Freeway fight brings down WA transport minister

October 7, 2016
A protest last December against the Perth Freight Link.

Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett survived a leadership challenge on September 20, easily seeing off his former Transport minister Dean Nalder. Another minister also resigned from cabinet in solidarity with Nalder in the lead up to the contest, which has been brewing since the start of the year.

The trigger for the showdown was how rapidly to advance the $2 billion Perth Freight Link (PFL) project. It appears a group of business people and The West Australian newspaper were lurking in the shadows behind the revolt. Barnett is committed to completing Roe 8, which is Stage 1 of PFL, and which would destroy a section of the Beeliar Wetlands, while leaving Stage 2 — which is planned as a tunnel under residential Fremantle — for a more politically opportune time.

Nalder and his backers want to push on and sign contracts for both stages, even though Stage 2 does not yet even have a defined route and fails to reach its supposed destination, the port of Fremantle.

At a September 18 press conference Nalder laid bare the struggle inside the Liberal Party over the PFL. He alleged that if his prized tunnel were not built then “preferred tenderer” Leighton Holdings would have to be paid $23 million compensation — even though no contract has been signed.

Nalder also described Barnett as "erratic and illogical". A supporter of Nalder leaked to the press a letter from federal urban infrastructure minister Paul Fletcher claiming that if the PFL stages were not built as one project then more than $1 billion of federal funding would be withdrawn.

While the challenge had been rumoured since January it gathered momentum on August 24. An opinion poll was released showing that the Barnett government would be devastated at the March 2017 election.

The research was funded by a group of Liberal-supporting business figures, including financier John Poynton and developers Nigel Satterley and Greg Poland, all of whom supported Nalder.

Barnett pulled Nalder into line and things settled down until September 17 when local government minister Tony Simpson suddenly resigned from cabinet, quickly followed by Nalder.

The West weighed into the debate the day before the leadership ballot by publishing the results of its own opinion poll, showing 44.9% in favour of the PFL, with 31.1% against and 24% undecided.

Fremantle city councillor Sam Wainwright, a long-term opponent of the PFL, told Green Left Weekly that The West was being very discreet about its own role in “promoting the PFL and misrepresenting the facts”.

He said: “They published their pro-PFL poll result without mentioning the question that was asked of people in an attempt to sway the internal Liberal party room vote. In November last year they ran two articles and an editorial pushing PFL in one week, even repeating the completely unsubstantiated claim that PFL would increase property prices by in the Fremantle area by 50%.

“There is a build-the-tunnel-now faction in the Liberal Party, which includes Nalder and federal minister Mathias Cormann. It is working hand in glove with Leighton and The West. Their man on the inside, Nalder, just committed political suicide, so now The West is scrambling to save what it can for this cabal.

“Perth Freight Link has been ratcheted up from a local issue to be a state-wide matter. That is a tribute to the rock-hard campaigning of local activists and an unprecedented community campaign. The groundswell of opposition has opened up a split between the more cautious approach of Barnett and the freeway fanatics.”

Barnett has declared that Stage 2 is off the table before the next state election, while simultaneously insisting he will push ahead with Roe 8, both signing contracts and commencing construction.

However Save Beeliar Wetlands has initiated a crowd-funded High Court challenge to the Environmental Protection Authority's approval process, in which the agency contradicted its own policy.

Hundreds of residents have signed a pledge committing themselves to peacefully resist any attempt to build the freeway. While WA Labor has declared its opposition to the PFL in its entirety, it has not detailed how it would stop the project if it wins office next year after contracts are signed. There could yet be a few more twists and turns in this epic urban environmental struggle.

[Barry Healy is a Convenor of the Fremantle Road to Rail group and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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