On Thursday 1 December, Premier Mike Baird finally met with members of community groups campaigning against the WestCONnex tollway, along with Greens MPs Jenny Leong (Newtown) and Jamie Parker (Balmain).
The meeting followed a peaceful demonstration in NSW Parliament in the final sitting week, and was the result of a question Jenny asked the Premier the next day.
Baird said he would meet with "one or two" community members, so Pauline Lockie of WestCONnex Action Group and Adrienne Shilling of No WestConnex: Public Transport attended as representatives of their groups and the wider communities affected by WestCONnex.
(L-R) Jenny Leong, Adrienne Shilling, Jamie Parker, Pauline Lockie
Baird was joined by Maryanne Graham, Director Communications & Stakeholder Engagement at the Sydney Motorway Corporation (SMC); an adviser from Duncan Gay's office; and an adviser from Baird's office.
We went to the meeting with three objectives:
To present Baird with the Open Letter on WestCONnex, and ask him to act on it by halting work on the St Peters Interchange and conducting an urgent review into the project.
To raise concerns with the business case as highlighted by SGS’s independent review, as well as recent revelations from Infrastructure Australia in Senate Estimates that demonstrate a failure to assess WestCONnex based on its full cost.
To raise issues of probity and corruption, based on the major scandals now engulfing major WestCONnex contractors CIMIC (Leightons) and Samsung, and the lack of transparency surrounding the awarding of these contracts.
It made for an interesting 45 minutes (we were originally allocated 30). Here’s a summary of the main points we covered and some key points in the discussion, as well as what’s happening next.
Baird now has a copy of the Open Letter
Following Leong’s overview of the community’s concerns about the impacts of WestConnex, Shilling presented several real-life examples of people who have been directly affected by WestCONnex in Haberfield and Ashfield. She covered issues that families are experiencing during construction now - including sleeplessness due to intrusive, disruptive nightworks and health impacts - as well as major disruption that's expected when the M4 East becomes operational.
Baird listened politely before attempting to interject by offering to intervene in individual cases with a view to seeing what could be done, such as temporarily relocating families during works. Shilling pointed out that as distressing as individual situations are, her point wasn't to seek relief for one or two families, but to convey the devastating impacts WestCONnex is having on the whole community, which she described as looking like a "war zone".
We then gave the Premier a printed copy of the Open Letter, and advised him it had attracted almost 2,000 signatures in less than 30 hours, as well cross-partisan support and endorsement from business and environmental groups.
Baird read the letter carefully as Lockie summarised why the removal of the Camperdown exit and the imminent destruction planned in St Peters meant now was the time for him to step in as Premier to halt works on the interchange, and urged him to conduct a full review based on serious concerns about WestCONnex’s lack of transparency and proper processes.
Parker explained that the significant changes made to the Rozelle interchange would also have implications for St Peters.
Leong made the point that, given the Sydney Gateway plans are still being finalised, there was every possibility that a better and less destructive design for the St Peters Interchange could be developed as part of those plans - so it was even more critical for him to call the halt now, before parts of Sydney Park and the surrounding community are destroyed, and the people forcibly evicted from their homes and businesses lose any chance to buy back their properties as Baird promised.
When pressed for when the Sydney Gateway plans would be released, Graham said these would be made public by the end of June 2017.
Baird was genuinely listening, and said he would respond to the Open Letter. Leong's office will be following up in the week commencing 5 December 2016, and will request he give this his urgent attention. We'll update this page when we receive a response.
As an interesting aside - when we gave Baird the Open Letter, his first reaction was to ask if he would see this in the media. So WestCONnex’s growing negative coverage certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed.
They don’t understand why people don’t like the St Peters Interchange "park"
Baird, Maryanne Graham and Gay's adviser spent a lot of time trying to sell us on the idea that the St Peters Interchange won't be that obtrusive, and the park beside it will be great for the community.
Parts of this exchange were quite surreal. At one point, Graham insisted that the public had the wrong idea about how big the interchange would be, because the pictures released had been "misleading". Do you mean the pictures released by the SMC? we asked. Yes, she confirmed.
The problem, she insisted, was that they’d been taken from below, and from the wrong angle, which made the interchange look bigger than it is. She even mimed the action to prove the point.
When Leong questioned this by pointing out that the images were artist's impressions and still on the WestCONnex website, Graham didn’t explain why the SMC had commissioned images from the wrong angle, or why it’s still using them in its promotional material.
Misleading...? From the latest New M5 video uploaded by WestCONnex to its Facebook page, 2 December 2016. Source
The issue of Sydney Park came up several times. No one on Baird’s side of the table could accept that anything beyond a negligible amount of parkland would be lost; he personally stated that the loss was only 1,500m2, and we were gaining a huge amount of new green space in return.
When we asked if this green space was the parkland under the flyovers and next to the stacks of the St Peters interchange, Baird said they wouldn't be under them, while Graham insisted this was no different to Bradfield Park at Milsons Point. (Except that Bradfield Park has a few other selling points, such as its harbourside position and iconic views. It’s also set around one major road, as opposed to many.)
Both Baird and Graham also insisted that the interchange would be "below ground" in most cases. This doesn’t mean it will be underground; simply that in some parts, the interchange will be lower than the streets surrounding it.
Lockie made the point that it’s not going to feel very below ground to anyone who lives in the area.
