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Auditor-General's report on East West Link

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 6 Feb 2016

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I want to respond to the tabling of the Auditor-General's report Audit Report No. 14 of 2015-16, Approval and Administration of Commonwealth Funding for the East West Link Projectfollowing the investigation into the Commonwealth funding approval decisions related to the East West Link project.

This Auditor-General's report is nothing short of damning. What a complete farce it demonstrates this government to be when it comes to infrastructure approvals and spending. Despite the time that has elapsed since the Victorian community fought back against this terrible toll road—and won—I still feel really angry that such a socially divisive, economically wasteful and environmentally-polluting project was ever pushed onto Victorians. The east-west toll road has been cancelled, and thank goodness! But we must learn lessons from the decisions that led to its short-term viability. This investigation shines a light on those.

Of course, at the time of the funding decision for the ill-fated east-west toll road our Prime Minister was Tony Abbott. Now we have a new Prime Minister, but we must not allow him to distance himself from his predecessor's decision. This is the same government and we have not yet seen proof that transport infrastructure funding decisions are improving.

The new Prime Minister would do well to reflect on what happened to the government's Victorian Liberal colleagues when they tried to ram the east-west toll road down the throats of Victorian taxpayers. We turfed them out of office. The current Prime Minister would also do well to reflect on what happened to the former Prime Minister who, with the stroke of a pen, ignored advice and flicked a cool $3 billion to his Victorian Liberal mates. Mr Abbott himself said that the 2014 state election in Victoria would be a referendum on the east-west toll road, and we know how that ended.

I want to note for the Senate some of the salient points of the Auditor-General's report. We have a lot to learn from this investigation. The report tells us that the decision to provide Commonwealth funding for the East West Link and to commit $3 billion went against clear advice from the public service that the project had not been justified and was not ready. It said:

Neither stage of the East West Link project had proceeded fully through the processes that have been established to assess the merits of nationally significant infrastructure investments prior to the decisions by Government to approve $3 billion in Commonwealth funding …

The report notes that at the time the commitment was made:

… it was not considered to have yet demonstrated strong strategic and economic merit.

by Infrastructure Australia, and that the payment came just months after the coalition promised not to fund infrastructure projects worth more than $100 million without the publication of a proper cost-benefit analysis.

This government clearly has much to learn, and this report shines a light on events that must not be repeated. Unfortunately, it seems that there were repeats of these misguided decisions. In a very similar time frame and political climate, this government approved funds for the Western Australian Perth Freight Link and the WestConnex tollway in Sydney. I am pleased that yesterday the Senate supported the Greens motion to refer the strikingly similar funding decisions for the Perth Freight Link and the WestConnex tollway for audit by the Auditor-General. These two massive, polluting motorways of reek of the same problems as the East West Link funding decisions did.

Communities in inner Sydney are fighting for their parks, homes and clean air as the monstrous WestConnex is set to plough through their neighbourhoods. Similarly, residents in Western Australia are standing up for their precious wetlands and local amenities because the Perth Freight Link is being rammed through their communities. The federal government should not be using taxpayer dollars to bankroll these projects. We are seeing, as the WestConnex Action Group said this morning:

… no transparency, escalating costs, corrupted planning processes, contracts signed before approvals are granted …

Sadly, there are more massive, polluting toll roads in the works too. In Victoria now we see looming the Western Distributor, which is supposedly going to be a silver bullet to redirect freight trucks off our residential streets in Melbourne's inner west. This happens to be my backyard. I have spent the last 25 years in Footscray and I really know how badly we need a solution to get trucks off our local streets. But the Western Distributor is not the result of a holistic planning process taking into account all the transport needs of the western region of Melbourne and setting a long-term agenda rather than having debates about single projects, which is what Infrastructure Australia say we need to be doing.

The Western Distributor does not consider the desirability of getting as much port related freight as possible onto rail; in fact the port rail shuttle project, which has actually got almost $40 million of federal funding allocated to it, is not included in the Western Distributor transport modelling. The Western Distributor business case does not consider the much more cost-effective option of the West Gate truck ramps, which allow trucks to bypass the residential streets of Yarraville and Footscray just as effectively as this massive tollway that will cost over five times as much.

And the Western Distributor project does not include looking at the massive benefits to our clogged roads and our community if everyone had the opportunity of the healthier, cleaner option of travelling by fast, frequent, reliable, affordable and safe public transport; walking; or riding a bike rather than having to drive their car for every trip. No, the Western Distributor is a market led project where the overall beneficiary is Transurban, who benefit from getting a further decade of tolls on their existing toll roads. That is a really nice little earner there, and it is a project where the transport modelling is commercial-in-confidence, so we cannot interrogate what the assumptions are. But it looks to me, from assessing what we do know from the transport modelling, that it is just projecting forward business-as-usual traffic generation with no significant shift of people out of their cars and onto more sustainable ways of travelling.

It is a project where the touted benefit-cost ratio of 1.4 conflates the benefits of a big new toll road and the widening of the Monash Freeway, which is actually on the far side of town. If you look at the Western Distributor benefit-cost ratio by itself, it is 1.1, and it is likely to be less than one if the port rail shuttle had been included and if the expected traffic that their transport modelling estimates has been overestimated. In short, the Western Distributor project looks just like a project that the Auditor-General would have some problems with if federal funding were committed to it.

Transport planning must not be a captain's pick. This is what the Auditor-General's report shows us so clearly. We are talking about critical infrastructure that shapes our cities for decades, even centuries. In reflecting on the Auditor-General's report on the East West Link, there is one clear message. I think we need to call upon the government and Prime Minister Turnbull not to continue the mistakes of the past. We must move into the 21st century. We must have the vision to move into the 21st century with our planning and funding of transport projects so that we get the best transport outcomes possible.

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