From: Josh Gordon, State Political Reporter for The Age, August 5th 2013
Planning Minister Matthew Guy is set to gain powers to silence debate over the east-west road at public meetings as the state government ramps up efforts to lock in the controversial project before the 2014 state election.
The Napthine government says the new laws – likely to be introduced to Parliament this month – are needed to cut ”procedural delays and red tape” for the east-west link and other transport projects, with Transport Minister Terry Mulder declaring ”the quicker they are delivered, the quicker Victorians and Victorian businesses will see the benefits”.
But the changes, outlined in a Department of Transport briefing document obtained by The Age, could prove controversial.
Although the state government is obliged to consult, for the first time the Planning Minister will gain legal powers to ”confine the matters under consideration” at public hearings. The change has raised the possibility that debate on aspects of the project could be shut down if it does not comply with the government’s agenda.
The government will also introduce what it calls a ”risk-based” assessment regime, where community issues deemed to be ”marginal” or of ”little consequence” will not be examined before proceeding.
”A risk-based approach looks at the likelihood and consequence of different outcomes,” the briefing says. ”The shift to a more risk-based assessment enables a more proportionate approach to project assessment.”
The process for determining which risks will be examined remains unclear. A preliminary statement suggested ground vibrations from construction machinery, reduced air quality, ground water contamination and traffic disruptions were among the possible side-effects of the project.
In a statement tabled in Parliament by Mr Mulder in June, the government acknowledged the new laws could limit ”the degree of involvement during a public hearing”. But Mr Mulder said it did not believe this would threaten Victoria’s charter of human rights, because members of the public were not restricted from making written submissions.
”In my opinion the limitation is justifiable on the basis that the limitation reflects the purpose of the bill to reduce procedural delay and cut red tape,” he said.
Opposition planning spokesman Brian Tee accused the Coalition of trying to gag debate. ”They don’t want to have a debate on the merits of the project because it is a dog,” Mr Tee said. ”They are dressing this up as getting rid of red tape but what they are actually doing is getting rid of people’s ability to have a voice.”
The government, which is planing to acquire dozens of homes and businesses, has promised to treat those affected with dignity and respect. It has also confirmed it will look to finalise contracts to build the $6 billion to $8 billion road just weeks before the November 2014 state election.
The state opposition, which is now opposed to the road link, is demanding the contract signing be delayed until after the election.
Mr Mulder’s office declined to comment about the legal changes.