WestCONnex campaigners at Parliamentary media conference. Photo: Wendy Bacon

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By Wendy Bacon

WestConnex may be Australia’s biggest infrastructure project but according to Reverend Fred Nile, who chaired a Parliamentary Inquiry into its impacts, it’s also the worst example of lack of transparency in NSW.

The report,which was released this week, is a devastating critique of the 34-kilometre tollway network. The Committee found the NSW government should have considered alternatives and developed a business case before deciding to support the project. In addition, the committee found the business case that was developed left out significant costs, including extra road building and public health costs, and the required consultations are ineffective and complaints mechanisms are a failure.

Residents have been exposed to such unacceptable noise, dust and stress that the Committee recommended a special WestConnex mental health unit.

For the most part, the report is a huge public endorsement of WestConnex critics. All of these points have been made repeatedly by community groups, the Greens, the City of Sydney and Inner West Council in EIS submissions and in open letters to the Premier Gladys Berejiklian,and before her Michael Baird, who both ignored them.

The report makes many recommendations to address problems with WestConnex in particular, and flaws in infrastructure planning in general. It has rejected NSW Roads and Maritime Services CEO Ken Kanofski’s claim that unfiltered ventilation stacks are ‘best practice’ and recommended all existing and future NSW stacks be filtered.

The government needs to respond to the report by June 2020, which will be after the state election in March.

The report leaves a huge question for the people of NSW – what system of inadequate governance allows such a cascade of problems to pervade such a significant project on which billions of public money have been spent? What forces led to independent experts, Councils and the community being so sidelined in planning decisions that will fundamentally shape our city?

The report itself throws some light on this question. While most of it is critical, there is one finding which overrides all the others. It’s the first finding: “That the WestConnex project is, notwithstanding issues of implementation raised in this report, a vital and long-overdue addition to the road infrastructure of New South Wales. The committee supports complete construction, including Stage 3 and the Rozelle Interchange so that the project benefits could be realised.”

Of seven members of the Committee, only Greens Cate Faehrmann disagreed with this finding in her dissenting report, which calls for a halt to Stage 3 of WestConnex. Labor did not dissent from the finding.

The only evidence to support this finding are short, bland assurances contained in the perfunctory submissions by the NSW government and WestConnex.  These were contested by submissions from UTS Dr Michelle Zeibots, the City of Sydney, other transport experts and many individuals and community groups. There were no public group submissions that supported the government’s case.

The report’s first finding effectively means that the majority of the Committee found that WestConnex must continue even if its recommendations are not implemented and at whatever cost to state finances, public health, property or democratic processes. It’s as if the Committee for Public Accountability is itself endorsing unaccountability. No wonder, community representatives were muted in their response at a media conference on Monday.

Spokesperson for the Coalition against WestConnex Kathryn Calman told reporters yesterday at first glance the “report did not make sense to me. It’s illogical. On the one hand, the project has gone rogue and on the other, its full steam ahead.”

 The first thought that occurs when reading the report is that this finding must have been inserted after the main report was drafted. Rather than being based on Inquiry evidence, it was imposed as a political compromise.

In fact, this is just what happened. The final decisions around the report are recorded in minutes of a meeting held on December 12th to finalise the draft report. These minutes are published in the report’s appendices.

By tracking amendments, it becomes clear that the description of Westconnex as a ‘vital’ project was not in the draft report. Nor was there a  recommendation to continue with Stage 3 as appears in the final report.

The minutes show that a key change occurred after Greens, Cate Faehrmann, successfully moved to insert the words, ‘The committee notes with concern the circumstances surrounding the way in which the government made its decision to build WestConnex.’ These circumstances included the government’s invitation to some of the key companies currently involved in WestConnex including AECOM, Leighton Contractors (CPB) and Lendlease to help plan the project in 2013.

It was at this point, Liberal Peter Phelps, moved the inclusion of what was called ‘Finding X’ – the words of endorsement of WestConnex.

Phelps motion passed with Nile and two other Coalition members in support. Faehrmann and two Labor committee members Dan Mookhey and Greg Donnelly opposed the motion. Once the new finding was in the report, it somehow founds its way up to top place in the findings.

In his dissenting report, Phelps was scathing about the lack of pro-WestConnex content in the report, “Surely the apriori question is ‘Is this desirable?” He considers that it was a waste of time hearing from people who don’t support the project. His mirrors the very same issue, which the rest of the report criticises – making key decisions before considering alternatives or costs and benefits.

