Senate passes two motions against East-West Link

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By Andrew Herington

The focus of the East-West toll road campaign was on Canberra last week where two motions were passed by Labor and the Greens. Both motions represent solid victories against the toll road and the secrecy that surrounds its federal funding.

The first motion was moved by Victorian Labor Senator Kim Carr and called for the tabling of the East-West Link Stage 1 business case and related documents held by Infrastructure Australia. The motion notes the budget commitment of $3 billion despite there being no recommendation in favour of the project from Infrastructure Australia. It calls on the government to table:

 (i) any business case presented for Stage 1 or 2 for the East-West Link project,

(ii) any correspondence or submissions from the Victorian Government seeking Australian Government funding for this project, and

(iii) any assessment by Infrastructure Australia of the priority of this project compared to other projects.

The motion requires these documents to be tabled prior to consideration of the 2014-15 budget bills, and no later than 7July. However by then the new Senators take their seats, which means Labor and the Greens no longer have a majority.

The Victorian Government could again claim “executive privilege” and “commercial in confidence” protection for the business case – but this won’t protect other documents that Infrastructure Australia has assessing the merits of the project.

The outcome will be interesting. The Abbott Government seems prepared to dispense with due process but paying large grants to projects which have failed their formal assessment by federal agencies and lack a business case will surely attract the attention of the Commonwealth Auditor General. There are still laws that apply to such things.

The Federal Government proposes to transfer $0.5 billion to Victoria before June 30th for Stage 1 and another $1 billion for Stage 2. This second huge payment is truly remarkable as work is not due to start on Stage 2 until at least the end of 2015, the funds were only requested days before the budget and Stage 2 famously only has a “conceptual business case.”

The second motion moved by Labor Senator Stephen Conroy set out the argument why these payments should not be permitted:

(i) evidence given during Senate Estimates that the budget provides for payment to the Victorian Government of $0.5 billion by 30 June 2014 for Stage 1 of the East-West Link and $1.0 billion for Stage 2,

(ii) that this project is still classified by Infrastructure Australia as not 'ready to proceed,'

(iii) that Infrastructure Australia has not received a full business case for assessment of Stage 1 and only received a request for funding of Stage 2 a few days before the budget and it was only accompanied by a 'conceptual business plan', and

(iv) that the responsible Minister, the Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, said of project payments in June 2014:

"So we are driving the state governments very hard to give us timetables to ensure that we're meeting the expected time of delivery of these projects. That we're hitting milestones, that we're only making payments to states when they actually deliver the milestones, that they're not getting money in their bank account prior to milestones being delivered, because we want taxpayers to have accountability for what they're getting, but we also want projects on the ground and not being held up, unfortunately, or deliberately, for that matter"

[Civil Contractors Federation speech, 6 June 2014]; 

The Senate supported the motion and called for no payment to be made to Victoria for the East-West Link project until these conditions are fulfilled and Infrastructure Australia assesses the project as 'ready to proceed'.

Interestingly this motion passed by 37 votes to 30 in a division. The independent Senator Nick Xenophon voted in favour whilst Victorian DLP Senator John Madigan did not vote.

The clock is now ticking and the next fortnight will see important developments in the campaign. The Victorian Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, will announce his decision on the planning approvals and release the recommendations of the CIS Assessment Committee process. Critically he may change these recommendations to push the project ahead and although he is required by law to release their recommendations, he may withhold the actual detailed report on the 30-day hearing.

At the same time he is likely to announce the outcome of the heritage listing for Royal Park, which he prevented the Heritage Council making an independent decision on. This will be presented as a green light for the project opening the way to a decision on the tender process by September. However this may prove to be very optimistic.

The Napthine Government is desperate to sign contracts and get the supporting legislation through Parliament before it is dissolved in mid-October. They know if the coming election becomes a referendum on the $18 billion East-West Link against investment in public transport it will go very badly for the Coalition.

Despite shortcircuiting the decision making, there are numerous obstacles confronting the Government apart from the Senate. There are two VCAT cases next week and the Supreme Court hearing reconvening on 7 July. To send the public message loud and clear there is a major demonstration planned for 28 June (1 pm outside the State Library).

The battle against the East-West Link has a long way to run yet.

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