Government has no mandate for Perth Freight Link

Published on Wed 12 October 2016 5:01pm

It is a tipping point in the life of my community—a once-in-a-generation, landscape-changing decision. We have been taken to the brink of a terrible folly by a government that has not bothered to follow one single piece of good process. It has no election mandate, no cost-benefit analysis in advance and on a comparative basis, no comprehensive freight and transport plan, no traffic modelling and no legitimate environmental approval.

Mr Wilson (5:01pm) — I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on the appropriation bills, which should form the core of any government’s program and should really be the foundation of its vision and its purpose. They should be the blueprint for delivering good social and economic policy, for facing up to the social and economic challenges in Australia as a whole and certainly, from my perspective, in Western Australia and in the electorate of Fremantle. Unfortunately across this government, we have not seen that challenge taken up. We have not seen a blueprint like that delivered. The government’s first budget really was a ham-fisted attempt at budget repair, inflicting a lot of pain on those who could least afford it. Business groups recoiled, even those who consistently break up the world into lifters and leaners—the most ardent advocates of letting the free market rip and the damage to fall where it lies—thought that that budget was a bit much.

I do not think anyone can remember the budget that followed. It was kind of a ‘nothing to see here, folks’ budget and the most recent budget stepped out again fairly tentatively, taking its lead from the Labor Party in a lot of areas. So far in this term of government, it has really been a case of trying to clean up and fix up the things that were not done particularly well.

As a representative of Fremantle, the toughest part of the most recent budget is the continuing Commonwealth contribution to the Perth Freight Link project and I am going to talk a bit more about that. In Fremantle Western Australia we definitely need action by government to support economic activity and to support jobs. Of course we hear the jobs and growth mantra every day many times. I am a new member and I have heard it ad infinitum. But there has not been much change since 2013 on that front. There certainly has not been much change in this year since the last budget.

Since 2013, Australia is one of only eight countries in the OECD whose unemployment rate has grown, and of course wages are flat. There are only six countries in the OECD that have reported lower wage rises in the period between 2013 and 2016 than Australia, so we are seventh lowest, which is pretty poor out of 34 countries. In Western Australia we have experienced 20 consecutive months of falling full-time jobs, a streak not seen since the recession of the early 1990s. And since 2013, we have seen an increase in youth unemployment in Western Australia from 8.3 per cent to 11.2 per cent. This year alone, in 2016, youth unemployment in south-west Perth, which includes my electorate, has increased from 9.1 per cent in January to 12.6 per cent in August—so, in six or seven months, a 3.5-percentage-point increase in youth unemployment.

In the face of those difficult conditions, the government has decided to make some changes that will not make it easier for people trying to deal with the circumstances of a tough job market and flat wages. The things that bother me particularly—and I know they bother people in the Fremantle electorate—include cuts to community legal centres and a lack of certainty when it comes to funding under the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness.

Western Australia needs leadership and it needs investment in productive infrastructure to support jobs now and to sustain economic activity and jobs in the future. We are not seeing that, I am afraid. In fact, the only prospect of federal investment in infrastructure is through the bizarre and deeply flawed Perth Freight Link. I think people in other parts of the country can imagine what a bitter taste that leaves when there are sensible and well-planned projects that need support and the best that a federal government can do is to put forward the waste, harm and pointlessness of the Perth Freight Link. This week we were told the WA government will rush into signing contracts for stage 1, which is also known as Roe Highway stage 8. I do not think it is an overstatement of any kind to say that that would be one of the most reckless acts of government and one of the most abject failures of governance in Western Australia for decades.

So where did the Perth Freight Link project come from? Nobody really knows. It came from the 2014-15 budget, and the funding has been continued and expanded in every budget since. In fact, it has been increased. I think it started out at $900 million, and it is now at more than $1.2 billion. It came out of nowhere. It took even Western Australia by surprise, which is hard to fathom for a project of that size. It will be the most expensive road in Western Australia’s history, and yet, when the first $1 billion of federal funds was announced, the WA Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport was asked for the plans and analysis that underpinned the project, and he said:

The commonwealth has a propensity to make these announcements, as you well know, but the reality is that the Main Roads department and this government will be implementing and designing the Roe 8 extension, and at this stage we have not actually got design plans that are worthy of public scrutiny …

So this is a $2 billion Western Australian project, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport had been taken by surprise. There were no designs in the keeping of the Western Australian government that were fit for public scrutiny. Yet it is a terribly urgent project!

What is its rationale? It is not about transport; it is about privatisation. The current euphemism is ‘asset recycling’. It is about facilitating, prompting and motivating the sale of Fremantle Port. Is there really any good reason for the sale of Fremantle Port? No. It is functional and price efficient. We had a presentation in Fremantle a few months ago by the Western Australian Treasurer, Mike Nahan, and he admitted as much. It does its job, and it does it at a very reasonable price to all the users. The only rationale that the WA Treasurer could put forward for the sale of Fremantle Port was that the government did not need to own it. ‘It’s something we don’t need to own,’ he said. Yet recent analysis shows what would be common sense: that, if you privatise a monopoly public asset, you get higher prices and you lose control of the impact of that asset on the public realm. There is plenty of evidence in Australia and elsewhere that the contractual terms that require a private owner to invest further in infrastructure over time are not, in reality, enforceable. It will not take trucks off local roads. Modelling by Curtin University shows that within 10 years there will be more trucks on Leach Highway than there are currently because of leakage from any such piece of infrastructure.

