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Triple threat for WestConnex

When the WestConnex M4 East was approved, it was required to improve, “on balance”, the performance of the road network. But Ron Hoenig has found that when the WestConnex New M5 (the part of WestConnex that ends at Sydney Park) was approved, it contained a stronger requirement: to improve, “on balance, and not adversely [impact] on” the performance of the road network.

Whether the WestConnex project can improve the road network “on balance” is questionable. It may be argued that there will be positive benefits to some parts of the network (the tollway) that are greater, on balance, than the adverse impacts on other parts of the network (local roads). But it is indisputable that there will be serious adverse impacts on local roads if the project proceeds on the current plans. These adverse impacts were acknowledged in the official Environmental Impact Statement for the M5 East.

Ron Hoenig said, “Given the scope and impact on local streets and roads by WestConnex, this condition [on the M5 East approval] will not, and cannot, be met.” He called on local councils to seek an injunction to stop work and stop the acquisition of homes. Councils should furthermore ask the Land and Environment Court to “demand from the government evidence of how this condition of approval can be met and, until it does, everything must cease”.

“If the government can’t even get its own planning decisions right, then no one can imagine how this $17 billion road, the largest road project in Australia’s history, is going to work,” said Mr Hoenig.

The four councils Hoenig approached are the City of Sydney, Marrickville, Botany Bay and Randwick. Marrickville Council had been strongly opposed to WestConnex until it became one of 43 councils dissolved by the Baird government on May 12. Botany Bay and Randwick councils are understood to be examining legal options.

At a meeting of the City of Sydney Council on May 16, Lord Mayor Clover Moore spoke against WestConnex and announced that Council was seeking “legal advice on prospects for challenging the approvals of Stage 1 and 2 of WestConnex”. Her statement reads, “I can assure the City community that the City government I lead will do everything we can to expose and stop this destructive project.” The mayor’s statement was endorsed and adopted by all councillors present, except for the Liberal councillors Christine Forster and Edward Mandla.

On May 18, Federal Auditor-General Grant Hehir announced an audit of the management of federal funding for WestConnex, specifically whether the funding decision followed established process, whether it was based on appropriate advice, and whether it represented value for money. The audit will be tabled in the Federal Parliament in January 2017. Mr Hehir has already overseen one audit of WestConnex. In 2014, he was NSW Auditor-General when the Audit Office of NSW produced a damning audit of the early stages of the WestConnex Project.

Clover Moore has announced that she will write to the state government to request that all work on WestConnex be halted while the audit takes place.

On May 19, while speaking to several hundred people at a public meeting in Balmain, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and Labor MP Anthony Albanese promised: “If I am the Transport Minister there will be not one dollar from the federal Labor government for this WestConnex project”. However, Albanese refused to commit to breaking an Abbott government commitment to provide NSW with a $2 billion concessional loan.

Originally, WestConnex was to require $3.6 billion of government funding and it would raise $13.2 billion from the private sector. So far, WestConnex has received commitments of $5.3 billion of government funding and raised $1.5 billion from the private sector. The state government needs to find another $2 billion to fund the first two stages of WestConnex, for which contracts have already been signed. It needs to find another $8 billion for the remaining stages.

Infrastructure Australia, a government body that exists to “prioritise and progress” infrastructure projects, said in its 2014-2015 WestConnex Assessment Brief that the NSW government would seek from the federal government an unspecified amount of further funding “subject to negotiation and project requirements”. Albanese’s refusal to commit to cancelling the loan disappointed opponents of WestConnex, but the promise he made on May 19 might still prove fatal to WestConnex.



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