In early 2014 the campaign against the East-West Link, a toll road tunnel linking the Eastern Freeway to Melbourne’s western suburbs, entered a new phase. The pickets and protests during 2013 thrust the issue to the top of the political agenda and have had a huge impact swaying public opinion.
By Socialist Party reporters Melbourne
A recent poll showed only 23% of people believe building the toll road tunnel is a bigger priority than improving public transport. The campaign is definitely moving forward and having an effect. More and more people are beginning to realise that if this project went ahead it would be an environmental, social and economic disaster.
In the later part of 2013 community pickets forced the government to delay test drilling for some months. Just before Christmas the government mounted a huge police operation in order to complete the works at four remaining sites. Hundreds of police were deployed with work sites set up in the dead of night in order to try and head off picketers.
Despite the huge amount of police resources protesters were still able to hinder the works with several sites occupied and some people locking themselves to drill rigs. On one occasion about 100 protesters ran from one site to another taking the police by surprise and dismantling a fence. Several people were able to breach the compound and occupy the drill rig forcing work to stop for the day.
In January the government announced that the companies bidding for the project required more geological information and that 16 more sites would need to be tested. This provided another round of impetus for the picketing campaign and kept the issue front and centre in the media.
Opponents of the project have made clear their intentions are to try and delay the preliminary works and stop the government from signing the contracts just before the November state election. The campaign does not consider that the government has a mandate to proceed with the project especially given that they went to the last election saying they would not build the tunnel. Since then they have changed their mind and now they are trying to rush it through before voters are able to make their intentions clear.
The picketing campaign is clearly an effective form of action. On the one hand it hinders work on the project but on the other hand, given the extremely tight timelines involved, it has the potential to impact on government decision making. The government clearly recognises this and has therefore outlaid a huge amount of money to combat the pickets.
The mainstream media has reported that the police operation alone had cost $1.65 million as of late January. The Linking Melbourne Authority, who oversee the project, and the drilling contractors would also have used many more resources than they had hoped. If nothing else the government and the bidders have been sent a clear message that the community is going to fight this project every step of the way.
Community pickets targeting the construction consortia bidding for the project have also brought into the light the enormous profit interests driving this project, at the expense of taxpayers. Before these actions the government was presenting the East West Link as a “done deal”. The hard work of hundreds of activists has won thousands more to our cause and has put the entire project into question.
Premier Napthine is having trouble selling the East West Link to Victorians so has resorted to a range of anti-democratic measures. At the recent Liberal Party state conference one of the top agenda items was “stopping anti East West Link protesters”, resulting a week later in the announcement of the creation of a special police taskforce devoted entirely to the anti tunnel campaign. New laws attacking the right to protest are on now the agenda, with East West Link protesters named as a specific targets.
If allowed to go ahead these laws will be used against all sorts of protests and pickets. Increased powers would allow police to ‘move on’ people and fine them if they refuse. Exclusion orders with maximum jail terms of up to two years are set to be put in place in order to target protest organisers.
These laws need to be fought by all those involved in the trade union and social movements. Their aim is to put a stop to effective protest activity (ie pickets and blockades that target the point of production). While the East West pickets will be targeted first trade unionists and other campaigns will be next in the firing line.
These over-the-top measures demonstrate just how weak and fearful this government is. As further repressive measures are announced, more and more are coming out against the project. As the community pickets against the tunnel make national headlines, some media outlets have also emboldened their reporting of the inconsistencies and blatant lies that saturate the government’s propaganda. Momentum is on our side, yet there is still a lot of work to be done.
The boldness of mass, direct community action has changed the political playing field in regards to the East West Link. We need to learn from our successes and continue to build this active opposition. With thousands of people having taken some form of protest action against the East West Link – from signing a petition, to attending a rally, to signing the ‘No East West Tunnel’ pledge – our greatest task now is turning this opposition into a vocal, active and unified movement.
We are on track to turn the 2014 state election into a ‘referendum’ on the East West Link. In doing so, we must also pressure the Labor Party to commit to ‘tear up the contracts’ if they are signed prior to the election.
But while we are helping to turn public opinion we need to recognise that much of the opposition to the East West Link still remains latent. With the government planning a vicious crack down on dissent, now is the time our supporters must mobilise and get involved. We can make their new laws inoperable by involving more people in our actions. It would be political suicide for Napthine to try to fine and arrest hundreds of people fighting to stop a disastrous project that the vast majority of Victorians do not want.
To build our army of anti-East West Link campaigners we are planning to embark on a tour of metropolitan and regional areas building links with different communities and discussing the myriad of ways taxpayer’s money could be better spent. At the same time we need to maintain a campaign of direct community action targeting politicians, companies bidding for the contracts and any other preliminary works.
While our actions are bold, our message strong, and our support widespread, our numbers still remain modest. We need to spend the next weeks and months trying to convince people that the only way we are going to win this campaign is via mass action. The participation of more people will be required if we are going to win.
This campaign is about more than just a tunnel. It is about what type of city and what type of society we want to live in. For the Socialist Party’s part we want to put an end to planning in the narrow interests of big business. Far from just fighting to save parks, homes and for more public transport, we are fighting for a society where we invest in socially useful projects and build and produce things in order to address the needs of the majority.