Crunch Time for the Tunnel

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By Andrew Herington

After a tumultuous week, it is clear the outcome on the East West Link is going to go down to the wire, but it will be resolved by the election. 

The forces are now evenly balanced but the momentum rests with the community opposition. A strong majority has emerged against the freeway but the message needs to be sold beyond the inner city for the campaign to succeed.

The Napthine Government is rapidly running out of time with only six weeks to go before it enters caretaker mode on 4th November. However it is seemingly prepared to do or say anything to get signatures on any sort of paper so that it can to claim the project is “locked in” with its preferred tenderers Lend Lease and Acciona

The prospect of any actual construction this year has evaporated with financiers wanting to hold back until after the Moreland and Yarra Council’s challenge is heard in mid December by the Supreme Court. In a significant misjudgement, the Coalition decided not to present a defence until December 5th which has left a lethal cloud of uncertainty hanging over the project. 

Daniel Andrews says time has run out on the efforts to get a valid, legally binding contract. He has committed Labor to overturn the project on the basis of the unresolved legal case. Anything signed from this point will only have the status of a heads of agreement.

The East West Link is marooned with no final design, no public business case, no approved tolls, no legislative backing, unmet planning conditions and widespread community opposition.                                                                                            

The big business counter-attack

The Coalition thought it would play its trump cards this week, announcing the preferred developers, starting geo tech work on Stage 2 and commencing the valuation process on homes that are to be demolished.

Labor’s announcement pushed those developments into the background.

The Herald Sun came out with a series of vicious articles and cartoons attacking Labor’s stance. It is clear that the paper is likely to become very partisan during the election campaign following the example of other Murdoch papers. Most of the commentary in support of the project came from business groups who didn’t even bother to come to present at the Assessment Committee.

The RACV (the one pro-group to appear) also attacked Labor but they did not put the East West Link at the top of their recently announced road priorities – preferring construction of a link from the Eastern Freeway to the Ring Road at Greensborough. 

The incomplete design

A tricky set of issues confronts the LMA in trying to comply with the numerous pre-conditions that qualify the planning approval. None of the five reports required to address the design deficiencies identified by the independent Assessment Committee have been completed.

The LMA has now admitted to Kensington residents that it has stopped work on the freeway viaduct along Moonee Ponds Creek (known as Part B) and won’t address the design alternatives until May next year. Their work on the eastern and western terminal remains top secret and there will be no public consultation on the new designs.

Matthew Guy has strongly signalled his intention to approve these plans before the election regardless and despite them not yet being complete. Demanding a period of public consultation on the alternatives is critically important to the campaign.

The false argument about refunds

The latest scare campaign comes from the Treasurer, Michael O’Brien who claims that Victoria will have to repay the Commonwealth if the East West Link does not proceed. He is apparently confirming that a payment of $1.5 billion to Victoria was secretly made in the dying days of last financial year. Another $100 m is due to be paid in 2014/15

This payment was first revealed to the Senate by Infrastructure Australia in March but every attempt to confirm that it went ahead has been stonewalled. The only public disclosure was a tweet from the Premier on June 27th with a photo of him signing an agreement with the Prime Minister. This agreement also remains a tight State secret, along with the business case, the redesign of the road, the level of tolls and the conditions of the contract.

If the East West Link does not proceed this money will not be lost to the State. It comes from Victoria’s share of road funding nationally and it is open to the next Government to nominate alternative projects to spend the funding on.

In fact, it includes $500 million already allocated to complete the widening of the Ring Road which was cut by the Napthine government in order to fund the western section of EWL.

Parliamentary confusion

State Parliament meets on Tuesday for its second last week. It is likely to be another tumultuous sitting week with the Government back on the attack. Yet the Coalition is unwilling to bring in legislation to make the contract binding because it knows this will be defeated.

Whilst there have been many calls for a motion to stop the contract signing, the standing orders give the Government control of what motions are brought on for debate, so this is unlikely.

This is no way to run the largest infrastructure project in Victoria’s history. The Napthine government has lost all credibility as a result of its own secretive conduct and refusal to have an open debate about how much this road will cost motorists and taxpayers.

There is no certainty about what will happen next but the road will be fought every inch of the way. Major construction firms and banks would be very unwise to enter into a deal struck in such politically volatile circumstances.

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