Australia: Socialist Party playing key role in fight against East-West tunnel

Campaign brings public transport to forefront of political debate

Since September 2013 the Socialist Party (CWI Australia) has been playing a leading role in a major campaign of daily community pickets against one of the most expensive infrastructure projects in Australian history.

The East-West Link is the right-wing Liberal Party Victorian State governments’ headline project: a toll road tunnel that connects Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs to the Port of Melbourne in the west. At a projected cost of $14 billion it is one of the largest road infrastructure projects in the world.

The tunnel would demolish homes and destroy parks in Melbourne’s inner north. Despite claims to the contrary it will worsen the traffic gridlock as over 80% of cars do not travel ‘east to west’. Leaked modeling shows most traffic will exit the roadway before entering the tolled tunnel, precisely into the area the government has promised to reduce traffic.

Most importantly the road project will divert resources at the expense of more important public transport projects. As the fastest growing city in Australia, Melbourne needs a massively expanded public transport system – currently there is no rail link to either of the city’s airports!

The motive behind the tunnel is to offer a faster freight route to the Port of Melbourne for business in the Eastern suburbs. The government also arrogantly believed it could pass off the project as a solution to commuter traffic gridlock and shore up votes in the Eastern suburbs.

The government’s original plan was to finish test drilling, sign the construction contracts by September, and begin construction in October – one month before the November 2014 election.

The campaign of daily pickets has seriously disrupted the very tight schedule. The government had originally hoped to finish test drilling in November 2013. The schedule to finish drilling was later extended to April 2014.

The campaign strategy has been to slow down the project so it becomes a focus of the November State election, rather than construction commencing before then. There is also scope to pressure the Labor Party opposition to change their position regarding the road tunnel. Labor currently opposes the project but says a Labor government would build the toll road tunnel if contracts had been signed before the election.

Press attack Socialist Party (CWI) activist Anthony Main

Campaign to scrap the project

The Socialist Party, alongside others involved in the campaign against the East-West Link, are demanding any contracts signed between the current government and either of the bidders (two of whom have records as corporate criminals) be torn up and the project scrapped. Transport policy needs to instead be focused on improving and expanding public transport.

On March 3 the campaign won an important victory when test drilling for the project was prematurely called off. This was despite the government having at least nine more scheduled bore holes to drill.

The daily pickets at these drill sites led to massive media coverage and two disastrous polls for the government. One estimated that a mere 24% of people saw the East-West Link as a priority while another (in the pro-tunnel Murdoch-owned Herald Sun) estimated that only 15% of people support the tunnel. As The Age newspaper dryly put it: “the government’s signature infrastructure project, the east-west link, may not be producing the political gains first hoped”.

After more than six months of almost daily community pickets, the government finally realised that keeping the project in the public spotlight was only highlighting the disastrous nature of the East-West Link.

The most important lesson from this significant government back-down is that collective direct action works. If we stick together and build this campaign even further we can stop not just the preliminary works but the entire project!

For several months prior to the cancelling of preliminary drilling, dozens of Socialist Party members, local residents and public transport advocates have been on the pickets starting at 5.30am – and often much earlier. These were not simply protests but industrial-style pickets, physically stopping test drilling to slow down the project.

The non-unionised contractors were protected by up to 150 police a day at a total cost of at least $4 million over the course of the last few months. Despite the huge police operation (named “Operation Burrow”), and the tabling of a new anti-democratic ‘move-on’ laws, the community presence on the picket continued to grow.

These pickets also led to almost daily media coverage, allowing the campaign space to counter the government lies on TV, radio and in newspapers. The Socialist Party received countless messages of support from all across Australia in response to the community pickets and our comments in the press.

Press highlight Socialist Party role in campaign

Reviving class struggle traditions

The reason for this widespread support – aside from the East-West Link being so unpopular and road-dependency being a huge problem across Australia – was party due to the campaign reviving the traditions of class struggle after a 25 year period of economic growth and low levels of industrial action. Many of the people involved in the campaign had never been on a picket before.

The State government and the Murdoch-media have a mortal fear of this type of militant action and they attempted to crush the movement in a number of ways. Most obviously this was through the massive police presence and the new laws but this has been complemented by a massive propaganda campaign, particularly from the Murdoch press and Liberal politicians.

