On July 21 about 400 people packed the Fremantle Town Hall, with an overflow crowd of more than 100 gathered around an outdoor screen, as part of the campaign to stop the Perth Freight Link (PFL).
PFL is a $1.6 billion freeway project conceived by Prime Minister Tony Abbott with no local consultation or planning. Its purported function is to serve the growing number of truck movements to and from the container terminals at Fremantle port.
No benefit–cost analysis has been undertaken and the business plan has been kept secret on the grounds of "commercial in confidence" because the freeway will be operated as a private tollway. Many commentators believe that the project, to be co-funded by the WA and federal governments, will end up costing well over $2 billion.
The public meeting was organised by the Rethink Perth Freight Link community alliance and sponsored by three local governments in the region. It represents a dramatic escalation in the campaign to stop the freeway. Hosted by comedian Ben Elton, the event raised more than $11,000 for the campaign.
Cockburn Mayor Logan Howlett insisted that his council would resist attempts to build the Roe 8 component of the freeway through the Beeliar Wetlands. The state government contends that building this section on raised concrete pylons is "top down" construction that will respect the environmental and Aboriginal heritage values of the site.
Howlett drew loud cheers when he said he prefers a "bottom up" approach to consultation with traditional owners, concluding that "people power will stop this road".
Federal Labor member for Perth and former state transport minister Alannah McTiernan savaged the lack of planning and rushed timetable for the project, which means the state government will be forced to enter construction contracts before the route of the freeway has even been finalised.
McTiernan also criticised the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development for refusing to release the project's business plan, despite multiple Freedom of Information applications.
WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam sounded a note of caution about enthusiasm for the construction of a second container port in Cockburn Sound to divert traffic away from Fremantle. He reminded the audience that this proposal should be subject to the same sort of rigorous environmental assessment as the freeway.
Ludlam confirmed the sense in the community that the campaign was growing at such a pace that it has a good chance of winning, but that its supporters may still have to confront the bulldozers.
Kate Kelly, a long-time activist with the Save Beeliar Wetlands group and co-convener of Rethink Perth Freight Link, launched the alliance's pledge campaign. The crowd, some with their fists in the air, concluded the meeting with a spirited call to "engage in peaceful but determined protest activity".
The state government declined to send a representative to argue for the project. The lone voice in support of PFL was Melville mayor Russell Aubrey. He said PFL was necessary to take trucks off roads in his council area, insisting that it was about the "sanctity of life".
Aubrey was unable, or unwilling, to appreciate that residents in other municipalities already endure increasing congestion and truck movements, or that the modelling by Main Roads itself shows traffic will continue to grow on roads notionally bypassed by the freeway. Melville Council has approved a resolution to spend $50,000 on advertising promoting the freeway.
The state government would, in effect, be paying for its share of the project via its intended privatisation of Fremantle port. Maritime Union of Australia WA Branch Secretary Christy Cain said his union would resist privatisation and PFL. He described support for the campaign against PFL as "paying the community back" for the support it had shown the MUA during the 1998 Patricks dispute.
Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt pointed out that, despite its name, more than 90% of traffic on the PFL would be private cars. He called for the money allocated to the freeway to be instead spent on light rail connecting Fremantle to the Murdoch centre to its east and the Cockburn Coast to the south.
The movement against PFL and similar campaigns around the country against Abbott's particularly virulent form of "freeway madness" are serving as a catalyst for a deeper debate about transport.
Instead of the endless unconditional subsidies to the road transport and fossil fuel companies, it calls for real planning, with public transport, rail freight and active transport placed at the centre.
[Sam Wainwright is a Socialist Alliance councillor at the City of Fremantle, co-convener of Rethink Perth Freight Link and activist with Fremantle Road to Rail.]