Forty years ago, I was in Fig Street, Ultimo on the day we stopped the bulldozers demolishing houses to make way for the freeway that was about to plough its way through Glebe, Annandale and the Inner West. I certainly didn’t expect then that I would be fighting a much bigger version of a dud 20th century idea in 2015.
That project was eventually stopped in 1976 by a newly elected NSW Labor government but this victory only came at the end of a long battle involving activist residents, unionists and squatters. Back then, communities in Ultimo, Glebe and across the city supported each other in their struggles against damaging land grabs by developers, who in the interests of profits were hell bent on sacrificing low income tenants, heritage and open space.
You’ve heard from others more qualified than me about why the $15 billion Westconnex is a bad idea, not just for inner Sydney but for the entire city. It’s a bad idea in itself but a much worse one when you consider the lost opportunities for public transport in the city and regions of NSW.
Tonight I’m speaking as a journalist and resident of inner Sydney for 48 years.
The question that I think confronts us now is this:
Why is it that when independent consultants, academic transport experts, experienced transport NGOs like Ecotransit, City of Sydney and other Councils, supported by many thousands of concerned residents, argue that Westconnex is a poorly planned project that will lead to most Sydney residents being in a worse situation, both major parties support spending $13 billion on it?
First of all the LNP government.
Just four years ago, the LNP swept into power on three big issues - corruption, undemocratic planning - and yes, transport failure. Premier O’Farrell and Mike Baird’s first step was to set up a so-called independent advisory body. Infrastructure NSW, initially headed by none other the Nick Greiner, who, after he was forced to resign as Liberal Premier in the early 1990s, went into the tollway business himself. He's even been called the grandfather of toll roads.
Infrastructure NSW came up with the idea of the series of tollways and tunnels that is called Westconnex – which was really only a reworked updated version of ideas that Labor had been pushing on and off for nearly a decade. There was an immediate, predictable stream of enthusiastic and supportive media releases from the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, North Shore Councils and the NRMA.
The LNP government set up the Westconnex Development Authority, and who should they choose to chair it but Tony Shepherd. Shepherd was certainly experienced. As head of Transfield, he has been involved in many private infrastructure projects including the Lane Cove Tunnel that financially collapsed when traffic predictions turned out to be wrong. Previously, Tony Shepherd had been head of the big business lobby, Business Council of Australia. He'll also be familiar to many as Chairperson of the notoriously mean Abbott Commission of Audit.
Major corporations have deep links into both Infrastructure NSW and the Westconnex Delivery Authority. This is not the time for a detailed run down but the roll call of appointments included very senior public servants with a background in privatising public assets, executives with connections to the Business Council of Australia, HSBC bank, Stockland construction company and McKinsey. There is a chief of staff for more than 10 years for Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello, a former chief of infrastructure giant Leighton Holdings, that has coincidentally been given the contract for the Westconnex Stage One, and ex-executives of Boral and Adelaide Brighton Cement, both of which have a direct major stake in road building. Where are the social planners, transport economists or environmental engineers? They may be employed but they don't wield power.
A straw argument that is sometimes used to push back tollway criticism is the assertion that opponents are unrealistic hippies who don’t believe in roads. This is a belief that I have never heard anyone express. But while everyone who opposes Westconnex accepts that we need roads, I'd suggest that most people don't think for-profit road builders and financiers are necessarily the best people to be shaping and assessing transport policy.
A more sophisticated argument used by those who support the Westconnex is that inner-city residents must suffer so that residents in outer Western Sydney get a better transport deal. (Interestingly the same argument was used when they cut inner-city women's refuges last year, although it was later shown not to be true.) In other words, we are nimbies.
In fact 90% of those who travel from the Western Suburbs to the CBD for work already use public transport, so we're only talking about a small minority of Western Sydney residents. Nevertheless this nimby argument worried me a bit. Nobody likes to be accused of only being interested in oneself. So I decided that as a journalist I should look further. The best place to start was Westconnex Stage One, the M4 Widening project on which construction begins very soon. The existing M4 is to be widened to four lanes across on both sides.
