The Canberra Times August 01, 2012
In terms of its price per litre, pumped from the dam to the reservoir and then gravity-fed to your tap, water is one of the great consumer bargains - miles cheaper than bottled water certainly, and far more affordable than other utilities such as gas or electricity. That's not how many customers of Actew Water see it, however. They are fuming at the news that the government-owned corporation has recommended to the Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission that fixed water charges rise by at least 10 per cent next year.
Adding to that discontent is the seemingly relentless rise of ACT water prices since 1991. Back then, the prepaid allowance of 455 kilolitres per household cost $400, with anything over that charged at 47 cents a kilolitre. Territory households now pay $2.43 a kilolitre for the first 200 kilolitres and $4.86 for every kilolitre over that allowance. In that time, consumers, especially those with gardens, have seen their average bills increase substantially.
In recent years, of course, Actew Water has invested in significant new infrastructure projects, including a pipeline from the Murrumbidgee River to the Googong Dam and an enlarged Cotter Dam. However, it is a shortfall in revenue caused by Canberra residents consuming less water that is largely behind Actew Water's push for higher charges - and a significant reduction in the 200 kilolitre allowance to 120 litres.
Estimates are that the utility's revenue targets (set incidentally by the commission) are down 32 per cent or $190 million as a result of water conservation measures. Not unnaturally, some consumers believe they are being punished for their efforts (much encouraged by Actew Water) to conserve water during the recent drought, a view that managing director Mark Sullivan has had some difficulty in countering.
Perceptions have not been helped by the $2.5 million cost associated with the utility's recent restructure and re-branding, though Mr Sullivan has said that this spending would be recouped from savings within a year.
Actew Water cannot help the fact that the size of the increase it is seeking has been affected by the five-year interval in the commission's water pricing deliberations. That is one reason it is, quite sensibly, pushing for the regulator to set water prices annually. Families facing the prospect of a household water bill jumping by at least 10 per cent next year might be less aggrieved and better able to cope with the seemingly inevitable price rises if they are annual and incremental.
Perhaps the ACT government has a role to play here too. Maybe the government can help soften the bill shock for territory households by curtailing its apparently insatiable appetite for taxes and dividends flowing from Actew Water.
Fiji has been more or less a pariah state in the Pacific since 2009, during which time it has largely disappeared off the diplomatic map. But in an initiative that may herald its return to the international fold, the Australian and New Zealand governments agreed this week to restore diplomatic ties with Suva.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr and his New Zealand counterpart, Murray McCully, said the move had been made possible by the Fijian military government's willingness to undertake constitutional reforms and to begin preparations for promised elections in 2014.
In another encouraging sign that the country is transitioning back to democracy after the 2006 military coup in which Commodore Voreqe ''Frank'' Bainimarama ousted elected prime minister Laisenia Qarase, the military also relaxed some of its emergency powers in January. However, Fiji is still subject to a number of international sanctions and remains suspended from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum.
Though he has always maintained he wants a return to democracy, Commodore Bainimarama has at times appeared to place a greater priority on eliminating the ethnic divisions that have plagued Fiji for more than 20 years - imposing significant restrictions on press freedom and cracking down on opposition groups and unions in his efforts to do so. Many of these restrictions remain in place.
The restoration of diplomatic ties is an important step in Fiji's rehabilitation as a democracy, but as Mr McCully has pointed out, that process will take time. In order to maintain the momentum, Fiji's military government needs to further loosen human right restrictions and commit clearly to returning to the barracks after the 2014 election.