Australia: The looming battle over roads

Big business greed vs. community need

In the past weeks we have seen numerous community pickets in Melbourne targeting the East-West tunnel and toll road (see our article here). The Socialist Party (CWI in Australia) has been playing a key role in these actions.

Below we publish an editorial comment about the issue that will be published in the upcoming edition of ‘The Socialist’, the Socialist Party magazine.

Since coming to power in September the Abbott government has made clear that a core part of its economic program is investment in road infrastructure. The Liberals mantra of “building roads for the 21st century” has been matched with an $11.5 billion roads program over the next four years.

Despite public transport usage increasing by about 65% over the past decade, Abbott has not pledged even a single dollar to urban rail extensions or upgrades. Given that recent freeway projects like the Lane Cove and Cross City tunnels have gone broke, many people are rightly sceptical about the benefits of investing in roads over public transport.

The truth is that the Liberals see themselves as the prime political representatives of the oil and road lobbies and the big transport and civil construction firms. They see investment in roads as a way to boost the profits of their financial backers as the mining sector slows.

Key projects they want to fast track include WestConnex in Sydney, Gateway in Brisbane, the Bruce Highway in Queensland, the Pacific Highway in NSW and the East-West Link in Melbourne. The East-West Link in Melbourne has proven to be one of the most controversial.

All credible planning experts have questions about the merits of the East-West Link. Adding to people’s concerns is the fact that upwards of $8 billion will be spent on the project without making the business case public. Given this tunnel would suck funds away from more socially useful projects many Victorians are angrily opposed.

To add insult to injury hundreds of properties are set to be compulsorily acquired and there is a raft of other social and environmental concerns. In order to stifle opposition to the project new laws have been introduced reducing the need for community consultation and increasing the penalties for those who protest against the plans.

Despite this residents in inner-city Melbourne have shown that they are not going to be bullied out of fighting for the interests of their communities. A campaign of flying community pickets was launched in late September targeting geotechnical test drilling sites along the proposed East-West tunnel route. In recent days companies that are part of the bidding process have also been targeted.

These pickets were prepared for over time by an initiative by the Socialist Party called the ‘Pledge’. Our members in Melbourne spent months waging an argument for the community to engage in direct action against any works. Opponents of the tunnel were encouraged to sign the Pledge, which states:

I pledge that I will not allow the state government to construct the proposed East-West road tunnel. I, along with other community members, will engage in peaceful but determined direct action – including community pickets – to ensure this unpopular, costly and environmentally devastating toll road and tunnel is never built. Instead of toll roads governments should be investing in improved and expanded public transport.

So far over 1,000 people have signed the Pledge.

This work of preparing those involved in the campaign against the tunnel, along with the broader community, for an escalation in tactics has been rewarded with widespread support for the community pickets.

The pickets managed to hold up work on the project for a number of days in late September and early October. In the end the government gave up on drilling the last four holes in order to try and take the heat out of the campaign of opposition. This was a modest victory but shows that when people come together and mobilise against big business greed we can have an effect.

As we go to press community picketers have targeted the construction giant John Holland – a firm that is wholly owned by Leighton Holdings. Leighton Holdings are one of the governments preferred contractors despite being embroiled in a widespread corruption scandal.

Working hand in glove with the Liberals and the Victoria Police the Murdoch press has attempted to smear the Socialist Party and our National Organiser Anthony Main by running a front page article and two editorials in the Herald Sun labelling Anthony a ‘professional protester’ and ‘serial pest’.

The Socialist Party takes these sorts of attacks from the corporate press as a badge of honour. It shows that we are having an effect. We understand that campaigns against big business road projects strike at the heart of Liberal Party policy. We will continue to fight for infrastructure projects that prioritise people’s needs and not profits.

Far from being deterred we plan to put even more focus on the campaign against the East-West tunnel over the coming months. Our aim is to stop this disastrous project in its tracks. We urge all those serious about beating back the Liberal Party agenda to join us in this task.

-See on this link the article by the ’Herald Sun’, in which Socialist Party member Anthony Main is being described as a "serial pest protester".

-Watch also below a video of a speech by Stephen Jolly, Socialist Party member and councillor for the City of Yarra, at a protest rally on 13 October.

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October 2013