Stage 2 of the $17 billion road project WestConnex, the M5 tunnel from Beverley Hills to St Peters, was approved last week despite massive public opposition.
More than 12,000 submissions — 99% opposed — sent to planning minister Rob Stokes were ignored and the approval was pushed through. The planning department was blockaded by protesters on the day of the announcement.
Community anger has risen, with packed public meetings in Rozelle, Arncliffe and Parramatta and successful direct actions to halt work and expose the project to wider scrutiny. Residents in Rozelle and Balmain in particular have stepped up their campaign after plans for a vast interchange in Rozelle Bay were published on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald.
Activists have been successful in encouraging protesters to come to test drilling sites before contractors get there. But the need for greater numbers of peaceful protesters at these sites is pressing — a few more could potentially turn the situation around and see drilling shut down for a full day as often occurred with East West link in Melbourne.
In response to the protesters, and clearly acting on higher instructions, the contractors build cages around protesters and call police. Police can then claim protesters are entering or remaining on enclosed land and threaten arrest. Finally, drills are moved in using walls of riot police.
The legal validity of these tactics has been questioned by protesters. Marrickville Council received legal advice that work at the proposed St Peters interchange did not have legal approval. Council later refused contractors access to local roads to install a new electricity mains for the interchange.
In Haberfield, four activists occupied a house set to be demolished. A veteran of the 1970s Fig Street freeway fiasco, Bill Holliday, was dragged out of the house in front of a media scrum and later released without charge. The family that once lived there came down to support the protesters. Protests in the surrounding streets will continue as destruction of these houses is imminent.
Meanwhile, the government rolled out new protest laws with draconian jail sentences. Ostensibly in response to successful direct actions to stop destructive new coal and CSG activity in regional areas, they will have application for urban protesters fighting WestConnex too.
Stokes and Premier Mike Baird have both had media opportunities — at a cafe in Haberfield and an eco-house in Newtown — interrupted by peaceful protesters. The irony that the appeal of these places would be greatly harmed by the project they are approving is clear.
The hefty tolls being introduced on currently free roads such as the M4 and M5 has brought out further opposition from western Sydney. Arguably the most disadvantaged by a lack of public transport options, many from western Sydney are forced into private cars and are expressing their resentment that their public roads will effectively be privatised to pay for other roads they may never use. Traffic experts have observed that the most expensive parts of WestConnex are not aligned with the supposed purpose “connecting the west”, but to set up a future CBD bypass route for north shore drivers to reach the airport quicker via the proposed second harbour tunnel.
Despite these ongoing protests against WestConnex, its clear unpopularity in the community, the long list of experts opposed and total absence of experts in favour, and opposition from all left-of-centre political groupings, both Liberal and Labor steadfastly maintain their support for the basic concept. Labor policy supports two-thirds of the project.
Labor party member and resident activist Ben Aveling valiantly pushed to get a motion passed at the recent NSW Labor Conference. His proposed motion tried to shift the party to provisional rejection of the entire WestConnex if the Auditor General failed to give a clean opinion of it.
Unfortunately Labor power brokers such as former Rudd advisor Sam Crosby scuttled it, dismissing it as “cray cray” on Twitter. Summer Hill Labor MP Jo Haylen, who presents a public face of strong opposition to WestConnex, told Aveling she would vote against it.
Senior Sydney Labor figures Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese have been bombarded with requests to oppose WestConnex in full, but remain silent. Albanese has now left himself wide open to attack in his electorate of Grayndler, with Greens' candidate Jim Casey lending support at pickets and determined to make it an election issue as Newtown MP Jenny Leong did successfully last year.
A federal loan of $2 billion is necessary to complete the project so if it is withheld it could be game over. Albanese has tried to make it appear the money has already been transferred but so far he has failed to provide evidence of this. He is scheduled to appear at a WestConnex public forum on May 19 at Balmain Town Hall alongside Jim Casey, Michelle Zeibots, Wendy Bacon and other well-informed critics of the motorway.
Another aspect casting dark shadows is the recent Unaoil bribery scandal. A Fairfax/Huffington Post exposé revealed Leighton and Samsung C&T had paid bribes in return for billion dollar contracts in Iraq. Leighton has made large donations to the Liberal and Labor parties in Australia and has been awarded billion dollar contracts to build WestConnex. This leads to serious questions.
The leaked Panama Papers also revealed Wilson Security, which provides services guarding WestConnex-acquired homes (and the Nauru detention centre) was using questionable offshore tax havens. Haylen has now called for the Senate inquiry currently underway to delve into the possibility of similarly improper WestConnex contracts.
These promising parliamentary and electoral lines of attack have only emerged because of the hard work building the campaign on the ground among ordinary people. To keep it going and to increase the pressure a larger groundswell is urgently needed.
If you would like to participate, get informed by following any of the No WestCONnex Action Groups on social media and send a text to 0490 257 225 to get alerts of non-violent direct actions as they occur.
[Andrew Chuter is a co-convenor of No WestCONnex: Public Transport.]