East West Link should be a vote winner for Government

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Herald Sun: East West Link should be a vote winner for Government. Shaun Carney. 2 July 2014

The East West Link should be a vote winner, writes Shaun Carney.

In early 1996, the Australian economy was growing fast as it roared out of recession.

However, for the Keating government, certain electoral defeat beckoned. Labor was presiding over what came to be known as the voteless recovery.

In Victoria in 2014, the Napthine Government is overseeing a massive suite of public works, the centrepiece being the East West Link — at $6-8 billion — the biggest roads project in the state’s history. Is this a voteless infrastructure program?

On paper, the East West Link really should be a winner with the electorate. That’s not just an intuitive assessment, it keeps showing up in voter research. It’s why there’s a big Liberal Party billboard on the Geelong Rd reminding Melbourne-bound motorists of the Government’s determination to ease traffic congestion by building the tunnel that will link the freeway system.

And last year the Liberals tried to parlay what they concluded was voter approval for the project into extra votes at the federal election by setting up a similar billboard on Alexandra Pde in Fitzroy, probably the state’s greatest traffic sewer.

You don’t have to look too hard at metropolitan Melbourne to work out why a project that promises to reduce traffic bottlenecks should be appealing to hundreds of thousands of Victorians. The East West protesters who have tried to frustrate the exploratory works on the tunnel are determined and are undoubtedly in for the long haul. And they do represent a decent proportion of residents of the inner-northern suburbs where the construction and disruption will take place.

But they’re vastly outnumbered by the ordinary residents of the outer suburbs to the east and southeast, and people from Geelong and the southwestern corridor who regularly need to get from one side of the city to the other.

There are plenty of major social and political fault lines in Melbourne but one of the biggest right now is the outer suburbs’ versus inner suburbs’ attitude to transport. Anyone living beyond the tram network understands buses and trains and even bikes are highly desirable but the reality remains that cars represent our mainstay transport. This is regrettable and if we could only go back and start all over again we could design a city that’s less car-reliant. But we can’t do that.

The anti-East West Link protesters have attached themselves to the Doncaster rail project as the alternative, which shows how far apart the inner-city and outer-suburbs mentalities can get. A railway line to Doncaster would be an expensive dud that would meet the needs of a tiny, relatively well-off cohort of middle Melbourne.

Of course, the East West Link is not the answer on its own either. For one thing, it’s hard to see how it will reduce the congestion on Hoddle St, which is teeth-grindingly awful even on weekends, in any substantial way.

But all things being equal, the potential has always been there for it to capture the imagination of voters beyond the inner city. It’s not working out that way for the Napthine Government, despite it’s best efforts to talk itself up, including a massive advertising rollout touting its efforts on the transport front, including the aforementioned billboards.

How come? The public appears to see it as perhaps a little bit late. The one thing that’s been showing up in voter research since last year is that large numbers of swinging voters who backed the Liberals at the last election feel that the Government isn’t fulfilling its side of the bargain. The Coalition’s promise was to fix the problems that had accumulated under the Bracks and Brumby governments.

THE research suggests that voters think Denis Napthine and his ministers talk a good game but don’t play it. This is why Labor leader Daniel Andrews, showing a fair amount of chutzpah given that the ALP’s been out of office for less than one term, regularly runs out the line about the Government not addressing the state’s problems. It’s also why last week’s Nielsen poll gave the Government only 39 per cent of the preferred vote and Newspoll a less discouraging but still poor 46 per cent.

The constant problem for the Government is due to its slow start it is trying to make up for lost time and the way it has dealt with the East West Link is a good example. For political reasons it has to get this thing going before the November election. This week Planning Minister Matthew Guy approved the project after picking up some of the recommendations of a planning panel and rejecting others. As a result, only months before the contracts are to be awarded and signed, the final route is unclear. Some homes in Collingwood will be bulldozed against the panel’s wishes, chiefly to make the design of the eastern approach look better. Meanwhile, parts of Royal Park will be spared but new plans for the western end will have to be drawn up.

If the Government in its haste gets this wrong, Melbourne’s traffic problems will become more expensive to solve. It’s likely that some motorists, stuck in gridlock, don’t just see tail-lights, they see signs of panic.

SHAUN CARNEY IS A HERALD SUN COLUMNIST

Originally published as East West should be a vote winner

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