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Adjournment speech: WestConnex

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 8 Jul 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (20:44):

On another point, I take up the issue of WestConnex, a proposed motorway development for Sydney. In one of the Prime Minister's books, Battlelines, he states that even the 'humblest person is king in his own car'. We might well ask: what about the Queen's? Managing to be both subtly discriminatory and antiquated at the same time is an interesting attribute of Mr Abbott's. Here he has provided an insight into his vision for transport infrastructure.

The concrete outcome of this conservative ideology in New South Wales is now the multibillion dollar mess of the WestConnex toll road. WestConnex was first revealed as a con as far back as 2008, when the then Labor state government attempted to bury a damning report on the project. It revealed that a tollway would cause more problems for the community than it was attempting to solve. Jim Steer, the leading British transport consultant who authored the report, argued that it would bring Sydney's CBD and surrounding roads to a standstill. Steer also argued that the tollway ran counter to the Labor government's metropolitan plan, with its aim of clearer, cleaner air and increased public transport use. So it is clear why that report was buried.

Subsequent investigations by planning experts, community groups and the New South Wales Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi have backed Steer's criticisms. Research shows that, in cities comparable to Sydney, car use is declining due to fuel prices and cost-of-living pressures, while demand for public transport is growing. Planning should embrace this shift in the interests of more liveable urban environments; instead, WestConnex, if constructed, would end our chance of building a liveable, sustainable urban environment. WestConnex would increase transport costs, with commuters being slugged $7.5 billion in tolls to fund the project.

It is interesting how this issue has played out for Labor in New South Wales, because, coming into the last federal election, the then Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Mr Anthony Albanese, announced support for the $20 billion WestConnex motorway even before the business case, traffic modelling and environmental impacts had been investigated. This was part of a total con job that something was being done about the traffic problems in Western Sydney. The great irony of it is that WestConnex is actually planned for inner Sydney and would just add to traffic problems there while robbing the people of far Western Sydney of the public money badly needed for public transport projects there.

When dealing with limited infrastructure funds, the trade-offs have to be carefully weighed in the best interest of the public. WestConnex will not increase the efficiency or usability of Sydney's transport system. Close examination suggests those who will benefit are the corporate mates of the Liberal Party. Dr Michelle Zeibots, who has researched in this area for well over a decade, argues that the best solution to road congestion is public transport—and that is not arguing against the trucks and the cars that use our roads; they will travel more efficiently if we can reduce congestion, and we can do that with better and more public transport. Good public transport provides a cheap and efficient option to driving a car. If precious public funds are wasted on WestConnex, commuters will be forced to use their cars or expensive privatised mass transit options.

The environment of Sydney will also be negatively impacted by WestConnex. Huge exhaust stacks will blanket the surrounding areas in fumes. The government is yet to reveal the location of these stacks. Like the locals, the government knows these stacks are a bad-news story. Filtration systems have been deemed not to be value for money, leaving local residents wondering what dollar value the government has placed on their lungs. They will be wondering for a while longer because the environmental impact statement is still yet to be publicly released.

While a cloud hangs over the air the locals will breathe, there is added uncertainty, with concern the bulldozers will be coming to houses where people live and sleep. Late last year, Presbyterian Aged Care in Haberfield were told that their building would be knocked down. The manager then cancelled safety upgrades to their fire extinguisher system and electronic care program. Just two weeks ago, the WestConnex Delivery Authority made the situation worse by telling residents that the decision was, in fact, not final and would not be made until the middle of 2015. Working with the community and local Greens groups, New South Wales MP Dr Faruqi attempted to get to the bottom of issues like this through a parliamentary inquiry. In a development symbolic of this scandal, the inquiry was virtually squashed when a Shooters and Fishers MP cut a deal with the Minister for Roads and Freight, Duncan Gay. Interestingly, a park near the home of the Shooters MP was saved from demolition—but at what cost to the community?

WestConnex will not serve the community and its implementation is already a debacle. Are the state and federal coalition governments incompetent or serving someone else's interests, or both? There are two clues for anyone seeking to shine a light on this shady mess. One clue is that the WestConnex Delivery Authority is chaired by Tony Shepherd, the former president of the powerful Business Council of Australia and also the head of the Commission of Audit, which laid the ground for the most devastating budget in living memory. Another clue is where the Liberal Party gets its campaign funds—and this is just one example: in the past two years alone the Liberal aligned Cormack Foundation has raked in over $220,000 in dividends from the private toll road operator Transurban, the largest tollway company in Australia.

Although they are up against power, wealth and a stubborn conservative ideology, the community is not lying down. I give my congratulations to all involved, who are currently working to expose the bias of the project's business case. Last month, the community group No WestConnex held a packed meeting where residents continued to organise and advocate for better public transport options. The Petersham-Newtown and Port Jackson local Greens groups are continuing to work with Greens councillors in Marrickville and the community against this misuse of public funds. There are practical alternatives, like the inner west light-rail extensions being promoted by Greens MP for Balmain Jamie Parker, the north-south light-rail plan that Parramatta city councillors developed and the network of heavy-rail and tram projects that Ecotransit has proposed and which will benefit the south-west of Sydney in particular. That is where the billions allocated to WestConnex should be channelled.

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