It's a good thing this is "below ground". Otherwise it'd be monstrous. Source
They also think that a land bridge they’re planning to build between this new park and Sydney Park is a big selling point, and brought it up specifically.
Baird and Gay's adviser also made the point, repeatedly, that the interchange site was "a dump" and they’d cleaned up the asbestos there (we didn’t get time to raise that there are also serious issues with this). This got to the point where Leong had to remind them that everyone would agree that replacing a toxic dump with green space was good - but it's the equally toxic interchange they want to build with the park, and the destruction involved, that is unacceptable.
None of this really explained why Baird and the SMC redesigned WestCONnex’s planned interchange at Rozelle to take much of it underground. If spaghetti interchanges aren’t that obtrusive, and parks next to them are so great, why bother doing this?
The government still has an attitude problem with forced acquisitions
This became clear during an exchange Gay's adviser had with Pauline Lockie, in which he said to her that WestCONnex was needed because it would take cars off "your" residential streets.
Lockie was quite taken aback by this, given she’d said earlier that her family’s St Peters home had been forcibly acquired for WestCONnex, and pointed out that she didn’t actually have a residential street thanks to the project.
His response to her was very personal, and along the lines of: "You bought in a road reservation. It was in your contract. You knew it was going to be claimed at some point…"
Given Baird’s own public statements about needing to show more compassion towards residents affected by compulsory acquisitions, we found it surprising that he allowed this to pass without comment - particularly as Baird himself had reiterated at the start of the meeting that he understood how difficult it is for families to lose their homes.
Gay's adviser later referred repeatedly to the decision to build the St Peters Interchange on the landfill site because it would "avoid" the need for property acquisitions. Not minimise; avoid.
Given this adviser was in the room to represent the Roads Minister in a meeting with the Premier, it makes it hard to believe the Baird government is serious about doing better when it comes to its treatment of residents impacted by forced acquisitions.
We need to keep pushing for answers on WestCONnex’s finances...
Jenny Leong spoke about the issues raised by SGS in its independent report on the WestCONnex business case, particularly in relation to its miscalculated benefit-cost ratio (BCR), and gave Baird a copy.
His response was dismissive - after asking if the report was "Clover’s one" (it was commissioned by the City of Sydney), he said it had lots of inaccuracies. Maryanne Graham said the SMC had raised these with the City via email. At our request, Baird and Graham committed to sending this information to us. (They never sent this information.)
Excerpt from the SGS report highlighting the BCR error. Source
Leong also raised the recent Senate Estimates hearings, in which Senator Janet Rice queried the use of the discounted cost figure of $13.5 billion to calculate the BCR in the business case. Executives from Infrastructure Australia (IA) acknowledged this was not usual practice.
Senator Rice had then raised that if WestCONnex's full cost of $16.8 billion was used, the BCR would be substantially lower - and if so, the business case is misleading. IA is due to provide further information to Senator Rice on this point.
We're not sure if Baird was aware of this; he certainly reacted to it quite visibly. Leong committed to sending him a copy of the Senate Estimates transcript along with other information when her office follows up with him, and we will be asking him to respond directly to this as well.
...and the lack of transparency
As the meeting was drawing to a close, Lockie raised the issue of probity and corruption with Baird, explaining that this was part of the reason we were calling on him to conduct a full review into WestCONnex. She noted the increasing concern among many in the community about this, given that WestCONnex contracts are shrouded in secrecy, and its major contractors - including CIMIC (formerly Leighton) and Samsung - are now embroiled in the Unaoil corruption scandal. CIMIC has also faced multiple allegations of corruption over many years, and is now under investigation by ASIC for a separate matter.
Baird said he wanted to make a point about WestCONnex and transparency, an issue he said had been used politically. He then proceeded to explain why he decided to privatise the SMC, thus making it immune from freedom of information requests, any requirement to disclose its contracts publicly, and more.
In short, he claimed it was to bring private debt on board, and that this wouldn’t have happened if the SMC was subject to the same transparency requirements as any public body. He also said that making the SMC private was necessary as it means his government can borrow while protecting NSW’s AAA credit rating.
We didn’t have time to question this, as these were his closing remarks. But we found them quite surprising.
Knowing a project is government-backed usually makes institutions more inclined to loan, as the state guarantees the debt. Because the NSW government isn't guaranteeing the loans made to SMC, banks and private equity firms are effectively being asked to loan money to a private company with no history, whose only product is an unbuilt tollway that many predict will fail.
The claim that SMC was privatised to protect NSW’s credit rating is also strange. Interest rates are at record lows, and NSW’s debt isn’t high. Borrowing to fund infrastructure shouldn’t create too many issues in this context - unless, of course, the infrastructure is at risk of not being able to repay the debt. In which case, Baird's claim that he needed to privatise the SMC to keep its debt off the state ledger should raise alarm bells, not quiet them.
We also found it interesting that Baird went into detail about the privatisation in response to issues of corruption and probity. This is clearly an area in which we need to keep the pressure on to get real transparency and answers, and we'll continue to do this.
At our request, Baird also said he would provide information about how his government ensures probity in procurement, and this will be raised in the follow-up from Leong's office.
So what's next?
Leong will write to Baird this week to follow up, and will be requesting that he respond within a week. Shilling also left him with a series of questions to answer about WestCONnex on behalf of the wider community, which Leong will also ask him to respond to within the week.
We'll report back again when we hear back from Baird.
And if you haven't already, please sign the Open Letter to Baird, Gay and Stokes.