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Issue #1748      September 14, 2016

Westconnex

Quagmire of scandals and bitter public opposition

Over the last fortnight it was revealed that construction of Sydney’s infamous WestConnex toll road would destroy the last fragment of south-west Sydney’s original ironbark forest, that WestConnex contractors may have used asbestos-contaminated material, and that one of the contractors may have been involved in bribery payments in the Middle East.

These are the latest scandals surrounding WestConnex, Australia’s biggest-ever construction project, which involves the compulsory acquisition and destruction of parks and hundreds of homes in Sydney’s historic inner suburbs.

Fifty-eight homes have already been demolished in Haberfield, Australia’s first planned garden suburb, which is on the register of the National Trust (and was listed in the Commonwealth Register of the National Estate before the former Howard government abolished the Register).

Residents of Haberfield, St Peters and Erskineville, whose homes have been resumed, have been paid less than the market price, and are being charged rent if they stay there. Some are taking their cases to court. The government won’t release a special report it commissioned two years ago on fairer compensation for affected homeowners.

Roads are a grossly inefficient means of mass transport. Transport analyst Chris Standen has pointed out that a light rail system can convey seven times as many passengers as a road system that carries 6,000 passengers per hour, and a single-deck railway can carry 27 times as many.

He commented recently that the $17 billion, 33 kilometre WestConnex project “will increase the State’s daily vehicle kilometres 0.5 percent, to 32.1 kilometres per licensed driver [in the state]. Put another way, the Baird government is spending $70,000 for every household in the state, and bulldozing homes, heritage areas, parks and trees, just so the average motorist can drive an additional 200 metres per day. And the road network will still be congested.”

Roads and rail up for sale

WestConnex would extend to Rozelle, on the western edge of the City of Sydney local government area. Sydney’s progressive mayor Clover Moore has vowed to block construction by shutting off streets intended to provide access to the toll road.

In the recent local government elections the government relied on the city’s businesses to try and remove Moore from office. It not only granted all businesses (rather than ratepayers only) the vote in local government elections, but gave each business two votes, not one! It didn’t work, she romped in.

The government has also contemplated shrinking the City of Sydney electorate to include only the central business districts, redistributing the surrounding residential suburbs to adjacent electorates.

To cap it off, the government wants to replace ballot box voting with compulsory postal voting, which would prevent community groups from influencing voters on election day and force them to pay for expensive mail-outs.

The malignant influence of big capital on government is not limited to road projects. The government plans to construct new privately-operated Metro rail lines from the city west to Parramatta, another southwest to Bankstown and another to the eastern suburbs.

But residents have recently learnt that the existing Bankstown line will not be supplemented by an extra metro line, but is to be converted for the use of Metro-style single-deck carriages. Hundreds of thousands of passengers won’t get an extra line; they’ll lose the one they’ve got! During the line closure passengers would also have to commute by bus for an indefinite period.

The news confirmed long-held suspicions that the new Metro trains are intended to eventually replace all the existing world-class government-operated double-decker trains.

Efficiency is not the government’s motive. During peak hours each existing double-decker train stops longer at each station than a Metro train would, but that’s because it carries 50 percent more passengers. The double deckers are far more efficient at transporting peak-hour passengers than single deck metros. And Sydney is on the brink of losing them.

Anything goes

Some of Sydney’s biggest urban developments are now controlled by the government development agency Urban Growth, which operates independently of local government planning controls.

As commentator, Elizabeth Farrelly, stated recently “... vast projects including the Bays precinct, Green Square, Parramatta North, upzoning along Parramatta Road, and the 600 hectare immensity of Central to Eveleigh ... sit outside city planning purview: ... Urban Growth (formerly Landcom) is not a planning body. ... it’s a flogger of land for private purposes, a quasi-developer briefed to maximise yield.”

Under existing legislation the government can designate any major development “a project of state significance”, removing it from local government or state planning controls. It can also compulsorily acquire the home of any resident who refuses to move when all the neighbours have left. Moreover, it can alter local government zoning at will, and has already done so, rezoning inner Parramatta Road and adjacent suburbs for massive new multi-storey development.

The resulting development over a huge area of inner Sydney is likely to resemble Barangaroo, where proper planning for public benefit was dumped and huge buildings are now rising, jammed close together.

Meanwhile, Transurban, which operates Sydney’s three biggest toll roads, netted $799 million last financial year, up 14 percent on the previous year. Tolls on two of its motorways rose 4 percent per annum, well above the current 1 percent annual inflation rate. The head of Transurban, Scott Charlton, claimed these increases were justified because they were consistent with the operational contracts.

He commented: “It is the customers’ choice whether they believe [the toll roads] are value for money by paying that toll. At the end of the day that is their choice.” But motorists are finding the choice limited or non-existent. The old road systems are clogged and rail transport is overcrowded, threatened with replacement by new privately-operated metro lines, or not available at all.

Social being determines social consciousness

The Baird government has appointed Lucy Turnbull, the Prime Minister’s wife, to run the Greater Sydney Commission, a body that’s supposed to implement “A Plan for Growing Sydney”. The Commission won’t interfere in WestConnex. Its chief executive commented dismissively: “Westconnex is a reality, we’ll see if we can work with it.”

Despite many protest rallies, sit-ins and the arrests of protesting residents, all of which received widespread media publicity, Lucy Turnbull recently said she was “not aware of the loss of heritage” because of WestConnex, which she strongly endorsed.

As Chris Standen noted, mass transport should be planned by specialists “informed by a vision of the kind of city that inhabitants want”. And, in order to improve the quality of life for a city’s residents, its growth has to be controlled and limited to preserve enjoyable aspects of its character.

But that’s not what the government wants. The servant of capital, it sees the city as an ever-expanding commodity and its growth as an unlimited business opportunity, to be assisted by privatising all relevant areas of government activity.

This has led it to the facilitating of construction of massive new inner-city developments (privately built), to try to meet the resultant increasing demand for transport by building new roads, (privately operated and the least efficient mode of mass transport), and to replace the current trains with a less efficient and far less comfortable system (also privately-operated).

The government is clearly acting in the interests of capital, in particular the extraordinarily powerful sector involved in large-scale property development and the private operation of public roads and other means of mass transport.

Next article – Islamic State, lone wolf attacks and Australia

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