City News

WestConnex: the evidence doesn’t stack up


My contribution to this discussion about WestCONnex reflects my experience as an investigative journalist and activist who has been covering WestCONnex for 18 months. (You will not be surprised to know that the CON in the middle of WestCONnex is capitalised deliberately.) 

You might wonder how my reporting and activism go together? Well, as a journalist my job is to try to report the truth as best I’m able. I’m an activist because I believe that the evidence available about this massive system of tollways demonstrates that this project is not a good use of $16.8 billion dollars; that it will in the end worsen not solve traffic congestion; and in the meantime will cause widespread destruction of valuable housing and parks and risk the health of many people.

But it is not just me that thinks the evidence stacks up against WestCONnex. Experts such economists from SGS Consulting have written scathing reviews of the WestCONnex business case, transport planning experts such as UTS academic Michelle Zeibots have debunked the traffic analyses and health professionals such as Dr Victor Storm have explained how WestCONnex will worsen air pollution especially in hot spots near tunnel portals.

I’ve been asked to focus on the theme of ‘governance’ tonight. I take this to mean – how are decisions made? How is power being exercised in relation to WestCONnex? And is that power accountable and if so, to whom?

In a rational and democratic world, you would expect that such a massive expenditure of public resources would not move forward until there had been an evidence based planning process. So I will begin by looking at that part of the decision -making process.

The first two stages of WestCONnex have attracted record levels of community opposition as well as solid critiques from scientific, economic and transport planning perspectives. But the planning process did not consist, as you would hope of a contrasting and assessment of evidence.

Global engineering company AECOM, which has extensive interests in fossil fuel industries and roads, was largely responsible for Environmental Impact Statement for the New M5 and M4 East tollways. Take the New M5. 12,000 submissions, 99 per cent of which opposed the project, some hundreds of pages long, were lodged. Councils commissioned independent experts who found hundreds of flaws in the project. Despite undertakings by the Department of Planning to publish the submissions, they were not published for weeks and when they were it was in the form of giant PDFs that froze computers of residents who tried to download them. What we experienced was an insulting ‘tick the box’ approach to planning. Many serious arguments about project’s risks were simply batted away or ignored. Most responses simply restated the proposal. When that happens you know that ‘a fix’ is in. Community consultation is being used merely as a way of disguising a decision that was made before the consultation began. Unfortunately, this is a mark of governance in NSW.

Of course once you know that the contracts had been let for the project long before the planning process was complete, this all begins to make sense. Leightons, which is now part of global conglomerate based in Spain, is the big winner with more than $8 billion worth of contracts. Since 2013, Fairfax media has been reporting that Leightons has been involved in serious international bribery. The community has every reason to be seriously alarmed.

While so called assessment is still underway, the Sydney Motorway Corporation — the privatised form of the Westconnex Delivery Authority– is constantly moving ahead with new stages of the project, that have not even begun to be assessed. This is why the community is left to hold meetings like this one, only after drilling has begun just a few blocks away in Glebe without any prior discussion with the community. The fact that this project is being planned in stages without any assessment of the negative impacts of the whole project is deliberate. From the beginning the public has been kept in the dark or at least uncertain about what is around the corner while private companies such as AECOM were quietly awarded contracts to work on this third stage, which would link the M4 East (Stage One) and the New M5 (Stage Two), while still working on the EIS for the first two stages.

Recently the NSW Premier Mike Baird suggested that the consultation processes could have been better handled. Much of that consultation is conducted by private consultants who are paid for with tax payer dollars to place strategic pieces in the media; or design expensive glossy brochures that offer entertainment package prizes to those who will answer a short survey; or pay casual staff to staff shopping centre booths who don’t even know the names of major roads within 400 metres of the project, as I reported after visiting a WestCONnex booth at Marrickville Metro.

Photo: Poppy Danis.

What Baird is sorry about is that despite all these expensive efforts, thousands of us opposed to his pet project won’t simply disappear and that more people in western Sydney are waking up to the fact that this project is not going to help their traffic congestion woes and will saddle them with tolls for decades.

In fact consultation was never about canvassing views to find out if this project is the right one for Sydney. Decisions were made behind closed doors years ago. The community was never part of the equation.

The road lobby – huge companies like Leighton and its subsidiaries Thiess and John Holland and the Macquarie Bank, which is now raising finance for the project, paid millions of dollars of donations and attended fundraisers and dinners with politicians in both LNP and Labor party over years. These donations grease the wheels of the infrastructure decision making in favour of roads and privatised public transport. The seeds of the WestCONnex project can be found during years of NSW Labor government that planned to extend the M4 – that was fought off by a community campaign that so frightened Labor electorally that they backed off.

Even before the NSW Liberal government was elected, the push was on again for more NSW tollways. This was in the face of the collapse of the private sector model of funding tollways. Recently I published an article in New Matilda based on evidence tendered in a class action involving the collapse of the Clem 7 in Brisbane in which AECOM deliberately allowed misleading traffic figures to be released to potential investors in a product disclosure statement. There was evidence in the case that they did this under pressure from Leightons executives. AECOM has settled at a cost of more than $350 million dollars.

