BY WENDY BACON
Public accountability and transparency are often described as core principles of modern parliamentary democracy. However, it is one thing to set up accountability mechanisms, it is quite another for those mechanisms to deliver actual accountability by which is meant a willingness on the part of public officials to account for or accept responsibility for weaknesses or damage done.
A case in point is the NSW Parliamentary Public Accountability Committee into the Impacts of WestConnex.
In March 2018, NSW Legislative Council MPS voted to set up a Committee for Public Accountability. One of its first decisions was to hold an inquiry into the impacts of Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project, the WestConnex tollway project.
This decision was in response to deep and widespread public concern about secrecy in project decision making and finances, the inadequacy of the business case used to justify the project and the unpredicted impacts on the health, property and quality of life of residents living near WestConnex projects.
These concerns were documented in hundreds of submissions and hearings which resulted in a devastating report including summaries of evidence, factual findings and recommendations for change. The Committee’s Chair Fred Nile MLC described WestConnex as the worst example of lack of transparency he had seen.
In January this year, the Committee issued another report in which it reviewed its initial work stating that its first inquiries had “enabled this committee to make valuable findings and recommendations, which not only hold the government to account, but may inform the delivery of future large scale infrastructure projects in NSW.”
While the first part of this statement may be true, the second was sadly demonstrated yesterday to be far too optimistic. The WestConnex Inquiry report was published in December 2018. It took the Minister for Transport Andrew Constance six months to send the required government response to the Legislative Council. It was received late on Monday afternoon, just in time to be released on Budget Day when it was guaranteed to receive little attention.
In fact, much of the Gladys Berejiklian government’s short response could barely be called a response. Rather than engaging with the Committee’s findings, it mostly restated existing government policy and community relations statements.
There were 28 recommendations. One recommendation did provide broad support for WestConnex. Of course, the government welcomed this face saver. This recommendation was not in the draft report but was inserted later with the support of LNP and Labor MPs, leaving Greens Cate Faehrmann alone in issuing a dissenting report which opposed the continuance of WestConnex.
Many other deeply critical findings provided the basis for recommendations that would if implemented have delivered a much more open infrastructure planning and decision-making process, more genuine consideration for environmental safety and for residents damaged by the project impacts. These were all rejected.
One of the Committee’s recommendations was that the NSW Government immediately publish the secret base-case financial model for the WestConnex project. The government’s response was that the base case financial models is ‘commercial in confidence’ as it could prejudice future negotiations with private tollway companies. This is the same position asserted by NSW Treasury during the Inquiry although no evidence has ever been provided for it.
The Committee also recommended public inquiries and the publication of independent peer reviews before decisions to go ahead with major infrastructure projects. This too was declined, not by examining the arguments in favour of a change but by simply stating that the current “assurance” system would continue.
This means that the billions in extra infrastructure spending in yesterday’s budget will be just as unaccountable as the previous billions. Hidden costs will continue to be ignored. Secrecy around NSW infrastructure projects will continue, even though the recommendations were supported by Committee MPs from across the political spectrum, major Councils, independent experts and community groups. While the Committee’s recommendations are rebuffed, big corporations including tollway operator Transburban and construction companies CIMIC and Lendlease will continue to exert influence behind closed doors.,
The Committee made a finding that although there appeared to be widespread consultation, it was ineffective and lacked empathy. There was a large amount of evidence that serious complaints were batted away and response times were far too long. This led the Committee to recommend a centralised complaints management system that is “accessible 24/7, transparent and empowered to respond effectively in a short time frame.”
In defiance of this evidence, the Government responded by restating details of its current complaints system that was shown to have failed in many cases.
Asked for her reaction to the government’s response, WestConnex Action Group spokesperson Rhea Liebmann said, “The community spent huge amounts of time and effort to make submissions and give evidence to ensure the truth about the impacts on residents and how they’ve been treated by the government and contractors. The Committee made some strong recommendations to address these. For the government to simply ignore the evidence and the Inquiry’s recommendations… is an unacceptable abuse of proper process.”
Independent Inner West Councillor Pauline Lockie whose home in St Peters was compulsorily acquired documented her own experience and that of others in a detailed submission told City Hub, “I found the government’s response to the inquiry really insulting. They didn’t take any of the substantive changes recommended on board, particularly when it came to changes that would have increased transparency and accountability around WestConnex, and provided better protection for residents who are bearing the worst of its social, financial, health and community impacts.”
Newtown Greens MP Jenny Leong, who was instrumental in bringing about this Inquiry and provided a large dossier of evidence to the Committee, is also disappointed. “The release of the Berejiklian government’s response to the recommendations of the Public Accountability Committee’s Inquiry into the Impact of WestConnex shows contempt for those who have been significantly and negatively affected by WestConnex and for the committee process as a whole,” she said.
Insulting the community, showing contempt for the process. These are further abuses of the spirit of public accountability which tap into a deeper problem than just WestConnex. This is about rejecting the very notion of public interest on which accountability depends.
It’s the same problem that we see reflected in the dangerous deregulation of construction that has seen residents in Mascot and Homebush being ejected from their homes. While the concepts of public accountability are abstract, the LNP government’s decisive rebuff to the Committee sends a message to the community that the government really does not care if their complaints are ignored, if their health or homes are damaged or policies that might serve community transport needs better were not even considered in the planning process. This message further undermines democratic processes.
But it seems that instead of reforms, we can expect more of the same with the government hinting yesterday that the Treasurer Dominic Perrotet is considering selling off more of our electricity and transport resources, including the rest of WestConnex.
The value of the Committee is that its hearings do provide the community with a limited voice. Its evidence and findings of fact are publicised and remain on the record. This is why LNP MPs voted against a Public Accountability Committee being established by the Legislative Council. But we need to be clear-eyed. This is a secret government that has no intention of being held accountable. We should continue to call it out and be on our guard for even more erosion of democratic checks and balances.
Wendy Bacon was previously the Professor of Journalism at UTS and has campaigned against WestConnex. She made a submission to the Inquiry.