Opponents of the WestConnex motorway in Sydney have called for the project to be halted following a scathing report into its funding by the national auditor.
Federal shadow transport minister Anthony Albanese said the report confirmed the Coalition misled the public and high profile journalist and activist Wendy Bacon, who has been arrested over protest action against WestConnex along with scores of other protesters, said opposition was growing.
The audit by the Australian National Audit Office found federal funding of WestConnex was not justified and put taxpayers’ money at risk.
The audit into the $3.5 billion provided by the federal government – a $1.5 billion grant and a $2 billion concessional loan – looked at whether the government had taken appropriate steps to protect its interests and obtain value for money for taxpayers.
This had not occurred, with funding committed to the project before it had gone through established processes to establish merit – against departmental advice.
Grant funding was also provided in advance of needs. The audit provided evidence that milestones for grant payments were altered or agreed to after the respective events had occurred so that payments were not delayed.
The concessional loan, provided to fast-track the project by two years, was also found to have been unnecessary, and only led to a six-month improvement. The rate of interest on the loan was set well below market rates, and failed to factor in the government’s administration costs or risks.
Federal shadow transport minister Anthony Albanese said the report confirmed the Coalition misled the public when it promised not to invest in major projects without proper cost-benefit analyses
“It is clear that when it comes to infrastructure, this government was prepared to spend billions of dollars of public money towards toll roads with no evidence as to whether they represented value for money,” Mr Albanese said.
Greens spokesperson on WestConnex Jenny Leong said both federal Labor and Coalition governments had promised to “throw money at the project” before a clear business case was established.
“It is high time that the NSW Premier stepped in and put a halt to this project to ensure there is adequate oversight,” she said.
Community groups vow to continue fight
The release of the audit has emboldened the community WestConnex Action Group, many of whose members have had homes compulsorily acquired for the project.
Its spokesperson Pauline Lockie said it was a vindication of what groups like hers had been saying for years, “only to be mocked or ignored or outright attacked by MPs at both state or federal level.”
“How many red flags are going to have to be placed around WestConnex before Premier Berejiklian learns from Mike Baird’s mistakes, does the right thing and stops this tollway before any more damage is done?” she said.
“What our group is calling for is Premier Berejiklian to put a halt to WestConnex before any more communities are destroyed, before any more money is risked and before Western Sydney commuters are forking out hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in tolls.”
Though despite what seems like a constant stream of negative press regarding WestConnex’s changing plans, governance, transparency, acquisition strategies and cost blowouts, the project continues to steam ahead, and was recently provided its own minister in Stuart Ayres.
Journalist and WestConnex Action Group member Wendy Bacon, one of the most high-profile opponents to the project, told The Fifth Estate she was determined to continue to protest the project.
“The activism is justified; it’s justified to raise public awareness of the lack of independent oversight of planning and use of public funds,” she said.
Ms Bacon said she hoped the project could be slowed down and the government forced to do a rethink, but that activism was also important in discouraging more poorly planned and designed projects from going ahead.
“We need to stop planning and projects of this kind. If we were to stop campaigning we would get more of this.”
She said opposition to the project was growing, with the community concerned about the cost to taxpayers, decades of tolls for Western Sydney residents, destruction of heritage areas, and the suitability of the project as an urban mobility strategy.
“Once all those messages come together I think opposition will grow.”