‘Dangerous and reckless’:Government and Coalition clash over Sydney Water bill

The state government has warned the Coalition it has no mandate to make sweeping changes to the NSW Constitution as the opposition moves to derail a key election commitment to protect Sydney Water from privatisation.

Labor promised its first legislative move would be to enshrine Sydney Water and Hunter Water in the Constitution to ensure they remain publicly owned,but the bill hit a major roadblock last week when the Nationals demanded a raft of amendments to include all water utilities.

NSW Labor Premier Chris Minns made the privatisation of Sydney Water a key election issue.

NSW Labor Premier Chris Minns made the privatisation of Sydney Water a key election issue.James Brickwood

The bill was delayed and the inclusion of Sydney Water in the constitution will be a major battleground in parliament this week,as the Coalition tries to thwart the new government’s signature piece of legislation.

The government says the opposition’s amendments would expand the scope of the bill to include all local government-owned assets,as well the Sydney Olympic Park Authority,Central Coast Council and Essential Energy which undertake water-related work.

It has also warned that many of the entities included in the Coalition’s definition do not provide drinking water but instead manage stormwater,provide irrigation services or deliver environmental outcomes.

Water Minister Rose Jackson said those water entities had not been consulted or had the opportunity to consider the impacts of the Coalition’s amendments,paving the way for possible legal challenges and compensation claims against the state.

Water Minister Rose Jackson says the Coalition’s amendments were “dangerous and reckless”.

Water Minister Rose Jackson says the Coalition’s amendments were “dangerous and reckless”.Gaye Gerard

A spokesman for Local Government NSW said the Coalition’s amendments could deliver unintended consequences and there had not been appropriate consultation with regional councils.

However,the opposition’s water spokesperson Steph Cooke said she had consulted widely with mayors and general managers in regional NSW who had been advocating for their water utilities to remain in public hands since 2007.

Jackson said the Coalition’s amendments were “dangerous and reckless”.

“We don’t take amendments to the constitution lightly,both Sydney Water and Hunter Water are statutory state-owned corporations and can be safeguarded against privatisation by an amendment to the Constitution Act,” Jackson said.

“There has been no consultation with regional councils who run local water utilities in country NSW – the Liberals and Nationals are using these councils and essential services as a political football.”

Cooke said “retaining ownership and control of their water assets remains as important today as it did in 2007 and 2008” for regional areas.

“If Labor is truly serious about protecting end-to-end water supply in NSW,it will support the opposition’s proposed amendments and not exclude one-third of our state’s population simply because of the location of their water meter,” Cooke said.

Labor made the privatisation of Sydney’s drinking water a key election issue,and promised if elected its priority would be to protect it from future sell-offs. However,that commitment has been criticised by the powerful Health Services Union boss Gerard Hayes,who said Labor’s focus should be on scrapping the controversial wages cap.

Hayes,who is the most vocal union leader in the charge to secure pay rises for public sector workers,said Labor should not be prioritising legislation“to prevent the privatisation of a facility that is not going to be privatised”.

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Alexandra Smith is the State Political Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.

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