I visited several sections of the M4 and was surprised by the absurdly narrow strip that will strand some homes, businesses and even a primary school between the widened M4 and what was once the main highway, Parramatta Road. I spoke to a Homebush resident who can't get any explanation from the Westconnex Delivery Authority (WDA) about why her house has been left stranded while others immediately adjacent were compulsorily acquired by the WDA. Was she the only one? Didn't anyone complain about this project I wondered?
I discovered (although it had not been previously reported) that the Minister for Planning Pru Goward only signed a planning approval for Stage One, just three days before last Christmas on December 22, 8 days after a contract had already been given to Leightons for construction.
Then I found out that there had been an Environmental Impact Study (EIS). Back in the old days, an EIS was something you did to see if a project should go ahead but in NSW, it's not like that anymore. The NSW Planning and Environment Department conduct the EIS, only after the government decides to go ahead with the project.
The next thing that I discovered was that during the EIS process, there was a lot of what is called these days 'community consultation'. This means that after the WDA published its own EIS, state and local government departments and the community had an opportunity to make submissions. A big majority of non-government submissions opposed the project, including some expert ones, containing hundreds of pages of argument and evidence showing why Westconnex, which the Baird government has called one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the world, was a poor transport choice.
Some Local Councils said that they approved of the project in principle but then went on to make serious complaints about it. One Council complained about the impossibly short time allowed for consultation (how could staff possibly digest and answer the information in one month?). Not surprisingly there is great concern about the extra traffic that the WDA's own data said will be generated on Parramatta Road after tolls go back on the M4. Others complained about threats to fragile ecosystems and local waterways.
The government's own Environmental Protection Authority rejected some aspects of the WDA study and the Health Department noted that the pollution levels on some sections of the road would be above safe levels. Too bad for residents of Granville and Silverwater. Has anybody even spoken to them to warn them about the downsides of the project?
Nearly all the objections were batted away in the next stage of the EIS that is called the 'response to submissions'.
Reading the EIS, you get a sense that public servants within government were not happy with the project but were faced with a fait accompli. In the end, the project was approved with 90 conditions. Some of these require plans to be developed to minimise the environmental damage created by the project. Leightons told me they are working on these. Meanwhile today, 'preliminary' works were already disrupting the M4 according to a report on radio station 2UE.
Apart from those actively involved in the process, residents of Western or Inner Sydney have not been informed about these environmental concerns - let alone the conditions of approval, although there will be a public 'complaints register' established for the construction phase.
Since I read the EIS, I have spoken off the record to people who work in Planning, Public Health and the EPA. They say that most public servants agree with experts such as Terry Rawnsley of SGS Economics & Planning who has just presented the key findings of his City of Sydney's Independent Report. Like him, they believe that this is a foolhardy project that's not in the public interest - but such is the culture of silence and political pressure imposed on public servants these days that the public never gets to hear about this.
The Westconnex planning process under the LNP has been chaotic and secretive. The Greens' MLC Mehreen Faruqi has stood by communities who will be affected by later stages of the Westconnex. She's been a constant opponent both of the process and the project itself. Labor too has criticised the secrecy around the inadequate Westconnex business case.
Labour's position for NSW election 2015
As the election approached, many waited in suspension for the ALP to announce its transport policy. Had they heard the message from thousands of residents who have taken to the streets or written submissions to explain why they want to put public transport, not tollway profits, at the forefront of transport policy?
But those of us with longer memories expected at best Westconnex with a twist – and sadly, we were right.
If you trawl through the media from 2002 onwards, you'll find that the Labor government’s Minister for Roads Michael Daley (now the Shadow Minister for Roads) has long been pushing for a system of tunnels, a duplicate of Labor's poorly planned M5 and an extension of M4 right into the middle of the CBD. Back when it was in government, Labor was just as secretive about its plans as the LNP has been. Indeed when the NSW Greens MP Lee Rhiannon moved motions in the NSW Upper House to get them to reveal their plans, Labor refused to table them.
