Besieged on five fronts: Government denies reality

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By Andrew Herington

The Coalition has fallen so deeply in love with the East West Link that they are blind to its faults. The tollway is now dragging down their pitch for re-election, yet they keep promoting it. The LMA Newsletter being letterboxed through inner Melbourne is full of engineering drawings of massive bridges and roads lovingly given such fanciful names as “the Soundwave”, “vertical garden” and the “ribbon motif”.

This doesn’t convince the target audience – it enrages them

Yet, the Coalition ministers and their engineers believe their own propaganda and see their project as a thing of beauty as well as an economic miracle.

They just can’t see what everyone else sees – seven massive freeway viaducts destroying a major park, overpasses metres from resident homes, increased traffic, noise, air pollution and a massive sink hole for scarce capital funds that will prevent major upgrades to public transport for a decade.

Tellingly, they have made no effort to moderate the design of the project or take up any of the Assessment Committee recommendations to lessen the environmental impacts. They love it the way it is – and many of the most recent design changes make the situation worse not better.

The number of jobs to be created has been massively inflated. The CIS dubiously claimed 3,200 temporary construction jobs offset by the permanent loss of 203 existing jobs in properties being demolished.  This was stretched to 3,700 for Stage 1, then “6,000 at peak employment” then 7,500. Now it is the basis for a Liberal claim of 200,000 new jobs over 5 years.

This denial of reality is only possible because the government zealously hides the facts. The refusal to release the Business case or the proposed tolls is because the economic basis for the project is so weak. It would not withstand any public scrutiny. The secrecy around the 2021 traffic projections is because the road will need heavy subsidies when it opens.

The design is so bad that they cannot dare to release the Development Plans that supposedly justify the changes. The impact on residents and their homes is so draconian that the Property Impact Report must also remain secret.

The Coalition is facing its moment of truth in the forthcoming election. Polling suggests they may be the first one term government in sixty years. To try to avoid this, Premier Napthine is doing everything he can to squeeze back into government. Tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars spent on blatantly party political advertising involve almost every government department.

The desperation tactics may not be enough for the government to survive. If Daniel Andrews is elected, the East West Link will be dead in the water. A payout of less than 2% the full cost would save 98% for better transport projects.

Storm clouds continue to gather around the project with the Government now under siege on five separate fronts:

  1. The City of Yarra and Moreland case challenging the validity of the planning approval is progressing well. The Council won a clear victory on the preliminary issues and were granted access to all documents held by the Minister for Planning in making the decision. This case goes to trial on December 15th and is likely to provide a fatal blow to the validity of the contract if the planning approval is struck down.
  2. The City of Moonee Valley is preparing its own case to challenge the “rationality” of the Planning Minister’s subsequent changes to the design which had no basis in the Assessment Committee report but severely impacts on Moonee Valley. One early step will be to try to force the Development Plans into the open court.
  3. There are some 102 individual landowners who have been subject to compulsory acquisition of their land and a further 88 who have been offered voluntary purchase. Each case is different and there are numerous complexities that will tie the LMA down for months, with few of the landowners keen to settle quickly.
  4. Most recently, Matthew Guy has accepted the universal support for Royal Park to be added to the heritage register, but he has tried to exempt everything to do with the East West Link. This opens another major legal vulnerability for the hastily approved project.

As the rule of law still applies in Victoria, the Courts are likely to have a vital say on whether the project proceeds. The Lend Lease/ Acciona consortium have made aggressive statements about their intention to proceed but they know the weak ground they are treading on. The companies have wrung out of the Premier a secret “side letter” with private undertakings. In the circumstances, these may not be a legally effective bypass to any future court findings.

In the wings, the banks and financiers will be nervously watching the situation and urging caution to minimise any commitments being made prior to the election outcome being resolved. Given the clear prior commitments by the Opposition, the consortium will find it hard to recover expenses that they have recklessly incurred. 

The penny has yet to drop with the Coalition that they have tied their fate to a very unpopular project. There is no strong public opinion in favour of the toll road. No one is campaigning for it. Even the RACV has been lacklustre – rating the North East Link a higher priority.

The community campaign is continuing unabated. The next five weeks will see the focus shift away from the inner city to the marginal seats in Melbourne’s south east and outer fringe where the election outcome will be determined. There, the chronic lack of public transport is a decisive issue alongside health, education and local jobs. The East West Link will live up to its reputation as a very expensive albatross around Coalition’s neck.

Andrew Herington is a former senior Brumby government adviser. He lead and represented the coalition of community groups during the Comprehensive Impact Statements (CIS) period earlier this year.

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