So it has no plan. It has no defined benefit or rationale. What about its impacts? Well, it is going to have a substantial, severe and unacceptable environmental impact. The first section of the road, which the WA government intends to rush into signing the contracts for, is called Roe Highway stage 8. It goes through an incredibly important remnant wetland, the Beeliar Wetlands, one of the most beautiful places in Western Australia—certainly in my electorate. It is visited by migratory birds that are protected under our Ramsar treaty commitments. It is also a place with very significant Indigenous heritage, and traditional owners have rejected the road on more than one occasion.

It does not have legitimate environmental approval. In 2006 the EPA said the project involved a scale and degree of damage that meant it was virtually impossible to approve. In the recent process, the EPA approval was found by the WA Supreme Court to be invalid on the basis of the EPA’s own policy. The EPA has a very clear and sensible policy which says that you can use environmental offsets to make up for damage caused by a project in some circumstances, but you cannot do it where the environment or the ecosystem that is affected is of very substantial and significant value—and that is clearly the case with the Beeliar Wetlands. The policy could not be clearer—you cannot use environmental offsets for a project that does serious harm to a place of significant environmental value. You cannot cure a project that has that fatal flaw, and the Perth Freight Link is one such project.

The Supreme Court ruled that the EPA was obliged to follow its own policies and yet, on appeal, that has been overturned. It is now on further appeal to the High Court. I cannot understand why the Western Australian government would sign contracts for that project when the High Court may well yet rule that the environmental approval by the EPA is invalid.

There is a further major concern about the Perth Freight Link which does not get talked about that much because the environmental damage is just impossible to contemplate—it takes up so much of the focus, and quite rightly. The further impact that worries me is that the Perth Freight Link is intended to be funded by its sale as a private toll road. That has always been part of the project: the WA government will build it, it will be half funded by the Commonwealth and it will then recoup funds by selling it to a private operator who will run it as a toll road—the first toll road in metropolitan Perth.

What happens when you get privately operated toll roads is that the government has to provide contractual guarantees that it will not introduce competing infrastructure—that is, it will not go and put in other roads or public transport that, effectively, cut the lunch of the private operator. That has happened in Victoria and in New South Wales. These are called concession deeds. People who are not in the immediate vicinity of the Perth Freight Link should just think about this: if that project goes ahead, any future government that wants to invest in roads or in public transport in the south metro area will more than likely be constrained by those concession deeds within the contract of sale of the Perth Freight Link and the contract of sale of that privately operated toll road.

In relation to projects like that, we have to ask ourselves: is there an alternative? Of course, there is. The alternative has been around for more than 20 years—the development of an outer harbour. It has been a matter of bipartisan policy for some time. It is hard to understand why the current Western Australian project has not proceeded with it. It is hard to understand why a responsible federal coalition government would not push the state in that direction. It is a development that the local community in Kwinana wants. They see it as a vitally important economic catalyst. It is a piece of future-proofing and forward-looking development that my state desperately needs, that my electorate needs and, also, that the seat of my colleague the member for Brand needs.

You have on the one hand a terrible, poorly planned project and on the other hand a perfectly good alternative. It really does beggar belief that we have got to this point. It is a tipping point in the life of my community—a once-in-a-generation, landscape-changing decision. We have been taken to the brink of a terrible folly by a government that has not bothered to follow one single piece of good process. It has no election mandate, no cost-benefit analysis in advance and on a comparative basis, no comprehensive freight and transport plan, no traffic modelling and no legitimate environmental approval.

It is simply unacceptable that the government seeks to advance more than $1.2 billion to the Barnett government to support Roe 8 and the Perth Freight Link. It is unacceptable that we should get delivered onto us the most expensive road in WA’s history, the first toll road—which, as I have said, is to be privately operated—and a truck freeway that will cut a rare, precious and significant wetland in half for nothing. It is a road whose purpose really is to giftwrap Fremantle Port for private sale. It is outrageous, frankly, for the Barnett government, which has never sought an election mandate for this project, or for the sale of Fremantle port, to rush into contracts in the shadow of a forthcoming election.

This is a tipping point and it is an issue that affects all Western Australians. Do we move into the future with a plan and a vision for a carefully implemented transport and economic framework in metropolitan Perth; do we apply scarce infrastructure funding—more than two thousand million dollars—to projects that have a genuine productive purpose; do we move into the future with a plan that protects what is precious and cannot be repaired or replaced while creating a long-term capacity for both freight and passenger transport, including much-needed public transport; or does an ailing Barnett government, egged on by its federal coalition fellow travellers, throw it all away? Does a new transport minister barely five minutes into the job—the fourth or fifth Western Australian Minister for Transport—sign away our future? I hope not. I hope all Western Australians join this fight. I hope they get in touch with Rethink the Link or Save Beeliar Wetlands. I hope they get in touch with me and other local members. I hope they do not sit back and just watch this happen and do not find themselves saying later, ‘I wish I had done something.’ This is a turning point and it is not too late to stop Roe 8, although it is getting very close.

Share this article...

Subscribe for updates
Contact Josh