BY WENDY BACON
NSW Minister for Roads Duncan Gay loves to abuse critics of WestConnex as “nasty little anarchists”, “hippies” or “zealots” who are part of the “chattering classes.”
He does this to divide them from the people of Western Sydney who are supposed to benefit from the project.
Mr Gay particularly dislikes the people of Newtown who elected Greens MP Jenny Leong to represent them in the parliament earlier this year.
One reason why Ms Leong was so easily elected was that she promised to do everything she could to stop WestConnex. One of her first steps was to launch a petition that raised awareness of the issue at street stalls and fairs.
The petition called on the government to release the full business case for the project, hold an inquiry and halt the forced acquisition of hundreds of homes.
After 10,000 people had signed the petition, Ms Leong was entitled to a parliamentary debate that took place on November 19.
In her speech, Ms Leong acknowledged the local action groups who had collected the signatures but also challenged Mr Gay’s politics of divide and rule by emphasising support from residents across Sydney.
“In Randwick, Coogee, Miranda and Heathcote, people have signed the petition. In Parramatta, Fairfield, Granville and Chipping Norton, people have signed the petition to say stop WestConnex,” Ms Leong told parliament.
Premier Mike Baird and Mr Gay chose to dodge the debate, leaving three Liberal backbenchers to defend the project.
Parramatta Liberal MP Geoff Lee told the parliament he supported WestConnex because it was “about enabling people in Western Sydney to access jobs and get to their place of work”.
“WestConnex will build the missing link of an integrated road system around Sydney and that is why I support it,” Mr Lee told parliament.
Balmain Greens MP Jamie Parker and Summer Hill Labor MP Jo Haylen both strongly supported the petition, as well as the Labor’s Shadow Minister for Roads Jodi McKay, who highlighted the lack of transparency around the project. She said that without the business case, financing of the project was unclear.
“We know that we will have a toll on the M4 for 44 years.”
With construction contracts already awarded, Premier Baird has been under pressure to release the business case that is supposed to provide a sound economic basis for the project.
Ms McKay had predicted it would be released as soon as parliament had risen and she was proved correct when Mr Gay released it on November 20.
It was immediately clear why the government had been so reluctant to release it earlier. Several months ago, Mr Gay told parliament that WestConnex would cost $15.4 billion dollars. Now, the cost has climbed to $16.8 billion. WestConnex was originally costed at $10 billion. Costs have been escalating at $1.5 billion a year.
According to the business case, for every $1 spent on the tollways, $1.88 will be added to the economy. But the financial costings on which this claim is based are not transparent, with hundreds of redactions blacking out the important figures. Costs of property acquisition and negative social and health impacts are also missing.
WestConnex Action Group spokesperson Pauline Lockie, whose home in St Peters is being forcibly acquired by WestConnex, told City Hub that “over 10,000 people from across Sydney and NSW signed this petition.”
“10,000 voters are furious about the billions being wasted on WestConnex and the increasingly corrupted processes surrounding this toll road,” Ms Lockie said.
Lockie accused the NSW Government of steamrolling the project through with disregard for the community.
“They claim that WestConnex will benefit the people of Western Sydney, but in reality this is a big expensive toll road that will have devastating effects on our city.”
In her speech to parliament, Ms Leong contested the claim that WestConnex is about equity for residents in outer Sydney who will use the road.
“It is astounding that the NSW Government continues with WestConnex when the benefits do not add up and when the risks to our communities and to our health are so great.”
“Best practice planning for healthy, sustainable, liveable cities does not involve putting large amounts of the population into private primary transport options.”
Stop WestConnex campaigners know their battle will intensify in 2016, as the Baird government desperately pushes ahead towards construction of the M4 East and new M5 tollways. But with every step it takes, concerns about the project, even within the government itself, grow.
Government department submissions to the M4 East Environmental Impact Statement raised scores of environmental concerns. The lack of transparency and uncertainty around Westconnex funding is feeding into memories of past failed tollway projects such as the Lane Cove tunnel and Cross City Tunnel.
Whether you’re in Western or inner Sydney, Mr Gay’s politics of division is a sideshow disguising the weakness of his case.