May 30, 2017

Grievance Debate – WestConnex

Federation Chamber

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (18:14): Back in 2012, the experts at Infrastructure New South Wales sat down to take a look at the major challenges facing Sydney’s transport network. They later produced a report about their deliberations. Under the headline ‘First things first’, the experts, chaired by Nick Greiner, a former Premier of New South Wales, said the greatest transport challenge facing Sydney was rapid growth around Port Botany and the Sydney Airport. The Infrastructure New South Wales report said:

With growth forecast to continue, investment is urgently needed in landside infrastructure to allow access to these gateways.

It was identified access to the Port of Botany as the No. 1 priority. The advice could not have been clearer. The other imperative was access to the central business district of Sydney. It was these two requirements—access for freight to the port in particular and for cars to the CBD—that led to the beginning of what was termed the WestConnex project.

What we have today with the WestConnex project, five years later, is a very different project. It is one which will not go to the port. It will not meet the very challenges that were identified as the reason for its existence. This is the worst example of planning that I have seen for a major infrastructure project. What you need to do with infrastructure is to get the plans right first, go through the community consultation process and the environmental approvals and then have funding provided. What we have with this project is literally a government which is making it up as they go along. This is a project where they literally started digging tunnels before they knew where the tunnels were coming up—an extraordinary proposition. It is a project which began with a cost of some $10 billion which has now blown out to $17 billion, which is now leading to calls for further extensions of the road network.

In the 2014 budget of the Abbott government, the one where they cut funding for every public transport project that was not under construction, there was money handed out. It was handed out as advance payments for projects that had not been through planning proposals and had not been through the Infrastructure Australia process. That included the WestConnex project, where the $1.5 billion in grant funding has already all been paid—every single dollar of it—even though the project will not be concluded until into the 2020s.

In government, we instituted a process whereby you would have milestone payments. That is the concept that you have to actually build something and achieve the milestones that have been set in order for state governments to then be rewarded with payments from the federal government. But what we saw with this project was $750 million forwarded as an advance payment. We also then saw $2 billion made available as a loan to the New South Wales government, even though the New South Wales government has got substantial revenue from the sale of essential public assets in New South Wales. This is what the Auditor-General had to say about the project. I will quote from the report released last year as a result of representations that I had made asking for an audit into the financing processes of this project. He wrote:

The WestConnex project had not proceeded fully through the established processes to assess the merits of nationally significant infrastructure investments prior to Australian Government funding being committed. This situation was identified in departmental advice to decision makers prior to decisions being taken.

So there we have the Audit Office saying that ministers ignored the advice. With regard to the milestone payments, the Audit Office found that they changed what the milestones were in order to justify the payments being made.

We also saw the ongoing complete failure of community consultation. The residents of Haberfield, St Peters, Ashfield, Leichhardt and Rozelle all tell the same story. Take just one example—that of Vince Crow, a long-time resident of Haberfield. In June 2014 Mr Crow received two letters from a representative of the WestConnex Delivery Authority. Both were delivered on the same day. The first letter said, ‘We’re going to need to buy your property,’ and the second letter, signed by the same gentleman, said, ‘We don’t need to buy your property.’ There was absolute uncertainty for this resident. The pattern of inaccuracy, unprofessionalism and miscommunication has been repeated across my community ever since. About 180 properties have already been acquired out of a total of more than 400. Indeed, there is the extraordinary circumstance whereby the New South Wales government kept secret from the community for more than two years the report they received in 2014 about compensation that people who were having their homes acquired were due.

Across my community, residents have had to fight to protect public parks and sporting fields. Ashfield Park, Easton Park in Rozelle and Blackmore Oval in Leichhardt were all defended by the local community. I made representation about all of those public parks because open space is at a premium. Worst was to come with the idea that you would create a dive site next to the Leichhardt campus of the Sydney Secondary College. This was right next to the one oval that that overcrowded campus has. It was proposed to have a convoy of trucks rolling in and out of the worksite past school classroom windows. Fortunately, the New South Wales minister, Stuart Ayres, who I approached about this, intervened and it has been ruled out as a proposal. At the same time students in schools like St Peters Public School have had to put up with the demolition of homes right near the school. This had a real impact on them. Haberfield Public School students and teachers are very worried about the impact of the project on Haberfield.

You would think, given the extent of disruption, that senior people in the New South Wales bureaucracy would be concerned about this. The Greater Sydney Commission has responsibility for planning in greater Sydney. In August 2016 the chair of the commission, Lucy Turnbull, was interviewed on ABC radio and was asked to comment on the fact that houses were being demolished in Haberfield to make way for WestConnex. The chair of the commission said, ‘I’m not aware that there are houses going to be demolished at Haberfield.’ At that very time dozens of houses, which were heritage listed in a heritage listed suburb, had already been demolished. There is complete contempt for these local residents.

Delivering major infrastructure projects is never easy. I support good infrastructure, public transport as well as good road infrastructure, but you have to get the planning right. You also have to acknowledge that, in our growing global cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, the key to dealing with urban congestion is public transport, not more and more road infrastructure. You must get the planning right, you must consult properly with the community and you must bring the community with you. In the words of the 18th century American statesman Benjamin Franklin, ‘If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.’ The WestConnex project has now been set up under a separate authority so freedom of information laws and the normal accountability of a government agency do not apply in New South Wales. This is an example of avoiding bringing the community with an infrastructure project rather than having proper consultation.

Contact Anthony

(02) 9564 3588 Electorate Office

Email: A.Albanese.MP@aph.gov.au

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