The nearly two-year struggle against the Perth Freight Link (PFL) freeway project is entering what may be a decisive period. While the campaign on the street has quietened somewhat, that may soon change.
While the Colin Barnett government beat a strategic retreat on Stage 2, it has declared its intention to push ahead with Stage 1 (Roe 8) through the Beeliar Wetlands. The Premier even claims that construction may begin before Christmas.
Meanwhile, the Save Beeliar Wetlands (SBW) group has secured a special leave hearing in the High Court to be held on December 16. This will determine whether the court believes there is a basis for a full hearing.
The fact that SBW raised $50,000 in donations in a month to fund the appeal demonstrates the widespread community opposition to the freeway. This fundraising effort came on top of the money that was mustered to fund the group's original case in the WA Supreme Court, which it won last December, but which was successfully appealed by the state government in March.
The legal argument now centres on whether the Environmental Protection Authority can approve a project if it does not follow its own processes, but not whether the project is approvable as such.
While the legal action has significantly delayed construction and further underlined the shambolic and bogus planning around the PFL, even if successful it does not create an insurmountable obstacle for the state government if they remain determined to push ahead. All eyes are turned to the March state election.
As the campaign against PFL gathered steam last year, the local Labor MPs threw themselves into the campaign with gusto and took out full page ads in the local newspapers to condemn the project.
Labor leader Mark McGowan insists that if he becomes Premier the freeway will not go ahead, but has stopped short of committing to "tear up" the contracts in the way Daniel Andrews eventually did in relation to the East West Link in Victoria.
Labor's credibility would be smashed if it reneges on its pledge to scrap the freeway, but assuming it holds good to its promise, it has not revealed what mechanism it would use to stop the PFL.
It is hard not to believe that the campaign against the freeway would be buoyed if Labor took a clear stand and that this in turn would add to the sense of crisis around the project and the Barnett government itself.
While Labour is ahead in the opinion polls, it will need to overcome a significant deficit to win, which is not guaranteed. On the ground, community members are readying themselves to confront the bulldozers in any case.
A further twist to the campaign came when the Maritime Union of Australia rejected the proposal for a new "Outer Harbour" in Cockburn Sound to supplement the existing Inner Harbour at Fremantle, saying it is not needed. In the last year truck and container volumes through Fremantle Port have fallen as the end of the mining boom begins to bite.
Labor and many in the campaign against the PFL have posited building the Outer Harbour as the central alternative to the freeway.
For its part, the Fremantle Road to Rail group has always been neutral on the question. All new infrastructure projects should be subject to an exhaustive cost–benefit analysis that includes all social and environmental factors, whether the freeway or the Outer Harbour.
Road to Rail advocates for the transfer of freight to rail regardless of where the port is, along with significant investment in public transport. Despite its name, MainRoads own traffic modelling suggests that more than 90% of the traffic on the PFL would be private cars.
Every dollar spent on freeways comes at the expense of rail freight and public transport infrastructure. That the state government's recently released Perth at 3.5 million report proposes absolutely no significant new public transport initiatives for the greater Fremantle area is proof of that.
[Sam Wainwright is active with Fremantle Road to Rail, a City of Fremantle Councillor and member of Socialist Alliance.]