confidential details of other third parties to an access seeker and various publication and consultation requirements which can be resolved easily by the 'first-in-time' principle;

6. Simplification of the application process;

7. Extension of the period of time before a dispute is deemed to have arisen; and

8. Reciprocal rights.

Then we have Business SA. Business SA obviously a long time ago have recommended that a legislated state-based access scheme be implemented. They say it should apply to bulk water transport, water distribution transport, local sewage transport and bulk sewage transport. They also suggest that the Essential Services Commission of South Australia be appointed the regulator and, as I said, that a light-handed regime be applied, a negotiation framework modelled on other similar systems be considered, and a robust dispute resolution procedure be implemented as well.

With those comments, I will support the bill and I will also be supporting the amendments if they are put by the member for Chaffey on this side of the chamber. I commend the bill to the house.