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Adjournment speech : WestConnex

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:01): On another matter, today the Australian National Audit Office released its report into Commonwealth funding of the WestConnex project. I requested, along with Labor, that the Australian National Audit Office undertake this audit of the WestConnex project. That was in August 2015. It was off the back of a strong community campaign that such an independent audit should be undertaken. The objective of this audit was to assess whether appropriate steps were taken to protect the Commonwealth's interests and obtain value for money in respect of the $3.5 billion in Commonwealth funding committed to the New South Wales government for the WestConnex project. The report considers whether or not appropriate steps were taken to protect the Commonwealth's interest and obtain value for money. The Greens pushed for this report because we knew that the concessional loan stunk and we knew that the project fell well short of the rigorous and independent planning that enormous infrastructure investments like this require.

I am so glad that we pushed hard for this audit. It confirms what we have guessed for a long time—that is, that the rationale for funding this project is deeply deficient. And the alarm bells have been sounding on this project for many years. It was December 2014 when the then New South Wales Auditor-General, Grant Hehir, first raised serious concerns about the government's finance and independence of the initial WestConnex business case. Mr Hehir is now the national Auditor-General and he has again exposed serious problems with WestConnex. Today's report also will make uncomfortable reading for the former transport minister, Mr Albanese, as well as the coalition, about their role in pushing the WestConnex onto Sydney communities.

The findings in this audit certainly are damning. It shows that the former Abbott and Gillard governments committed at least $1.5 billion to WestConnex in 2013 despite warnings that the project was not yet suitable for federal support and had not yet been properly assessed. Remember, 2013 was an election year, and the big promises were being made by both the major parties in what we now know was clearly a very irresponsible way. In further findings, we learned that the Abbott government's $2 billion concessional loan for WestConnex may not have been necessary and failed to speed up the project as was intended.

So, we now know that the Liberal, Nationals and Labor parties were advancing this project well before an initial business case was presented to the appropriate government departments. It is a real example of policy and processes being done within the cynical cycle of elections and in terms of deals with mates. This is where we need to examine the political donations involved. Analysis from the Greens' Democracy for Sale project has revealed that, since 2010, $13 million in political donations has been handed over to the major parties from companies with significant interests in tollway construction. Since 2008, $600,000 has flowed to the Liberal Party from the Cormack Foundation's investments in the toll road giant Transurban. It is worth remembering how much control Transurban has over the motorways of our major capital cities—tollways that are robbing money and robbing space from the public transport we so urgently need. Transurban manages and develops tollways around this country as well as many in North America. In Australia it is a full owner of the CityLink in Melbourne. It has stakes in the six major tollways in Sydney, and similarly most of Brisbane's tollways come under Transurban, which is now making millions of dollars year after year because of the control it has been given by successive Liberal governments, particularly at a state level. As I said, Labor's hands are not clean in this, and my colleague Jenny Leong, who has worked extensively in opposition to the WestConnex project, summed it up today: 'Labor's infrastructure minister, Anthony Albanese, committed millions to nothing more than an idea. This was then progressed when the Abbott government came to power and infrastructure minister Warren Truss continued to push it through despite warnings.'

It is worth looking at what Mr Albanese has actually said about this. In commenting on the audit today he said that Labor's commitment of $1.8 billion to the project in May 2013 was 'contingent on a proper business case'. Now, they are his words. It sounds good that he was doing the right thing. But I cannot find where he set that out before 2013, and certainly a lot of the material and the comments being made by him and other Labor people at the time were very much a clear, blunt commitment to the WestConnex project in a very simplistic way, trying to make out that it was going to solve the transport problems of the people of Western Sydney when that is certainly not the case. The project is about bringing greater congestion to the inner west and massive destruction of homes, businesses and many open-space areas.

What comes out in the audit is that it was prior to the 2013 election that Mr Albanese committed to funding the project despite the project lacking a business case at that stage. And I want to repeat that so that we get it on the record, because Mr Albanese needs to go back to his leaflets, to his comments in 2013, and show us whether that commitment for linking the commitment of money to the project was contingent on a business case, because, from what I have seen, in most of the statements—in all the statements I have seen—there is certainly no link.

Good governance was effectively absent from the management of the WestConnex project once it got underway under the Liberal-Nationals governments at a state and federal level. The proper process has not occurred, and locals have suffered. And that suffering goes on—such as the degree of destruction and the wasteland of lost homes at a time when the housing crisis, as I have just spoken about, is becoming more and more urgent.

I particularly pay tribute to the many groups and residents who have fought so hard, many of them getting arrested in taking action to try to stop this destructive motorway. Sharon Laura, from the WestConnex Action Group, whose home is close to part of the WestConnex devastation, said this to City Hub:

People are angry and very distressed. They feel abandoned by government and treated with contempt by the Department of Planning.

This feeling is so widespread among people. I particularly pay tribute to the City of Sydney, to The Marrickville and Ashfield councils—when they existed—and to commentators and writers such as Wendy Bacon, Jenny Leong and Cathy Peters, who have worked so extensively with the community to document this destruction. Their work has certainly now been vindicated by the audit that has come out today. Also, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, has been outstanding in her work. I particularly wanted to mention the report by the City of Sydney's independent consultant, SGS, on the WestConnex strategic business case. The SGS consultancy describes the WestConnex business case as:

… a confused document filled with contradictions which does little to address the wide ranging concerns about WestConnex.

I want to revisit that document because it further strengthens concerns about the extensive problems that this project encapsulates and that we now know have been given greater weight by the audit that has come out today. The report, which was commissioned by the City of Sydney, finds that the construction costs have been conservatively estimated. The report states that, after taking into account these and other issues, WestConnex is 'likely to be marginal at best' and that it is quite possible that the actual Benefits Cost Ratio for WestConnex is less than one, where it was promised to be about one to 1.7. The report continues:

New South Wales taxpayers will be exposed to the risk of the project not succeeding in the short to medium term. Given this and the lack of strategic justification, the decision to proceed with WestConnex is questionable.

So here is another very considered report showing that this project is deeply irresponsible.

Today is very significant, with the ANAO releasing its audit and a report that is extensively damning of this project—a project that has caused economic, social and environmental stress to so many parts of Sydney. This project, off the back of this audit alone, should be stopped now. Yes, some parts of it have commenced. It is tragic that houses have gone, but now those areas should be moved over to thorough, extensive public transport. This motorway will divide Sydney. In reality, it will divide communities and it will cause more destruction if it goes ahead. The evidence is now so overwhelming that the responsible thing is to end the project.

I raise the issue about Mr Albanese. If you look at the record, you see there is inconsistency. But today he has come out and also criticised the project. That criticism now needs to put into a commitment that, when Labor get into office, this project will be scrapped. When Labor were running for office in Victoria, they gave the commitment that they would break the contract on the East West Link. They did it in Perth with the big battle that is going on about Roe 8. Labor, fighting to get into office there, have given a commitment that that project will not go ahead. That commitment now needs to be given by New South Wales Labor, and, in the federal parliament, by people like Mr Albanese and Senator Dastyari. This WestConnex project is so divisive and so destructive that it needs to be put to bed, and we all need to get behind that.

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