An opinion poll showing that only 24% of Victorians support the government's flagship road project, the East West Link, has sent shockwaves through the Victorian government.
The Age/Nielsen poll, published on March 2, also showed the Metro Rail project has double the amount of support among the public, with 42% in favour. The Metro Rail project is a nine-kilometre underground train line through the city that would allow another 20,000 passengers to use the network during peak hour.
The state Coalition government immediately started an advertising blitz, talking up its public transport credentials, implying that the construction of the East West Link was part of “improvements” to public transport.
It is widely believed the Denis Napthine government won the last state election because the public were dissatisfied with the former Labor government’s public transport strategy.
The Coalition did not mention the East West Link in its election campaign. The idea was sprung on the public last year.
FAST TRACKED PROJECT
The government has kept the business case secret and is rushing the project so it can get the contracts signed and fence the site ready for construction before the state election this year. The government hopes to bind any future government to maintaining the project.
The ALP has said it will not build the East West Link if it wins the election. However, it has committed to building it if the contracts are signed before the election.
The ALP tries to hide behind legal-sounding phrases such as “sovereign risk” to justify why it will honour contracts signed for the East West Link. However, legal experts have pointed out that there is nothing illegal in breaking the contracts.
The government sold its budget as a public transport and roads budget. But the lion's share of the money is allocated to the East West Link.
The state budget allocated $500 million to the East West Link for the next financial year, with $18 billion for the overall East West Link project. But only $40 million has been allocated for the Melbourne underground rail line. The bulk of the spending on the rail line won't occur until 2017-2018 — providing that the cost of the East West Link does not blow out.
The East West Link will be financed with a public-private partnership. This allows for plenty of secret deals between the government and the consortium that contracts for the job.
If the business case for the East West Link does not stack up, it will be the Victorian people who will foot the bill to bail out the consortium. In the past, contracts to build public-private tollroads have contained a secret clause that commits the government to bail out the private company if it does not make a good profit from the tolls.
PUBLIC TRANSPORT AT RISK
Some supporters of the East West Link say they support public transport upgrades as well as the East West Link.
What they do not realise is that the government's plan to spend $18 billion on the East West Link means that there will not be any money left over to improve the public transport system. The cost of the project is likely to blow out because the government is rushing to get it signed off before the election. Cost blowouts could come from health and education budgets as well as the public transport budget.
The federal and state governments are in agreement that roads should have priority. For prime minister Tony Abbott, infrastructure equals roads. Abbott has explicitly ruled out funding public transport projects.
Because the bulk of public revenue goes to the federal government, major road and rail projects require both federal and state funding. If the federal government refuses to fund major public transport projects, that inevitably means the death of the project.
Many of the road-building companies were previously involved in building mines during the mining boom.
Now that the mine construction phase is winding down, these companies are looking for government handouts. The big road projects that Abbott is funding in Victoria and NSW are effectively handouts to the big corporations.
The state government claims that the East West link will relieve traffic congestion between the eastern and western suburbs. Most public transport activists dispute this claim, especially as the majority of car traffic from the Eastern Freeway exits to the CBD rather than continuing to the western suburbs.
Instead, public transport activists suspect that the real purpose of the East West Link is to serve big trucking companies so that their large trucks are able to travel quicker between the Port of Melbourne and Western Port at Hastings and the eastern suburbs.
If the East West Link goes ahead, it will have a disastrous impact on Melbourne. More than 100 houses will be bulldozed and the road will be built only 25 metres from the windows of 3500 public housing tenants.
An estimated 5000 trees will be uprooted from Royal Park to make way for the road, which will dissect the park with four huge elevated roadways.
There has been a strong campaign against the East West Link that built on the work done by Yarra Campaign for Action on Transport in 2008 when the former Labor government was proposing it.
As a result of that work, the Yarra council, where Socialist Party councillor Steve Jolly is based, has strongly supported the campaign against the East West Link. Last year, Jolly organised a public meeting that launched pickets of the test drilling sites. The group of committed picketers then formed a group called Tunnel Picket.
Greens MP Adam Bandt has also organised several rallies at Royal Park and the Flemington housing estate.
The second council to support the campaign was Moreland council. The Moreland council has supported several of the actions initiated by the local community group Moreland Community against the East West Tunnel.
While other councils made submissions against the East West Link, only the two councils where there are socialist councillors have supported the activist campaign against the East West link.
Other groups that are involved in campaigning against the East West Link include Royal Park protection groups, residents' groups and associations from Carlton, Collingwood, Abbotsford, Brunswick, Kensington and Flemington, Friends of Banyule and the Public Transport Users Association through its Public Transport not Traffic campaign group.
The Victorian Trades Hall Council usually supports progressive causes but has decided not to take a position on the East West Link because unions are divided on the issue. The right-wing Australian Workers Union strongly supports the East West Link, while the Electrical Trades Union and the Rail Tram and Bus Union oppose it.
Building new rail will create more ongoing jobs than the East West Link.
The campaign against the East West Link is united in calling on the state government to delay signing the contracts until after the state election. The state election should be a referendum on the East West Link. The ALP should promise to rip up the contracts if it is elected. If the ALP were prepared to make such a pledge, no company would tender for the project.
[Sue Bolton is a member of the Socialist Alliance and a Moreland City councillor.]