The Parliamentary inquiry into WestConnex is the type of thing that should happen before any major infrastructure project starts. However, it let the project off too lightly.
As John Menadue and I argue for public inquiries into infrastructure projects – notably Sydney Metro – it is pertinent to consider the recent report of such an inquiry into Westconnex which, originally conceived as urban renewal – ‘beautification’ of Parramatta Road – morphed into Australia’s most costly road program. Its publicised purpose is to allow easier driving between Sydney’s south-west and CBD. It comprises a series of mega road projects: extension of the M4 to near Sydney’s CBD, duplication of the M5 near Sydney airport and a new underground motorway between the two. The much-touted link to Port Botany and Sydney Airport is now reclassed as a different project, presumably to minimise embarrassment from yet another cost overrun. Initially costed in 2011 at $11bn, the most recent estimate – made in 2015 – is around $17bn.
The program, part financed by privatising early projects to pay for later ones, is being undertaken by a public-private partnership. The Commonwealth is making a substantial contribution – the prematureness of which attracted ‘scathing’ criticism from the Audit Office in February 2017. There is a veil of secrecy around its ‘merits’ and vociferous opposition from inner Sydney communities.
The inquiry was established by the NSW upper house in June 2018. Chaired by the Hon. Fred Nile of the Christian Democratic Party, other members were from the Coalition Government (three), Labor Party (two) and the Greens (one). The inquiry set its terms of reference. Five hundred and sixty-eight submissions were received, public hearings were held, transcripts etc. were published. Its report, released on 19 December 2018, was represented as both supporting and opposing the project!
The report made 16 findings and 27 recommendations. The first: there should be a public inquiry into each major infrastructure project before construction starts. It damned the process behind WestConnex, the failure to consider options, a lack of transparency under a veil of ‘commercial confidentiality’ and the poor treatment of citizens severely affected by the project. Yet it recommended WestConnex proceed. The reasons: an assumption a motorway is needed; the fact it is being built. Four Committee members dissented. While dissents took opposing views, the report’s findings were largely unchallenged. Only one challenged the inquiry’s value.
The report was more confident on straightforward matters where there was direct evidence – e.g. local residents disadvantaged by construction; the WestConnex process omitting critical steps. It considered matters including health effects, traffic and tolls. It supported the program’s finance model, although the basis of its endorsement is unclear – the report says the NSW Government’s financial contribution is unknown!
However, in dealing with these matters it missed the two central questions: (1) The transport effect of WestConnex; and (2) Why ‘independent’ experts disagree on pivotal matters.
To the extent WestConnex is ‘successful’ it will attract traffic into – through – Sydney’s CBD. This includes new car trips and – worse – diversion of trips from suburban routes into central areas. One implication: more motorways will be ‘needed’ to re-divert traffic just diverted into the city area. Re-diversion appears to be the ‘strategic’ purpose of the mooted northern beaches link and the F6 to the south towards Wollongong. Construction costs of these roads is estimated at least $32bn. This is so perverse as to imply real motivations for WestConnex are not transport or urban renewal. More likely: road building for its own sake.
Together with non-disclosure of business case details, hyper-sensitivity to criticism and deletions from the program to avoid perceptions of endless cost overruns, the picture is Government beatification of motorways rather than fixing Parramatta Road. The inquiry should have considered whether cancelling WestConnex would be more effective and cheaper than incurring such sums and other road costs.
The report observed, but did not resolve, conflicts among officials and, more importantly, the opposing views of ‘independent experts’: Infrastructure Australia and SGS Economics. The former supported the program, the latter did not.
It is unsatisfactory for the report to leave such a fundamental conflict unresolved. The job of a public inquiry is to determine such questions.
Given SGS’s challenge it was also a mistake for the inquiry to accept WestConnex as worthwhile without strong evidence – the ‘business case’ is not public and was not apparently subpoenaed. The inquiry should not have assumed any new motorway is needed, and it should have discounted unsubstantiated NSW Government – proponent – claims about project merit and ‘commercial confidentiality’.
Infrastructure Australia’s slim positive assessment should have been ignored. For one thing, as raised in Pearls and Irritations in 2017, Infrastructure Australia wrongly assumed the link to Botany and Sydney Airport was in the program. For another its assessments are not properly independent – criteria are inadequate with undue reliance on proponents for information. Also, as made clear by the NSW Auditor General, alternatives to WestConnex were not considered. The inquiry should have refrained from any support of WestConnex unless and until proponents provided compelling evidence and rebutted the views of e.g. SGS.
The WestConnex public inquiry is beneficial in bringing significant matters – and failures – to public attention. The electorate is now in a somewhat better position to pass judgement. However, the report missed the essence of WestConnex – a ‘need’ to build more motorways in Sydney to mitigate the mess about to happen. Given this, unresolved conflicts among experts and continuing Government opacity, its recommendation that the program proceed is mistaken. The recommendation is likely to reinforce behaviour criticised in the report.
Future public inquiries should only recommend projects whose merit is publicly proven rather than merely asserted behind a commercial-in-confidence smokescreen. The default position should be ‘not recommended’. Such inquiries are important. However, they need to be tougher and have stronger support – like Mr Christie’s 2010 inquiry into Sydney public transport plans.
John Austen is a happily-retired Sydney western suburbs dweller. More details will be at his website The Jade Beagle