The Age: Contested East West Link business case tantalisingly close. August 13, 2014. Adam Carey, Transport Reporter for The Age
It was the closest anyone but cabinet and a select few public servants have come to seeing the business case for the East West Link.
The most contested document in Victorian politics was wheeled into court on Wednesday, like a child in a custody battle. A big white box with a bright red lid, wrapped in tape, it sat in plain sight but closely guarded by the government’s legal team.
Inside the box, the court was told, were three ring-bound folders containing the full business case for the multibillion-dollar road project, including two volumes of technical annexures.
Labor’s roads spokesman, Luke Donnellan, launched the legal action, taking the Linking Melbourne Authority to VCAT to try to compel the Napthine government to let the public see what is inside the box, a document that is at the heart of three legal challenges.
The opposition is attempting to exploit a technicality in the state’s freedom-of-information laws that exempt from public release documents prepared for consideration by cabinet.
No cabinet member could reasonably be expected to have read the entire business case, Mr Donnellan’s counsel Siobhan Keating argued, rather they would have read a summary prepared by the department to save time-poor ministers many hours.
The full business case was prepared, Ms Keating argued, for the purpose of gaining funding approval from Infrastructure Australia, the federal advisory body that evaluates major projects.
It is so large and complex it ”could not be sensibly considered by cabinet”, Ms Keating argued. Therefore it should not be exempt from release under freedom-of-information laws.
Evidence was given by Richard Wynne, Labor’s MP for Richmond, and a minister in the Bracks and Brumby governments, that similar processes had occurred under those administrations, with perhaps only one or two key ministers reading full business cases.
Charles Gunst, QC, for the Linking Melbourne Authority, countered: ”Is it possible the desalination plant was approved by some back of the envelope, three-page submission?”
Andrew Herington, a former senior adviser to the Bracks and Brumby governments, intimated that the government’s argument that the business case deserved confidentiality was a cynical ploy to avoid scrutiny of its flagship project.
”Simply taking a large box of documents into the cabinet room doesn’t give it cabinet exemption,” he said.
Two public servants who helped prepare the business case gave evidence that the document was written with the express purpose of submitting it to cabinet for consideration.
Both appeared nervous while in the witness box, pausing for long periods before answering Ms Keating’s questions.
”This business case was developed for the purpose of securing funding from cabinet,” said Aneetha de Silva, the Linking Melbourne Authority’s executive director, commercial and legal.
Geoff Oulton, director of Transport Investment and Development in the Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure, said the full business case was prepared over many months and in regular consultation with cabinet members.
”If cabinet had not approved this project, would the business case have had any other purpose?” Mr Gunst asked.
”No,” Mr Oulton said.
The hearing continues on Thursday.