North East Link Bill 2020 Second Reading

19 Mar 2020

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I rise to speak on behalf of the Greens to the North East Link Bill 2020. This bill will establish the North East Link tolling corporation, provide for the imposition, collection and enforcement of tolls and provide for the tabling and amendment of the North East Link tolling agreement. It will also make several consequential amendments to the Road Management Act 2004 and other acts.

It is important to go into why this bill has been brought before this house—why the government is setting up a publicly owned tolling company to run tolls on the North East Link. It is not because the government has suddenly seen the light and decided that publicly owned tolling companies is the new way of business and the new way that they are going to do things and that is in the best interests of the state. It is not because they have seen the light and said, ‘Well, we’ve done the sweetheart deal with Transurban on the West Gate Tunnel—that was the wrong approach; we’re going to take a different approach here’. It is not because they have turned the corner on their privatisation agenda—the biggest sell-off of state assets since Jeff Kennett. You have just got to look at the port of Melbourne, roads, land, public housing, the land titles office. VicRoads is now on the chopping block. Even Federation Square they tried to privatise. It is not because they have turned the page on privatisation; it is because the private sector do not want to touch the tolling rights of this road. They do not want to take the financial risk on the inevitable—and it always is—shortfall in tolling revenue, in traffic projections, in the supposed benefits that are being spruiked by the government. The private sector do not believe it. They do not want to touch it. They do not want to take the risk, and that should signal warning bells to everybody else.

So instead the government’s approach is that they want the taxpayer—they want the public—to bear the financial risk when these overinflated numbers do not materialise, and then after a couple of years, once they know how many people are actually using the road, they will just sell off the tolling rights. That is what they want to do. What we will end up seeing is higher tolls going towards private profit. The minister stated in the second-reading speech that:

Establishing the State Tolling Corporation as a Government entity will build the State’s capability and capacity in relation to the operation and management of toll roads.

I mean, what nonsense, as was pointed out by previous speakers. They are going to be using the tolling technology used on other roads—this is nonsense. This is not about what is in the public interest. It is not about value for money. It is not about a new approach in how the state government is going to finance these big projects. It is an absolute act of desperation. The government wants to get a bad project up, no matter what the cost to the Victorian people, and then continue on their privatisation agenda by selling off the tolling rights, resulting in increased tolls for profits. We know this is the case because as was reported in the Age in 2019, the government shopped the tolling rights around and found there was, quote, unquote, ‘little appetite’ in the private sector to take on the risks of a toll road that is underperforming. I have got to say I found those words really apt—quite amusing, actually—because it did paint a scene. It painted a real history of what has actually been happening in this state.

After decades and decades of governments of various colours serving up an absolute feast—an absolute Christmas feast—stuffing millions of dollars of public money into the profit-hungry roads lobby, this government, the Treasurer and the Premier, have served up their biggest creation yet. This is the big one. This is like the duck stuffed in the turkey. It is one of those big mediaeval banquet creations that they have come out and served up to the road lobby—and they have turned their noses up at it. They do not want it. It is chopped liver. It is incredible. And this should ring absolute warning bells to the public that the government, after years of feeding this profit-hungry industry with sweetheart deals, with public-private partnerships, have suddenly served this one up—and it does not want a bar of it. They do not want to go near it. They do not want to take the financial risk of these so-called benefits that the government are spruiking. In an article published in 2018 in the Age:

The government plans to eventually sell the tolling rights on the North East Link, with the tender document stating that this could happen in 2030, three years after the road opens.

It is in the tender documents. So we have got the worst of both worlds. The public takes the risk, wears the loss, before we then sell it off to the private sector so they can make a profit. That is why under standing orders I wish to advise the house of amendments to this bill and request that they be circulated.

Greens amendments circulated by Mr HIBBINS under standing orders.

