Time to stop rubbishing a waste levy
A WEEK is a long time in politics, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said back in the 1960s.
However, in Queensland six months is a short time. Too short to achieve much at all.
It revealed that clever people in NSW were sending their rubbish north of the border because Queensland had no waste levy.
It built on patient reporting in this newspaper going back at least seven years and, as I wrote at the time, made a festering parochial problem a national issue.
Perhaps the reporting was too patient, perhaps the TV report was too transient because nothing much has happened.
Except the situation has deteriorated.
Only this week the Fairfax papers warmed up the issue with a comprehensive report on the scandal.
It was understandably largely concerned with the NSW angle on dodging waste levies and wriggling around green building requirements but its findings were more than disturbing for Queensland.
It reported that waste companies used Queensland recycling facilities to obtain paperwork exempting them from rules limiting the transport of metropolitan waste to 150km from its source.
Developers were also requesting the same paperwork to show their waste had been handled in a sustainable way to qualify for "green" building certificates used to market housing, office and retail projects. (The practice has even been likened to money laundering.)
But, the report claimed, only a tiny proportion of the material - plasterboard, treated timber, paper and plastic from building and demolition sites in Sydney and Newcastle - was actually being recycled.
Most was going straight to landfill. In Queensland.
One waste company conceded only 5 per cent was recycled. NSW company Bingo said there was nothing left to be recycled by the time its waste was sent to Queensland.
In part, insiders blame this dirty trade on excessive $138-a-tonne levies in NSW, which makes an estimated cross-border saving of $3000 per truckload irresistible.
Balance that against the absence of levies in Queensland (andlower landfill charges) and the result is predictable.
NSW doesn't seem to have too many answers to this problem, which is estimated to be costing it $70 million a year in lost levies.
Queensland seems to have even fewer answers.
This is doubly depressing because we once did have some answers.
They may not have been absolutely the correct answers but they were better than the policy vacuum that now exists.
Premier Anna Bligh set the ball rolling in 2011 when she introduced a variably priced industry waste levy to catch up to other states.
Among her enthusiastic supporters was then minister Annastacia Palaszczuk who warned that without a levy Queensland would become something of a bargain-priced rubbish dump.
Along came Campbell Newman who scrapped the levies, evocatively claiming he was saving industry a $300 million waste tax.
Cue to revving garbage trucks.
Come the electoral avalanche and the precariously balanced Palaszczuk government, saddled with a catchy "no new taxes and charges" pledge couldn't find the ticker (or maybe the numbers) to reinstate the levy.
After the Four Corners expose, the government commissioned an independent inquiry, which was completed in November, although the election intervened.
The government is now chewing it over, with Minister Leeanne Enoch muttering about "whole of government responses''.
When you consider serious and disturbing allegations along the whole waste chain, "whole of government" is a noble ambition.
However, the swift reinstatement of a waste levy would at least choke the trade off at the border. And quickly.
It would be comforting to think that the Bligh government put the levy through the policy wringer back in 2011 and that its conclusions (as supported by the now Premier) remain solid.
Apart from the debatable $300 million cost claims, I have seen nothing to invalidate it.
The consequences of the Newman government's abolition of the levy are so obvious it's difficult to image the Opposition having the nerve to dig in its heels against such an impost.
The government is considering the report but, in the meantime, the truck and trains are rolling across the border day and night delivering 800,000 tonnes of waste each year, according to the NSW Environmental Protection Agency.
There may eventually come a day of reckoning with waste management companies and landfill operators but now is the time for Queensland to regulate its borders.
The Labor government, with a manageable but not huge majority, is known for its caution.
Historically, it carries plenty of bruises to remind itself of the dangers precipitous action and ill-thought policies. It also has the example of the fate of the hell-or- high-water Newman government.
However, there are times when boldness is a government's friend.
This is one of them.