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By Judy Darcy

Instead of a throne speech, perhaps the government should have called the ceremony to open parliament the La-Z-Boy speech. Because its clear that having sewn up their third majority, the Liberals are sitting back to enjoy the ride.

Reclining in their easy chair, the Liberals have their hand on the remote control, and theyre watching a steady diet of reruns. The speech from the throne recycled their Red Book water promise, itself a recycling of last years infrastructure promises which fell far short of what the country needed.

In doing so, the Liberals are missing a key moment to take some leadership on the urgent question of protecting our drinking water. There are two areas where they can, and must, act: increased funding for water systems, and binding drinking water quality standards.

Canada is in the middle of a major infrastructure crisis. We need to strengthen and upgrade the systems that treat and deliver clean, safe water, and we need to do it now.

The tragic events that unfolded last May in Walkerton should have made the federal Liberals sit up and take notice. Across the country, drinking water and wastewater systems are in desperate need of upgrading and repair. Poorly funded and under-resourced public systems are in danger of failing other communities. The network of services and systems that failed Walkerton needs to be repaired not just patched up, but in some cases rebuilt.

Last years Liberal infrastructure program releases a trickle of money, when whats needed is a steady flow. The federal commitment (for all infrastructure not just water systems) totals $2.65 billion over six years. When matched by provincial and municipal governments, the fund should total $7.95 billion over six years. Even if that were all devoted to water, it wouldnt meet the needs of aging and decaying water systems.

Canadian cities and towns need more than $5 billion a year for the next decade to meet water and wastewater investment needs, according to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The Canadian Water and Wastewater Association says its $6 billion a year for 15 years. By any measure, its a lot of money. But its dwarfed by the size of the federal governments surplus.

At a time when the federal government is swimming in a surplus that keeps getting bigger, it is unforgiveable that more money wasnt allocated to this pressing need.

In a budget that gave away $100 billion in tax cuts, CUPE called on Paul Martin to allocate $2 billion annually, to be matched by the provinces and municipalities. CUPE also asked for a pool of seed money, to provide low-cost financing for water infrastructure renewal.

Together these policies would have gone a long way toward relieving the pressure on local water systems, and would have helped strengthen and support them. Instead, by continuing to underfund this vital community need, the federal government is backing municipalities further down the dangerous path of increased privatization.

Those pushing privatization of water will take big-ticket infrastructure needs, combine them with the tragic events in Walkerton, and redouble their call for private corporations to take over municipal water systems. The Ontario government has eagerly hopped on this bandwagon, without even waiting for the results of the Walkerton inquiry.

Experience around the world demonstrates that private sector involvement in water systems whether its financing, owning or operating them often carries a hefty price tag. Our water systems cannot be allowed to become for-profit ventures.

The second key area where the federal government must act is drinking water regulation. Last month we worked with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund to release their report showing the patchwork system of drinking water protection across Canada. There are wild variations from province to province, with no binding national standards to ensure a minimum level of safety.

Here, the federal government can play an important role. Health Canada sets guidelines for the quality of Canadian drinking water. The guidelines set limits on substances that can taint drinking water but the limits have no teeth. The federal government must make those guidelines binding across Canada. The federal government has jurisdiction over food and drug standards. Safe drinking water is just as essential to the health and well-being of all Canadians.

As well as setting standards for protecting drinking water, the federal government must use its spending power to enforce those standards. Any increase in infrastructure funding should be contingent on provinces introducing new rules for strengthening drinking water protection from protecting sources of drinking water to improving testing of what comes out our taps.

It shouldnt take another tragedy to shake Jean Chrt0069en out of his complacent snooze. The Liberals cant afford to sit out this debate. Its time they took a stand and showed some leadership in protecting water for all Canadians.

Judy Darcy is the National President of Canadas largest union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees. CUPEs 485,000 members include the front line workers who deliver water across Canada. CUPE has been warning about the dangers of water downloading, deregulation and privatization since 1997. For more information, visit CUPE on the web at cupe.ca.