'Poowoomba' and the politics of recycling

The garden city of Toowoomba — famous for its floral festivities — was in even more trouble than Brisbane. Its citizens had already been warned by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines in December 2004 that its extraction procedures for underground water were exceeding safe water yields. The Toowoomba City Council sought support from the federal government’s new National Water Commission for a water recycling grant, supported by Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the proviso that they held a referendum.

Local business interests, led by millionaire property developer Clive Berghoffer, a former National Party MP and medical philanthropist, organised 10 000 signatures from ‘Citizens against Drinking Sewage’. This clever if misleading notion, following on the success of ‘Australians for a constitutional monarchy’ (we don’t want a ‘politicians’ republic’) underpinned the successful ‘No’ campaign in the referendum. A 6–3 vote at the Toowoomba Council in favour of recycling and a vast scientific effort mounted in favour of the ‘Yes’ vote proved to be of no avail. Beattie did not help the situation by quipping on 2 June 2006, probably inadvertently, that ‘replenishing dams with recycled water’ would be ‘the Armageddon solution’. Media-savvy Beattie always had a penchant for a slogan but this one backfired (Courier Mail, 3 June 2006).

The ‘Yes’ case rested primarily on returning recycled water to dams, multiple and proven barrier-treatment processes, with two–three years’ testing by CSIRO before release. The ‘Yes’ case, championed by Mayor Di Thorley, drew modest support from Beattie, Turnbull and the Courier Mail. The ‘No’ case — ‘to deny your natural instincts and adopt untested new technology is foolish’ — went on to claim that thalidomide, asbestos and mad-cow disease were all caused by the ignorance of ‘the long-term effects of science’. On 29 July 2006, 62 per cent of the population voted against the referendum question ‘Do you support the addition of purified recycled water to Toowoomba’s water supply’. Toowoomba, with its population of 120 000, remains desperately short of water (Vuuren 2007).