Toowoomba Water Futures referendum, 2006

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On 29 July 2006, the City of Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia held a referendum on the controversial issue of using recycled water from the cities sewers as a source for drinking water.

This proposal, the public debate, the referendum and associated campaigns for both the "Yes" and "No" positions, attracted statewide and national interest.

The "Yes" position, championed by the Mayor of Toowoomba, Di Thorley and backed by the council staff and Toowoomba Water Futures[1] project, faced opposition from a minority of councillors led by Councillor and National Party candidate for Toowoomba North in the upcoming State Election Lyle Shelton, millionaire property developer and former Mayor and MLA for Toowoomba South Clive Berghofer and grassroots campaigner Rosemary Morley.


Changing weather patterns, a drought, and insufficient investment in water infrastructure in the 20th century by both Toowoomba City Council and the Queensland State Government led to increasingly severe water restrictions in the "Garden City". Using town water on lawns, and eventually gardens and potted plants was banned under a series of ever harsher water restrictions.

A proposal to recycle water from the cities sewerage system, add salts to prevent the ultra pure water damaging concrete water pipes, pump it to the cities dams, then redraw it for domestic (drinking water) use was initially supported unanimously by the mayor and councillors, and by the local Federal Member Ian Macfarlane seat of Groom, which covers most of Toowoomba.

State and Federal governmental support from both Labor and coalition politicians was also strong.

The debate[edit]

The situation was complicated by growing resentment at perceived heavy-handedness from outside "celebrities" and leaders such as Commonwealth Water Secretary Malcolm Turnbull who tied federal funding exclusively to the recycling project.

Lyle Shelton and two other councilors switched to opposing the proposal, as did Ian Macfarlane saying that "No" campaigner, millionaire property developer Clive Berghofer "had a right to be heard".[2]

The lead up to the poll was marked by misinformation, dirty tricks and an alleged whispering campaign by some members of the Toowoomba City Council .[3] Unsourced claims in the whispering campaign included a kick-back (of $11 million) to the Mayor; questions about the Mayor moving to Tasmania; and the engineering firm behind the project being a Halliburton subsidiary. There was a threatened exodus from the city should the recycled water begin flowing.

Much was made about the risk of loss of equity in homes as house prices would tumble should Toowoomba embrace recycled water.

The poll[edit]

The proposal was defeated on Saturday, 29 July 2006 by 62% to 38%. In 2007, the Mayor (Di Thorley) announced she was moving to Tasmania.


  1. ^ "Water Futures Toowoomba Website". 
  2. ^ Fraser, Andrew (2006-07-29). "Contest sinks to gutter - WATER WAR". The Weekend Australian. Sydney: News Corporation. p. 6. Thorley believes that property king Clive Berghofer, the city's richest man, put pressure on Macfarlane -- and Ian has said to all the councillors that (Berghofer) was Toowoomba's richest man and by that he had a right to be heard. 
  3. ^ Fraser, Andrew (2006-07-29). "Contest sinks to gutter - WATER WAR". The Weekend Australian. Sydney: News Corporation. p. 6. THE campaign was ugly, quite literally going down the toilet.