Perth Freight Link: round 1 to the people

January 15, 2016
Activists protest the PFL at Fremantle Festival parade in November.

The Perth Freight Link (PFL) project ground to a halt on December 16 when Supreme Court Chief Justice Wayne Martin ruled environmental approvals for the Roe 8 freeway through the Beeliar Wetlands were invalid.

Incredibly, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) had argued it was not bound by its own policy when assessing and granting approval. This result comes on top of a 2013 decision that the EPA had bungled approvals for the James Price Point gas processing facility.

Premier Colin Barnett's hand-picked EPA has been so desperate to approve major developments as expected by its political masters, it was incapable of even pretending to properly assess them.

The PFL commencement has been pushed beyond the state election due in March next year. This confounds the strategy of Barnett, who, while trying to back-peddle on Stage 2 of the project, was desperate to begin construction of Stage 1 (Roe 8) before the election.

The court decision also embodies the most powerful dynamic of the campaign against Perth Freight Link: people power. The challenge to the EPA was brought by Save Beeliar Wetlands, raising tens of thousands of dollars through crowd funding.

It raises a significant question: how many government decisions are made that fail the test of their own laws and policies, but are never overturned because the affected communities do not have the time or money to challenge them in court?

It is also worth asking whether the Supreme Court would have delivered the same decision if it had not been preceded by 12 months of community opposition.

Despite its pretensions, the legal system is not the neutral and detached entity it pretends to be. Usually that means it favours the rich and powerful, but not always.

An example is the historic 1992 Mabo decision, which overturned the doctrine of terra nullius. Even 20 years earlier such a ruling would have been impossible, but the mass movement for Aboriginal rights changed that.

The Liberals could not have chosen a worse part of Perth to indulge their freeway fantasies, because of the damage it would do and the response it would evoke. They thought they could get away with smashing through deeply loved remnant bushland and an urban fabric with a strong sense of community.

A number of other factors combined to predispose people around Fremantle to oppose the freeway and support alternatives. These include the campaign to restore Fremantle passenger trains in the early 1980s, the decades-long battle to protect the Beeliar Wetlands, the 1990s defeat of the Fremantle Eastern Bypass, the establishment of Fremantle Road to Rail campaign in 2011, an active bicycle user group and a local council that supports sustainable transport.

Against this, the chaotic and contradictory way the PFL was announced, with no business plan or defined route, stoked the rage of a community that had no intention of blindly accepting that freeways equal progress.

It demonstrated that neither governments nor Main Roads WA are better transport planners than the average person in the street.

By persistently hammering its message that the proponents had not performed an exhaustive benefit-cost ratio analysis, and pointing to the need to invest in public transport, rail freight and the Outer Harbour before Fremantle Port reaches capacity, the campaign against PFL won the debate hands down.

The decision by the Greens to make PFL their central priority in 2015 and launch Rethink the Link to complement the work already being done by Save Beeliar Wetlands and Road to Rail, lifted the campaign to a new level. That was followed by the formation of numerous local groups united as the Rethink Perth Freight Link alliance.

Local Labor MPs took out full-page ads in community newspapers slamming PFL. The momentum and moral authority of the campaign was illustrated by thousands of people who marched in the annual Fremantle Festival parade in late November.

An important battle against the freeway builders has been won — but more is needed. The PFL took the form of a Tony Abbott “thought bubble”, but its origins are in a Leighton Holdings wish list. Leighton's investment in lobbying Abbott before the 2013 election seemingly paid off when the company was announced as the preferred contractor for the PFL Stage 2 tunnel.

The West Australian now insists: “The incompetence of the EPA does not diminish the value and benefits of this project.” It is no surprise that it supports public subsidies for the freeway construction at any cost to our communities, public purse and environment. But, in Perth's southern suburbs there is an enraged and mobilised community ready to stop them.

[Barry Healy and Sam Wainwright are founding members of Fremantle Road to Rail.]

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