Phelps attacks the project’s critics as anti-car Green extremists, whinging Baby Boomers, and NIMBY’s – and often people who are all three.” Ms Calman, who has lived for many years close to the old M5, told reporters that she was insulted by Phelps comments. Westconnex excavated metres from her home. Now NSW Roads and Maritime Services is refusing to repair cracks in her walls that will cost hundreds of thousands to fix. The Committee used her onerous and so far unsuccessful battle for information and remediation as a case study of failed processes.

After Phelps had achieved his motion of support for WestConnex, the second Liberal on the Committee, Shayne Mallard moved to insert: “That the NSW Government proceed with Stage 3 of WestConnex’. This time, everyone but Faehrmann voted in favour of the motion.

Having voted for that motion, Labor’s Dan Mookhey then moved to insert a new recommendation: That the NSW Government refrain from entering into any other major WestConnex contract until the return of the writs after March 2019 State Election.’ This motion was lost.

This was followed by another motion from Mookhey. “That the NSW Government immediately publish a full account of all costs to be incurred by NSW taxpayers if Stage 3 contracts were cancelled.” The motion was carried.

So the Committee has voted to go ahead with the WestConnex Stage 3, while at the same time raising the possibility of costing its cancellation.

Labor’s position remains as confused as it has been since 2013. Stage B includes the stubs for the Western Harbour Tunnel (WHT). Labor says if elected it would not go ahead with the WHT, which removes any rationale for Stage 3B so why did Labor members support going ahead with Stage 3?

But back to the bigger question. What sort of democracy and government do we have in which a parliamentary committee finds that a $20 billion project has huge flaws and yet despite that – and without any guarantees that these issues will be resolved – supports the project proceeding?

The Committee finds that privatisation has made transparency and accountability harder to achieve. WestConnex has now been sold to Transurban, which will not only collect tolls but manage all construction apart from the Rozelle Interchange.

But privatisation is more than the sale of assets – it’s also privatisation of decision making. It began when Infrastructure NSW, led by ex-Liberal premier Nick Greiner and dominated by private interests, pushed WestConnex onto the NSW Master Transport Plan in 2012. It continued when companies involved with failed tollways steered WestConnex planning and drove its Environmental Assessment, reducing the function of government to a tick box exercise; and when construction companies were awarded contracts with only a concept in place. It also involves the removal of citizens’ capacity to influence the planning agenda and their powerlessness in the face of corporate giants, who engage an army of community engagement officers, who block rather than resolve complaints. It’s allowing WestConnex contractors to select and control ‘independent’ air monitoring companies that data from the public.

This is the huge issue that the Inquiry leaves hanging in the air. On the question of construction companies and the road lobby, the report is almost silent. They are barely even listed as stakeholders. There was evidence about allegations of past improper and criminal conduct by WestConnex contractors, conflicts of interest and political donations that were all but ignored in the report. It may have been that there was simply not enough time or resources. Was an understandable decision made to prioritise giving voice to residents, or was it because the pressure to allow ‘business as usual’ to continue is too great?

These are the questions that go to the heart of a functioning democracy and dog our communities whether it is Northconnex, Beaches Link, Anzac Parade fig trees, the Powerhouse museum, Sydenham to Bankstown railway line, Sydney stadium, loss of heritage in Parramatta, F6 or an 80 storey development near an unfiltered stack in Homebush.

Shadow Minister for transport Jodi McKay has committed to a Royal Commission, although it’s not clear if it might be a judicial Inquiry which in NSW can be a much more restricted beast open to political control.

Meanwhile, as Christmas approaches at the coal face of WestConnex, residents and workers are looking forward to a break from the unbearable noise of construction and stench of diesel fumes – until January 7th.

The management of CPB, John Holland and Samsung will also be celebrating. The Gladys Berejiklian government awarded their joint venture the contract for the highly risky three-tiered underground Rozelle interchange on the eve of the report’s release. Their work on the M4 widening, M4 East and the New M5 is at the heart of many of the problems reported by the Committee.

Workers in the CPB/John Holland M4 East tunnel are not so lucky. As the government and companies race to finish before the election, they are expected back after Christmas to a very fraught workplace. This morning, they were evacuated for the third time this week after a gas leak was detected in the tunnel at Haberfield. Management has been unable to detect the source of the leak. The Electrical Trades Union accused management of failing to promptly notify Safework NSW. “Gas leaks pose a significant threat to health and safety, particularly as the gas could be ignited by machinery operating in the tunnel, causing an explosion,” said ETU secretary Justin Page.

This is all very serious but also, unfortunately, ‘business as usual’ in NSW. It’s this politics of privatised ‘business as usual’ that we need to change if we’re to stop profit-driven corporations driving the future of our city.

Wendy Bacon has campaigned against WestConnex and is a past Professor of Journalism at UTS. She blogs at wendybacon.com