Over the last 18 months there has been a flurry of editorials and full page opinion pieces in Perth's only daily newspaper, The West Australian, demanding the state government keep its promise to build light rail to Mirabooka and unfavourably comparing Perth's infamous car dependent urban sprawl to European cities. It even ran a "tale of two cities" special feature celebrating the decision by Vancouver in the 1970s not to allow freeways into its inner city.
While the 70 kilometre railway line to Mandurah, completed in 2007, has proved to be immensely popular, it is worth remembering that The West Australian poured scorn on the decision by the then state-government to build the line along its direct route via South Perth, advocating instead a cheaper but hopelessly circuitous route through the city's east that would have added twenty minutes to each journey.
The seeming conversion to the cause of sustainable transport was a breath of fresh air. But the good news came to a shuddering halt in the last week of November when the paper strongly supported the conclusions of a leaked Main Roads report advocating that the state government build the whole of the Tony Abbott-conceived Perth Freight Link freeway, meaning both Stage 1 — Roe 8 through the Beeliar Wetlands — and Stage 2 — a tunnel under Fremantle.
Premier Colin Barnett has tried to stop the anti-Perth Freight Link bushfire that is sweeping the south west of the city from spreading into parts of Perth's leafy western suburbs — including his own electorate — by dropping the second part of the freeway. However he is facing rearguard action by federal finance minister Mathias Cormann and state minister for transport Dean Nalder, who are determined that he stick with the Abbott plan to build the whole thing at once.
The West Australian has not just reported on this tension within the Liberal Party but is trying to make the news. In one week it ran two articles and an editorial spruiking the freeway and demanding that a future Labor government give the freeway commercial certainty. It is so desperate to curry popular favour for the project that it has uncritically reported the absurd claim that residents across Fremantle would see the value of their houses rise by 50%.
So what happened to its enthusiasm for a different kind of city?
Tony Abbott's hidebound idiocy included an irrational hatred of public transport. But The West Australian represents a section of big business with a more nuanced approach. While car dependency has spawned whole industries that are integral to modern capitalism, congestion also has substantial and measurable costs for the economy.
As Perth pushes towards three million people it will need more public transport if it is to function. Put bluntly, they want you at work or shopping, not stuck in traffic for three hours a day. But like their partners in the self appointed Committee for Perth, including all the big name mining and petroleum companies that run this state, they are motived by their own profitability and not the vision of a socially and environmentally sustainable city for all.
They are not opposed to freeways as such; rather they want just enough public transport to allow car dependency to continue. They do not want a debate about shifting freight to rail and ending the massive system of subsidies that underpin the profitability of the trucking industry. Most of all, they are certainly not seeking to reduce the deadly diesel particulate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from our transport systems as rapidly as possible, even though the very future of life on earth as we know it demands we do just that.
Building new freeways makes as much sense as building new coal-fired power stations. Our efforts to stop them are both the starting point for a movement to create cities that serve the people that live in them and a vital component of the campaign to stop runaway global warming. Our future depends on it.
[Sam Wainwright is a councillor at the City of Fremantle, activist with Fremantle Road to Rail and co-convenor of Socialist Alliance in WA.]