Does the ALP suffer from tunnel vision? Photo: Flickr

Posted by & filed under Featured Inner West Independent, Inner West Independent.

BY PETER HEHIR

When the ALP’s Jodi McKay said last Saturday at the Birchgrove tennis court meeting, in front of about 200 residents, that “If elected, the ALP won’t build the Western Harbour Tunnel,” what she really meant was that they wouldn’t build the remaining 60%.

She neither acknowledged nor addressed the fact that a fair percentage of the Western Harbour Tunnel (WHT) has already been approved and the contract has been let for that part of the tunnel. She just kept repeating that “The ALP won’t build the WHT”.

McKay, who is the Shadow Minister for Transport, couldn’t be drawn on this point and wouldn’t concede that a substantial portion of the WHT is going ahead, unless of course the ALP lowers the boom on Stage 3b, which they’ve said time and time again that they just aren’t going to do.

Stage 3b consists of the Rozelle Interchange, the Iron Cove Tunnel and the so-called “spurs” or “stubs” for the WHT.

Berejiklian government criticised by inquiry

These spurs comprise an estimated 40% of the WHT, formerly known as Stage 4 of WestConnex before it was given over to Roads and Maritime Services (RMS), and are part of the Stage 3b contract – a contract that was signed on 18 December.

This was just one day before the WestConnex Parliamentary Inquiry released its findings in a document that was highly critical of the process that the Berejiklian government had followed.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that these bits were minor, something just tacked onto the Rozelle Interchange, just in case at some point in the future the WHT is given the go ahead, but that  isn’t the case.

These works consist of two huge tunnels totalling eight tunnel lanes, four heading north towards Louisa Road and four heading south to the Rozelle Goods Yard.

The Stage 3 EIS shows these tunnels stopping at the postal boundary between Rozelle and Balmain. This is somewhere under Evans Street near Henry and Clare Streets, close to Phoenix Kindergarten, which, geographically, is about halfway along the peninsula.

That the ALP opposes the WHT is either a misnomer, at best, or just a considered election ploy. It ignores the fact that unless the ALP agrees to buy back the stubs, then at least 40% of the tunnel will be built.

No ifs, no buts.

There are no prizes for guessing what would happen then. Leaving four tunnel lanes each way, sitting empty, halfway under the peninsula, is a ticking time bomb.

You can hear the howls of protest now. “What are you proposing we do with these unused tunnel sections? Grow mushrooms?”

Headlines citing charges of fiscal mismanagement would scream from the Murdoch press; “A shocking waste of taxpayers hard-earned…”

The ALP would ultimately be forced to succumb to the “fiscal pressure” of having to complete the WHT.

And so Stage 4 of WestConnex, aka the WHT, would then cease to be a political football, finally becoming a concrete reality. But would anyone really be surprised?

I can hear the ALP now. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I know we promised you we wouldn’t build the Western Harbour Tunnel, but you must understand. Our hands are tied. Sovereign risk. Remember?”

McKay wouldn’t be drawn on whether the ALP would buy back that part of the Stage 3b contract. Any mention of buying back contracts was met with the “sovereign risk” bogeyman. She did stress though that the 43-year-toll component was the heaviest fiscal burden in relation to that risk.

In spite of being asked both before and at the meeting whether the ALP has or will quantify the sovereign risk, she sidestepped this question.

So, at present, 40% of the tunnel will be built, and if the ALP does form Government on 23 March, does McKay’s promise of “Having a look at Stage 3b” mean that they may consider buying back that part of the contract? Who knows?

Prize handed to the Greens

As a signature on the WHT contract is still some way down the track, the tolls component argument in relation to dropping that part of the Stage 3b contract simply isn’t a consideration, the logic being, no tunnel, no tolls. No tolls means substantially reduced sovereign risk.

So will the ALP stop the WHT?

Is the promise just an election ploy, a bit of peninsula pork barrelling? A spurious attempt to win back the seat of Balmain, which had been a permanent possession of the Labor Party?

This was a prize handed to the Greens because the ALP lost sight of, and refused to act on, the environmental concerns of this aware and informed electorate.

You be the judge.