BY WENDY BACON
As the hot sun rose after a sweltering night in inner Sydney on Wednesday morning, three protests against Westconnex toll roads were already underway.
Despite 7 arrests last week in Sydney Park and scores of police pushing and even occasionally attacking residents, protesters are not fading away.
In response, the NSW Baird government has chosen to deploy squads of inner Sydney police on a daily basis to back up Westconnex’s own private security guards protecting operations. City Hub’s own reporter was arrested for the second time on a Westconnex protest last Friday.
In St Peters, a long line of protesters joined by Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon walked silently along the perimeter fences behind which Westconnex ‘Get Lopped’ contractors were hacking with chain saws at a few of Sydney Park’s 500 doomed trees. The march briefly blocked two construction entrances but as a bevy of police descended, the protesters moved on. As the temperature reached 40, they held a short meeting next to the protest camp that has been maintained on a 24/7 basis since September last year. They resolved to plan further protests in coming days, but given the heat, called it a day. Hundreds of Westconnex workers who are forced to work in extreme heat were not so lucky.
Meanwhile in Arncliffe, a group gathered not far from an exit where 1000 trucks a day will carry spoil down already choked major roads from the midpoint tunnelling site for the New M5. A giant frog stood with the protesters highlighting the dire threat to the endangered Green and Golden Bell Frog colony nearby.
In Leichhardt a group picketed a drilling site for Stage 3 of Westconnex, a planned tunnel under the Inner West. The route of construction sites for the tunnel will soon be revealed. Even the Baird government’s appointed Inner West Council is arguing that no site in Leichhardt or Lilyfied could safely be used for a major tunnelling site.
The seven residents arrested last week join 16 arrested last year during anti WestConnex demonstrations. Three of those arrested last week have been charged under the new protest laws with the offence ‘aggravated trespass’ which carries a maximum fine of $5000. Others who were not arrested were injured by police.
“It was distressing to see our police used yet again by the private corporations building Mike Baird’s deeply unpopular WestCONnex tollway,” said WestCONnex Action Group spokesperson Sharon Laura.
Ms Laura said it was not the first time police had used heavy-handed tactics at WestCONnex protests.
“This week has seen police officers use pain compliance techniques and violence against residents at WestCONnex protests, some of whom were elderly,” said Ms Laura.
“These WestCONnex protests also appear to be the first time NSW police have used Mike Baird’s draconian anti-protest laws which allow officers to treat peaceful protesters like criminals. But residents will keep taking non-violent direct action against the WestCONnex tollway as long as Premier Baird keeps pushing this sham project through,” said Ms Laura.
The heavy policing contrasts with a lack of public resources available for pursuing complaints that Westconnex is breaching approval conditions and other environmental and health and safety regulations.
For example, complaints to the NSW EPA about a lack of water to control dust in windy conditions before the end of 2016 are not yet finalised. Investigations have taken weeks while residents are left to collect even more evidence of a failure to use hoses which can result in dust billowing near residents. It appears that due to lack of staff, the best that can be achieved is sporadic visits from an EPA investigator who is currently on holidays.
While Sydney Motorway Corporation executives earn very high salaries, workers’ conditions are often unsafe. They are expected to operate machines in extreme heat or work in pouring rain while workers on other major construction sites are ordered to cease work.
Committee member of NoW PT Paul Jeffery, has collected photographic evidence of a large number of serious health and safety failures both at drilling sites and during tree chopping. As a result, he has been told by WorkSafe NSW that a letter of warning will be sent to Westconnex and there will be more visits to sites. However without the efforts of residents, even this small win would not have happened, nor is it clear if anything will change to enforce safe practices.
Jeffery’s dossier of failures includes, “assistant in bucket holding the limb/branch while the chainsaw operator was cutting through the limb; there was no safety rope attached to the limb even though the tree was very close to the road and passing traffic.
“The limb, even though there was high wind gusts was dropped manually from the bucket by the assistant. The assistant was not wearing gloves.”
Some police, including some who use tollways each day, tell demonstrators that they too are opposed to Westconnex or unsure that it will solve traffic congestion. Meanwhile senior police continue to use bail conditions to blatantly limit non-violent direct action and the right to peaceful protest.
Note: Police arrested me for failing to respond to a reasonable direction. I remained in a cell for 8 hours on Friday because I refused to sign a bail condition that I would not go within 10 metres of a Westconnex site anywhere. This would have meant that I could not even travel along sections of Parramatta Rd or Princes Highway, let alone exercise my free speech in continuing to report on WestConnex protests. I finally signed a less restrictive condition but still one which prevents me being on streets where I regularly report and join with others taking peaceful action. I return to court tomorrow.
Wendy Bacon is a past Professor of Journalism at UTS and supporter of the Westconnex Action Group.