By Wendy Bacon
Hundreds of residents packed into Leichhardt Town Hall on Tuesday June 16 to call for an “immediate halt” to all home acquisitions and work related to the WestConnex project until the findings of a parliamentary inquiry into the project are released. This is the latest in a string of community meetings opposing the WestConnex motorway that the Baird government plans to build across Sydney.
The meeting, organised by No WestConnex Annandale, unanimously passed a motion calling for a parliamentary inquiry to investigate “environmental and health aspects, business case and tender and construction process” for the project. Another motion called for the $15 billion cost of the project to be redirected to “building public transport infrastructure” across the entire Greater Sydney region.
President of the NSW Branch of the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) Jude Page told the meeting she was disappointed with NSW Minister for Roads Duncan Gay’s statements that there was no need to worry about health impacts of the motorway.
Ms Page said Mr Gay was wrong and that “disregarding the health of people affected by infrastructure is unethical at best”. She described the findings of a research review by PHAA, which led to warnings that tunnel pollution could cause asthma and heart attacks. Medical experts are particularly concerned about ultra-fine particles PM2.5 that are carcinogenic and according to the World Health Organisation “belong in the same potentially deadly category as asbestos, arsenic and mustard gas”.
Ms Page said that the design and height of ventilation stacks and portals can reduce pollution, but the Baird government has adopted designs for the NorthConnex tunnel in northern Sydney that are well below world’s best practice.
The audience clapped Greens Transport spokesperson and engineer Mehreen Faruqi when she said that it was time for Mr Gay “to catch a train into the real 21st century to see what is happening around the world”.
“More motorways will bring more cars and trucks onto these tunnels, and I’m afraid they will still be emitting toxic poisonous pollution and more of it. Hiding them in a tunnel will not magically make the toxic emissions go away, ventilating tunnels will just shift pollution to new locations… This is dangerous, unsafe and out-dated infrastructure,” Ms Faruqi said.
Labor’s Shadow Minister for Roads Jodi McKay lives only 300 metres from a planned Haberfield pollution stack, and delivered a stinging attack on the government’s lack of accountability and its failure to release information about WestConnex. This was well received by the crowd. She supported a parliamentary inquiry, after telling City Hub only a week ago she was not sure it was needed.
But the position of NSW Labor, which went to the recent NSW election supporting both the M4 and duplicate M5 tunnels, came out of the meeting looking weak.
This was highlighted when long term resident Colin Menzies drew on his experience forty years ago when he was part of a famous protest in Fig Street Ultimo against a freeway going through Glebe. Labor leader Neville Wran joined the protestors and later when elected to government in 1976 stuck by his promise to stop the road. Menzies asked McKay whether she would “stand by residents” if the meeting resolved to oppose WestConnex. Mackay answered that the position Labor took to the election remains its policy.
“The issue for us remains the information that we don’t have,” she said.
“We don’t have enough information to say that we don’t support it.”
In an attempt to mollify audience frustration, McKay referred to recently elected Summer Hill MP Jo Haylen who openly opposes the WestConnex that will dislodge hundreds of residents and impact thousands more in her electorate.
Haylen’s opposition is in stark contrast to that of Labor member for Kogarah Chris Minns, who attended a Westconnex Action Group residents’ meeting in Kingsgrove last week. A few days later, he published an opinion piece for News Corporation attacking Ms Faruqi for “perpetuating a con” by denouncing the WestConnex M5 as a “waste of public money.”
McKay also said that if the business case didn’t support the project, Labor may yet reconsider its support for WestConnex.
Another resident asked McKay, “You are surrounded by… experts who say ‘it won’t work, its deadly’… What is it that the Labor party knows that means that even though all these people are against it, we support it in principle… ?”
McKay said the Westconnex was “a reality” and there was no election for four years. At which point Greens’ Faruqi intervened by saying that a strong grassroots movement had succeeded in discrediting the project by showing that there was no evidence that it would work.
She said that there were “voices in parliament standing up and shouting out against the project” but success in changing the government’s mind would depend on the growing grassroots movement.
“We cannot give up hope on that. We can stop it,” she said.
One of Australia’s leading experts on planning, City of Sydney Councillor John Mant then told the audience of a point around which Sydney urban planners are becoming increasingly vocal. That the continual emphasis on roads to bring cars to the CBD on the eastern edge of Sydney is fundamentally misguided.
“We have to bring on board western Sydney… because the NSW Baird government has turned it into an ‘us and them’ argument. Western Sydney doesn’t need this road. What they need is $20 billion for public transport and fixing some roads in western Sydney”.