My investigation also showed that the Macquarie Bank’s tollway operations in the United States were involved in paying secret commissions to AECOM for its traffic modelling.

It beggars believe that these three companies were all bought in on the early planning of Westconnex back in 2013 and 2014 to advise the government on Westconnex and remain heavily involved today. Of course they thought Westconnex would be a good idea. Astonishing the person who was most responsible for the wildly wrong Clem 7 traffic modelling was appointed to be one of the peer reviewers of the secret Westconnex Traffic Model that has never been made available to local council, academic or independent experts.

The LNP government’s early planning was partly paid for by a grant from the Federal Labor government in 2012. Labor also put in $1.8 in its budget on 2013 on condition that the M4 came right to to the city. That is in fact still Labor policy. No one has ever explained on what evidence the policy is based or where the tunnel would come out. As late as 2015 when WestCONnex was discussed in the Senate, Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill mocked Westconnex as just the ‘PR’ name for the road that Labor planned to build anyway.

Its true that Labor says it wants better planning – but when you put $1.8 billion on the table the planning is not going to be about whether the project goes ahead or not – it was about the route it would take. You don’t put money in the budget and say it may or may not happen. No surprisingly Labor’s promise of $1.5 billion was welcomed by the road lobby.

To be fair, Labor was pushed by then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott who once elected in September 2013 confirmed the Federal grant although it was reduced to $1.5 billion. His government sped up the process for the New M5 with a $2 billion concessional loan – but that loan agreement was not signed until November 2015 and none of it has ever been paid to NSW government. I was shocked to learn that when WestCONnex Action Group’s Kathy Calman whose neighbourhood at Beverly Hills is being disastrously affected by WestCONnex asked Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Shadow Minister Anthony Albanese in October 2015 about the Federal funds. Albanese described the $2 billion loan as having been ‘prepaid’. This statement which was recorded is clearly false. After the Federal Department of Infrastructure confirmed at the end of May 2016 that a big slice of the Federal grant and none of the loan was yet to be paid, Albanese then said that he wouldn’t be possible for him to prevent the payment of the $2 billion if elected. In the light of Shorten’s recent statement that he supports the project, this is not surprising. Remember that $2 billion because stopping it is one of the key aims of the Stop WestCONnex campaign.

Since the SMC was privatised WestCONnex contracts are not public and the project has been taken outside the NSW’s freedom of information laws. Labor’s Jodi McKay with the support of the Greens has been trying to change that. But an analysis of the contracts up to October last year shows that global engineering companies and big corporate legal firms have already earned millions of public dollars from WestCONnex. Private consultants have been hired on high short term contracts to fulfil what once would have been public positions. What we have is secrecy and almost no accountability. For example, an AECOM senior executive moved into a highly paid ‘government relations’ consultancy to liaise between the SMC and the Roads and Maritimes services. Who knows what that actually means? Private PR firms with close links to Newscorp have been paid millions to do the PR.

The Baird government has gone beyond privatisation –it is accelerating the processes through which the public service is hollowed out of skills and much of government itself is run by people whose first obligation is to their private employers.

I know that this is depressing and the last thing I want to do is make you feel disempowered. Because if we care about whether we live in a democratic society, if we care about the liveability of our city, we must fight back and we are already doing that. Premier Mike Baird is counting on us going away and that is what we will not do. He never expected anything the wall of opposition we are building against WestCONnex.

What and who do we have on our side?

We have thousands of members of the community with their ideas and resources.

Don’t sit here in Glebe waiting for the WestCONnex to come to you. Support the residents in Haberfield and St Peters who despite houses being demolished are continuing to take action.

You can picket at drill sites and hand out information that cuts through Westconnex spin. We may not be able to physically stop bulldozers but we can keep the issue in the public eye. We can show that we will not accept unaccountable decisions made behind closed doors that are driven by profits for the road lobby rather than our community.

We did have our local Councils in the Inner West. Our democratically elected councillors did much to stand by the community, which is no doubt partly why the Baird government has dismissed  them without cause. But we still have the City of Sydney led by Lord Mayor Clover Moore who is putting up a very strong fight against WestCONnex.

Stopping funding for the project is a key. The Greens initiated the move to get a Federal audit of the funding and have promised to do everything in their power to stop that funding.

From the moment it was announced, the Greens MPs have spoken out against the project in favour of more sustainable transport planning based around public transport. They have stood with us at early morning protests. Newtown MP Jenny Leong hosted a People’s Inquiry, which gathered and published more testimony and evidence against WestCONnex.

It would be dishonest not to admit that Stopping WestCONnex is a very tough fight. The crucial issue of the right of people in future decades to move around our city in an equitable and sustainable way is at stake. We can stop WestCONnex and we must give this fight everything we’ve got because if we don’t we’ll have endorsed not just a $16.8 billion waste of public resources but also a profoundly undemocratic way of decision-making. If we let the Baird government get away with this secrecy and lack of public accountability we can be sure that it will dog us now – and in the future.

This is an extract from a speech given by Wendy Bacon at Glebe Town Hall.