Secrecy and constantly shifting policy ruled the day then too. Labor's candidate for Newtown Penny Sharpe actually spoke against a motion to table plans. This perhaps explains why she promises transparency in the future but repeatedly sidesteps questions about Labor's previous record of transparency on tollway plans.
So it's not surprising that in its recently announced transport policy, the ALP criticises the LNP for having moved too slowly on the M4 and M5 parts of the Westconnex. Were they seriously saying that the EIS should have been rushed even more? Perhaps Labor was wishing that by the time they faced the electors again, Westconnex would be a fait accompli. Instead, there could be no better time to stop it.
But instead Labor is promising to build the M4 right in the city; to duplicate M5 towards Port Botany, rather than to St Peters, and not build the tunnel linking the two.
Several times Labor leader Luke Foley and inner city candidates Verity Firth and Penny Sharpe have been asked to explain their support and plan for an M4 that would emerge near the CBD. Formulaic answers have been repeated about taking advice from Infrastructure NSW (yes, the same ones who suggested the project in the first place), having a transparent business case and community consultation. The narrowcasting of policy has been embarrassing. Many residents feel insulted by suggestions that so long as their little patch is protected, we don’t care what happens in Chippendale, Camperdown, Redfern, Glebe, Strathfield, Petersham, Haberfield or Silverwater.
NoWestConnex spokesperson Chris Eleanor told City Hub that Labor lacked an integrated transport plan and seemed “to be making this up as they go along”. “We don’t know where [the M4 extension] is going to start. We don’t know where it’s going to finish. We don’t even know if it’s going to be a tunnel. We don’t know if there are ventilation stacks attached to it … but what we do know is that if the M4 is going through the inner west, it can’t happen without a resumption of public land or house acquisitions.”
Back in the 1970s when we talked about participation in planning we didn’t imagine the distortions and strangled versions of community consultation that we experience in the 21st century. If you were really going to have community consultation, you wouldn’t announce the project first. If Labor was really interested in community consultation, they would have stepped back from their old policies and called a halt to the Westconnex. If you want to know what people think, you don't close the options off.
The answer to my question about why the transport policies of major parties fly in the face of the best thinking about building world-class transport systems is this: through lobbying, gifts donations, power networks and also, of course, shared philosophy, we have an ongoing case in NSW of capture by development companies, who transfer their influence from government to government.
After I began researching the Westconnex I spoke to a doctor in far Western Sydney who told me that there are parents who take more than an hour to travel on public transport through two suburbs with young children. I’ve watched old people struggle down the stairs with no lift in inner city stations. All of these people could have much easier lives if we saved the billions of dollars and the human resources that will be spent on this traffic-generating project.
If this project goes ahead, residents in affected suburbs, public transport users, those who can’t afford tolls and short-distance drivers will be losers. But even drivers who use the expensive tollway won’t be singing, as Abbott suggested they would last week. No, they won’t be singing, they’ll be swearing at the traffic and the major-party politicians who’ve let them down again.
Whether we get an LNP or Labor government on March 28, it will be up to all of us to fight the Westconnex in all its stages.
But one thing is different from the early 1970s. In 2015, we now have an independent City of Sydney (back then there were corrupt or hostile ones) and Greens and independent politicians in parliament. If we want to stop this project, we need to make sure their voices are heard loud and strong in the Lower and Upper Houses of parliament from March 29 onwards. We need a new approach to planning that is driven not by tollway builders, property developers and a casino king. Otherwise, while I won't to be standing here in another 40 years, I fear that those of you who are will be living in a city that is a grimy shadow of what it might have been.
Now's the time to stop the WestConnex.
Note: This version of the speech is longer than the one I gave at the City of Sydney Council on March 16th. It's also been edited and links added.
Image: Thousands of protestors marched down King Street protesting against WestConnex. Labor members and candidates didn't attend. Photo by Miska Mandic.