Despite mounting public pressure to postpone the signing of the East-West toll road contracts until after the November 29 election, Victorian Premier Denis Napthine rushed to sign the contracts in late September. He also ticked off on a ‘kill-clause’, which stipulated that even if the project doesn’t go ahead Victorians would have to pay the East-West Connect consortium hundreds of millions of dollars.
While hoping to lock the project in, this move backfired. Many viewed it as hasty, arrogant, and in keeping with the secrecy and corruption that has come to define this project. Adding weight to this impression was news that East-West Connect celebrated winning the contracts by hosting a lavish dinner for senior government bureaucrats at the elite Melbourne restaurant Vue de Monde.
Aware of this negative impression, the Napthine Government now seems to be making a concerted effort to keep the East-West Link out of the news. The Murdoch press has been fiercely supportive of the project, but is now reprimanding the Government almost on a daily basis for its failed marketing strategy.
Even right-wing commentators are pointing out that the cloud of irresponsibility hanging over the secret East-West contracts makes a mockery of the Government’s election advertisements, which attack the Opposition for being ‘financially irresponsible’.
Every time Napthine tries to score some political points around the East-West Link it backfires. His claim in October that many apprenticeships would result from the project was rubbished when it was revealed that one of the companies involved in the consortium, Acciona, is planning to bring in staff from overseas for the work.
While Labor has been forced under pressure to come out against the project, its position is still full of holes. It is hinged on the outcome of the Supreme Court case being run by the inner city councils. This case is by no means guaranteed to win. If they win office on November 29 the campaign will have to focus its energies on ensuring that Labor is held to account.
In the meantime the two major parties are in a race to see who can present themselves as the least bad in regards to public transport. After 4 years of promoting roads and ignoring public transport the Liberals have even launched a public transport-themed newspaper to promote their fake credentials!
Residents in the northern suburbs, who have pleaded fruitlessly for years for a rail extension to Mernda, are now getting glowing promises from both Labor and Liberal about the new station. This situation would have been unthinkable a year ago, and it is crucial that the anti toll road and pro public transport campaigners remember how we got to this point.
Through community pickets, rallies, and the strategic targeting of the Government, the Labor Opposition and the bidders for the contract, we have drawn attention to the domination of the planning process by big business. Public transport has been put at the top of the political agenda as an alternative to toll roads, not by politicians but by ordinary people.
Our campaign against the East-West Link and for investment in public transport has voiced the anger millions of Victorians feel at this situation. It is out of fear of what we represent that the major parties are being forced to put more of a focus on public transport – but we cannot leave it up to them.
We need to continue to set the political agenda by pressuring the major parties and the profiteers they represent. Ordinary people organising and struggling on the streets has brought us very close to victory. Regardless of who wins the November 29 election, the continuation of this work is what will ultimately defeat the East-West Link and win investment in public transport in the years ahead. Let’s keep up the fight.
By Chris Dite