Saturday, February 15, 2014

Op-Ed on the proposed East West Link published in The Kings Tribune

Published in The Kings Tribune Wednesday 12 February 2014

The EastWest Link project has support only from the corporations who will profit from it and the media that supports them. Why is the Victorian government ignoring their constituents in favour of those groups?

They’re nothing if not predictable, News Corp. Another day another table thumping editorial from Melbourne’s Herald Sun denouncing protesters disrupting the progress of controversial East West Road Tunnel. Just as the protesters turn up day after day in Melbourne’s inner north and attach themselves to drilling rigs in order disrupt the early stages of this divisive project, so does Melbourne’s Murdoch owned tabloid rail with righteous indignation at opponents of the project it variously labels pests, rabble rousers, ratbags and any other clich├ęs they can think of.
They were at it again recently during Melbourne’s week long heatwave, frothing at the mouth over revelations that the police had reneged on a deal with protesters to stop drilling during the oppressive weather. While protesters had thought they’d convinced the police to disallow drilling during the heatwave, so that both they and the workers alike could stay out of the heat, Vic Pol and the drilling contractors pulled a swifty on them by secretly moving their drilling gear overnight and continuing work elsewhere without the protestor’s knowledge.
Of course the Hun was only too happy to rub their noses in it. Rather than strike a deal with protesters during extreme weather events, the paper’s editorial urged the police to throw the book at them. Instead of respecting their right to protest - a fundamental tenant of democracy - Murdoch’s Melbourne minions wanted the protestors charged and prosecuted. Apparently this tunnel is so desperately needed that democracy itself should be briefly suspended so the bulldozers and dump trucks can start rolling in.
So what you may ask? After all, the Herald Sun and News Corp’s other Australian tabloids, love bagging protestors almost as much as they love supporting Tony Abbott, denying Climate Change and running pictures of football wags. Excuse the pun, but the Herald Sun railing against the East West Link protestors, isn’t front page news.
However this particular campaign is instructive for a variety of reasons.
It’s become so shrill and persistent that one suspects the Hun knows it’s losing the argument and therefore has decided to double down rather than retreat. A quick glance at the opinion polls on both the question of whether the tunnel should be built and on the performance of the Napthine Government, show that both are on the nose with the public. Even the paper’s own letters page is often filled with negative comments the day after the project is given coverage. This then makes bagging the protestors an easy diversion for both the paper and the Government. It’s much easier to smear activists (as the Herald Sun did with an extraordinary front page attack on protest leader Anthony Main) and focus on frivolous sideshows like a protest van being parked in a disabled zoneor the complaints of a fish and chip shop owner, than addressing the far more serious questions that hang over this project. Questions that not only cast doubt over the necessity of this tunnel, but also over the development of infrastructure policy in Australia and the way in which vested interests seemingly always trump the will of the public.
Let’s do a quick re-cap.
The Coalition Government was elected, somewhat unexpectedly, at the 2010 State Election, largely on the back of its plans to invest in public transport infrastructure. The Victorian Liberals committed to projects such as the Doncaster line, a rail link to the airport and the daddy of them all, The Melbourne Metro tunnel linking the inner west to the inner south. Melbourne would follow cities across the world in addressing booming population growth and traffic congestion by investing in public transport.
Not surprisingly, Melbournians who’d been cramming into trains and trams in ever increasing numbers, loved it.
Across the city, seats along major rail lines such as Frankston and Pakenham, fell to the Liberals as they swept to power for the first time this century. Finally these mythical rail projects that premiers dating back to Sir Henry Bolte had promised, yet failed to build, would become a reality. Melbourne’s suburban rail network would receive its first major expansion since before World War II. More than any of his predecessors, the new Premier, Ted Baillieu, had a mandate to build public transport infrastructure.
Yet just over three years on and not only has Baillieu been jettisoned, but the rail projects for which people have been too. And in their place is a project no one voted for, because the Coalition ruled it out in the lead up to that election: The East West Tunnel.
Like the aforementioned rail projects, The East West Tunnel has been spoken of for decades. If built, it would link the Eastern Freeway with Citylink and provide a much easier route across the city than currently offered by the chronically congested Alexandria Parade. Yet the project has never gotten off the ground because any potential benefit it may provide is simply dwarfed by the enormous cost. The most rigorous cost benefit analysis of the project was undertaken by Sir Rod Eddington in his 2008 transport planproduced for the former Labor Government. It found that every dollar put into the project would produce only 50 cents in potential economic benefits. In other words it was a complete non-starter. The Napthine Government has since cobbled together its own cost benefit analysis that somehow estimates a benefit of $1.40 for every dollar spent. We don’t know how this figure was arrived at, because unlike the Eddington analysis, the report has not been released.
This is in keeping with Government’s entire approach to the issue, where detail has been scarce and secrecy abundant. The backflip on rejecting the tunnel in opposition to embracing it in Government, has never been explained. Nor have they specified just why it has jumped the queue to become the Government’s number one project, when the Metro Rail Tunnel is still ranked as Victoria’s most urgent priority by Infrastructure Australia. Only a short form business case has been released to the public and despite Premier Napthine’s repeated claims that the tunnel will be a “congestion buster”, we don’t know exactly how this will be the case and how it will be any better at reducing congestion than the public transport projects his Government was elected to build.
And then there is the politics.
Surely, having been elected on a public transport platform they have since put on the backburner, you would think the Government would seek a mandate from the people for its change of plans and take the East West Link to the election. After all, what’s the big rush, the election is due this November.
But no.
Keen to avoid those pesky voters having a say, Premier Denis Napthine has pledged to sign construction contracts prior to the election, contracts that Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews has curiously promised to honour despite his party opposing the project.
So as it stands, The East West Tunnel is still odds on to go ahead, even if the Napthine Government is turfed out of office later this year and replaced by a Labor Opposition which publically opposes it.
Road will yet again trump rail.
Critics will point to the strength of the roads lobby – a mysterious collection of business and political interests that relentlessly and successfully promote the advancement of road projects – as being the root cause of this imbalance. A resulting effect has been that Australians have become experts at building roads, meaning knowledge, expertise and equipment are readily available and cheap, while rail suffers from the reverse. There is also a healthy dose of ideology involved. The individualist nature of car use clearly appeals to the neo-liberal right in the Coalition, News Corp and the business community, who no doubt lump proponents of taxpayer funded, collectivist, public transport, in with environmentalists as a bunch of closet communists. This probably explains the Herald Sun’s one eyed proselytising on the issue and the Abbott Government’s gleeful promotion of road projects and its outright disdain for urban rail.
All this is cold comfort for Victorian commuters and those who care about ethical evidence based public policy. Even if their wishes are validated at the ballot box, they now know unequivocally that it’s the voice of vested interests that speaks the loudest.
And they wonder why people are protesting?

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