Mr HIBBINS: These amendments essentially will see what the government’s plans are for privatisation of the tolling rights. These amendments will essentially require approval through resolution of both houses of Parliament for the sale and disposal of the main undertakings of the North East Link State Tolling Corporation. This will be a test. Granted, I doubt we are going to get to a third reading on this bill in this house, as is the case 99 per cent of the time, but what we are seeking to do is prevent the government from having the taxpayer bear the losses and then the private sector reap the benefits. That is not the approach, and that is why we will be moving these amendments, and we will be moving them in the upper house as well.

What should also be a warning on this project is that the private sector increasingly do not want to build it. They have now got the Treasurer saying he will go it alone. Again this is not because the government has changed its tune and believes the government is best placed to build major infrastructure. It is because there are too many financial risks for the private sector. The question also remains: why are we debating this bill now? The road is not going to be completed until 2027. Are they going to continue to shop around the tolling rights once this legislation is passed? We have also got a Supreme Court challenge by four councils into the environment effects statement process, because only a reference design—a concept of the road, not the actual detailed design of the road—was submitted to the environment effects process.

The government is pushing ahead despite this case and despite the exact opposite approach that the then Labor opposition took when Moreland and Yarra councils had a Supreme Court challenge in 2014 against the east–west link, when Labor then argued that a contract cannot be validly entered into while the issue is before the Supreme Court. Their advice stated at that time that if a court found that the approval of the project by the government was invalid there is no power to enter into contracts for the project and any contracts entered into were beyond power and unenforceable.

So we have a road subject to a Supreme Court case. We do not actually know what the final road will look like. It is clear that the private sector do not trust the traffic modelling and the benefits spruiked by the government and do not want to accept any no doubt generous deal that the government has put on the table. Increasingly they do not want to take the risk in building it, and the reality is we should not be proceeding with this bill at all.

Beyond this bill—if you do believe what they are saying—this is a bad project. This is a bad project that should not be built. The private sector know that, because they do not trust the benefits being spruiked, and even if you did trust it, it still means 100 000 more cars on the road; hectares of open space, green space, endangered species habitat, tens of thousands of trees destroyed; a massive widening of the Eastern Freeway to 20 lanes—and all at the cost of $16 billion. This is at a time of a climate crisis and a species extinction crisis, and at a time when the government is cutting billions from the public sector, when our existing public transport system is unreliable, is overcrowded.

The North East Link is environmental and economic vandalism, and you also cannot argue that there is not an opportunity cost here of sinking $16 billion into yet another mega road project. Just think of what else could be done with $16 billion, what other uses it could go towards that could benefit this state. Could it go directly into public transport projects and making sure that we have got a world-class public transport system here in Victoria? Could it go to building new, big, publicly owned renewable energy so we can get to 100 per cent renewable energy? Could it go towards a big build of public housing to end homelessness and make sure we have got homes for all? There is a massive opportunity cost in proceeding with this road, and there are far more beneficial things that those funds could go towards.

Previous members have spoken about the environment effects statement (EES) and that process. Really that whole process, as many residents from the area who have engaged in that process have reached out to me and said, was a sham. It just goes to absolutely highlight, number one, that the environment effects statement process in this state is a rubber stamp. Over the last decade or so we have had parliamentary inquiries and Auditor-General’s reports all recommend a strengthening of the environment effects statement, and it is now very clear why the government has never actually acted to strengthen that process.

What we have had is the independent advisory panel finding that the North East Link in its current form—and of course this was just a reference design—poses unacceptable ecological risks and disastrous impacts for local communities. These include increased local traffic, job losses, noise, poor amenity and environmental impacts. They are among many of the issues raised by submitters. The independent panel found that the project had not taken sufficient measures to avoid and minimise the ecological impacts of the project, that there would be significant and unacceptable effects on endangered species such as the Studley Park gum and that the measures proposed are not demonstrated to be effective and do not represent an offset for these species.

The panel proposed five key recommendations that were rejected by the planning minister: to extend the bored tunnel option northwards to the vicinity of Grimshaw Street; to review of the need for the Lower Plenty Road interchange, to significantly reduce ecological impacts on Banyule Creek; to significantly reduce social noise, air quality, business, landscape and visual impacts on the community along Greensborough Road and the Watsonia neighbourhood activity centre; to exclude Borlase Reserve as a tunnel-boring machine launch and retrieval site; and to designate the Simpson Barracks as a no-go zone due to potential environmental impacts and further suggestions for future planning.