The ex-Speaker of the Victorian State Parliament made an extraordinary attack on us in Parliament, calling us “pinkos” and “commos” and looking forward to the day when Socialist Party member and picket leader Anthony Main “gets dragged up by the coppers”.

More seriously was the concerted campaign by Murdoch’s Herald Sun, the most read newspaper in Australia, with 1.3 million readers daily. An editorial informed its readers “the Socialist Party – which is a key driver of this movement – is an anti-capitalist party” and that the “Victorian Police must use (the powers in the new legislation) to full effect”. The same paper has had two front page articles attacking the campaign and several Socialist Party members.

The campaign and the Socialist Party have been catapulted into public consciousness throughout the State and there is now massive latent support for the campaign. We have also been successful in bringing the question of public investment into public transport into the forefront of political debate.

The tunnel has been controversial since it was first proposed under a Labor government in 2007 and because of the campaign public support for the project continues to decline. The current Liberal government is unpopular in the polls, in part due to the East-West Link. Prior to the last election the Liberal Party claimed its transport priorities were a rail line to the Melbourne Airport and a rail line to the eastern suburb of Doncaster, not the East-West Link. Neither of those rail projects has progressed, while the East-West Link is being fast-tracked.

With an election looming, the struggling government needs to be seen to be addressing the jobs crisis created by the collapse of the manufacturing sector. However, the government’s headline infrastructure project – the East-West Link – will do almost nothing to address unemployment. The jobs that would be created by the project would be short-term construction jobs, not the kind of permanent skilled jobs being lost in manufacturing.

The solution is simple. Scrapping the monumental waste that is the East-West Link and investing instead in public transport would not only help soothe Melbourne’s traffic congestion woes but could also revitalise the state’s manufacturing industry.

A clear transport plan to provide all of Melbourne’s suburbs – as well as regional Victoria – with integrated, efficient 24-hour public transport would see tens of thousands of jobs created in Victoria’s flailing manufacturing sector. As the car manufacturers abandon Australia, their discarded factories and workforces should be retooled and retrained to manufacture trains, trams and buses.

A publicly owned and controlled revival of the manufacturing sector could not only ensure Victoria has the public transport infrastructure it needs for decades to come, but offer the only a real solution to the jobs crisis.

More bitter press attacks on Anthony Main

Slavish commitment to big business

However, this obvious solution is directly counter to the interests of the road and oil lobby, and the neo-liberal ideology of those who do their bidding in government. The true bankruptcy of capitalism is on full display here, where the government has failed to release the business case for the project because it shows a net loss – the projected cost of the projected is far greater that the projected benefit.

The government has used inflated traffic figures to try to justify the road, though this has not fooled the private interests bidding for the project. They have demanded a number of contract clauses in the ¬so-called “availability” Public Private Partnership (PPP). This includes all commercial risk being placed at the feet of taxpayers and reimbursement of the costs associated with bidding for the contact even if their bid fails! This further demonstrates how much of a public rort for private gain this project really is.

For decades both major parties have wasted billions investing in roads, at the expense of public transport, because of their slavish commitment to big business and market capitalism. The fact that both the Liberal Party and the Labor opposition are willing to waste public money on a road project that will cost taxpayers more than it will return in benefits highlights the lunacy of private interests dictating public policy.

In this context, the significance of the community campaign against the tunnel is huge. We have pointed to the profit motives behind major road projects and brought the question of public investment into public transport to the forefront of political discussion. Pressure is mounting on Labor to commit to ripping up the contracts if they are signed before the election. We have a real chance of derailing the destructive toll road tunnel.

Now that we are freed from the daily grind of early morning pickets, we can take the campaign out to other parts of the State building even more active support. We can also step up pressure on the contractors bidding for the project and on the Labor Party to scrap the contracts if they win power in November.

The long term challenge is that none of the major parties want to take on a programme of serious public investment into the manufacture and construction of public transport. Only the mass mobilisation of people will force change. We need to build a new force in politics: a new workers’ party that unashamedly puts the needs of ordinary people before those of big business. Ultimately only a socialist programme of massive public investment and democratic planning can wash away the wasteful fouls of capitalism and create a sustainable world where decisions are made of the basis of human need, not private profit.

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March 2014