Even when you had this whole process going on that identified the massive environmental damage that this project would do, and recommendations put forward, it did not stop the project, which of course we have never actually seen from an EES process, which just shows how flawed it is. But even when there were suggestions to improve it the government said, ‘No, costs too much, it’d take too long’. What it shows is this government is determined to ram through this road no matter what the impacts on our environment and threatened species are. We have got the concreting of waterways, the loss of 52 hectares of native vegetation, 25 000 trees, the impacts on threatened flora and fauna.

I do want to go through some of those flora and fauna because these are important. We have got the matted flax lily. It is a threatened species, and you are going to have one-third of the population at the Simpson Barracks removed. At the Simpson Barracks is one of the largest known Victorian populations of the species. They have found that the negative impact of the proposed construction on the matted flax lily will be critical. The only commitment provided is that the North East Link Project will only retain the vegetation to the extent that it does not interfere with the delivery of the North East Link. That is simply not acceptable.

You have got the Studley Park gum, which is proposed to be translocated—98 Studley Park gums. But it has been unsuccessful, and this has been found not to be a suitable approach for these trees. You have got the destruction of a 300-year-old river red gum in Bulleen that predates colonisation. I mean, you cannot ignore the massive environmental and ecological vandalism that this project poses, yet all we have heard from government members is absolute greenwash, just singing from the hymn sheet. They actually went through an environment effects statement process and found these issues, and the government has ignored the key recommendations to fix these issues.

It is not just about environmental vandalism; it is economic vandalism. Time and time again we have seen these mega toll roads. The benefits have simply not come to reality. If you just list off enough of these similar projects, you see that the Clem7 tunnel in Brisbane had half the traffic going through it of what was projected; the airport link tunnel in Brisbane, one-quarter; the Cross City Tunnel in Sydney, two-thirds; and EastLink here in Melbourne, one-third lower.

The government has made some really big claims about economic benefits, travel-time savings and positive benefit-to-cost ratios. But we know from the evidence, from all this roadbuilding that has gone on in the last half a century, that any travel-time benefits are short lived, with even worse congestion occurring in the future. The fact is that we have never gone—in the absence of a proper cost-benefit analysis—to see whether other public transport options could actually achieve some of the same objectives that the government is claiming will occur because of this project. We are just going to be now stuck with a future of massively expensive, congested roads while what should be a world-class public transport system crumbles.

This road has gone from $7 billion in 2016 to $10 billion within 18 months, and then to $16.5 billion, and this is just on a reference design. As has been found by the Auditor-General, looking at the Level Crossing Removal Project, when it is just a reference design, that is a recipe for costs going even further. Now we are hearing, it is apparent, that 22 per cent of the project’s costs will be recovered because of tolling revenue. Now it is going to be the taxpayer that is going to be up for, exposed to, any variability in that occurring. It is going to be the public that is going to be forced to pay the costs of the failed traffic revenue projections, so it is unsurprising that the private sector are not wanting to touch this, and this should be a warning sign for everyone else.

This mega toll road project—and that is government’s own quote—has come out of essentially a state that does not have, despite its own legislation, a long-term integrated transport plan. That is despite that being in the Transport Integration Act 2010 that Labor passed in 2010. Coming out of one of the recommendations of the independent planning panel was that the Department of Transport should develop a Victorian transport plan as required under section 63 of the Transport Integration Act to provide an effective framework for consideration of future major transport projects. All the advice from the independent panel, from experts, is telling us this state needs a transport plan, but this government just wants to make it up as they go along, and it will be the public now through the passage of this bill that are going to bear the financial risks of that. This is a massive opportunity cost for what we could have—a world-class public transport system here in Melbourne. The Greens oppose this bill, and we urge this government to cancel this project.

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