Labor’s new route to the poll

The Age: Labor’s new route to the poll, September 14, 2014, Farrah Tomazin. The Sunday Age’s state political editor.

Spring Street Wrap: the East West divide

They’re ready to start drilling, but Denis Napthine’s pet project the East West Link is no longer a certainty. Sunday Age state political editor Farrah Tomazin takes a look at the week that was in state politics.

One could be forgiven for losing track of the number of times Labor has flip-flopped on the East West Link.

In his early days as Opposition Leader, Daniel Andrews did not think much of the road proposal, but would not say he was unambiguously against it – much to the chagrin of several of his MPs. Later, he clarified his position, telling voters he was categorically opposed to the project but would still build it if contracts were signed before the election, citing sovereign risk.

But this week, in the latest U-turn, he announced Labor would dump the policy regardless of contracts, using a looming court challenge by two inner-city councils to deem the project invalid.

Illustration: Matt Davidson.

It is a crazy-brave move that says a lot about how confident Labor is feeling at this stage of the electoral cycle. Team Andrews is so convinced the East West Link is a dud, it is prepared to face a business backlash, expose the state to potential lawsuits, and be branded the political equivalent of a back-flipping Romanian gymnast in order to wedge the Napthine government on its pet project.

Step one is to pressure the Coalition not to sign contracts with the chosen consortium before November’s poll. Step two is to brand Denis Napthine as an “arrogant” premier when he does. And step three is to kill off the road, at least in its present form, should Labor form government.

Politically, the gamble is underpinned by ifs, buts and maybes: legal advice based on a contract that is yet to be seen; a court challenge that won’t be heard until December 15; the probability that if Andrews wins the election, litigation by Yarra and Moreland councils will likely succeed because a Labor government will not fight it as the defendant.

But boiled down, it is about giving voters a choice: a sense of control over how their money should be spent and what sort of transport infrastructure they would like to see, in order to improve liveability. For Labor strategists, that is precisely the point.

It is fair to say the government has done itself no favours by doggedly pursuing a multibillion-dollar project that taxpayers still know little about. Even as Treasurer Michael O’Brien announced a preferred bidder this week, voters were none the wiser about the final cost, the final design, the business case, the tolls, or whether additional properties should be purchased to make way for the road.

But while transparency has always been an issue, abandoning the project entirely is not going to solve the broader problem of congestion on the Eastern Freeway to Melbourne’s west. Asked, for instance, to explain how Labor’s position might help a mother living in Templestowe who faced gridlock every morning to get to work across the city, Andrews resorted to rhetoric rather than specifics. “That mum in Templestowe ought to be given a choice,” he replied.

Sure, but it is not as though Labor has committed to a Doncaster Rail Line, so for many suburban motorists, what exactly is that choice?

There are also other risks. First, Andrews’ decision not to honour contracts exposes him to claims Labor is too easily swayed by the Greens, which was using the East West Link as part of its pitch to win a lower house seat in the Victorian Parliament.

Second, there is the financial uncertainty. The business community is on edge, the federal government – which has committed $3 billion towards the project – will want its money back, and even Labor’s own legal advice acknowledges any successful bidder that signs a contract could seek damages if the project is abandoned.

And third, it adds to the Liberal narrative that Andrews is an inconsistent leader who will say just about anything to get into office. He wants lower unemployment but rejects a project that promises an extra 6200 jobs; he wants to improve liveability but walks away from a road that might; he insists contracts will be honoured, and then reneges.

“To rip up contracts is to send a message to the world that we’re closed for business. I won’t do that to working families because that is not the responsible thing to do,” he said last year.

So much for that idea.

The good news, though, is that the November election is a referendum on transport – and so it should be.

Labor lost in 2010 partly because of its inability to keep up with population growth, with train and traffic congestion a potent symbol of its failings. The Coalition came to office promising to “fix the problems”, only to stake its early fortunes on an expensive road shrouded in secrecy.

Now, at the very least, both parties are offering a broader outlook. Pick Napthine and you get an 18-kilometre connection from the Eastern Freeway to the Western Ring Road; a Melbourne Rail Link via Fishermans Bend; another rail link to Melbourne Airport; and the Cranbourne Pakenham upgrade.

Pick Andrews and you get 50 level crossings removed; 24-hour public transport on weekends; off-ramps along the West Gate Freeway; the original Melbourne Rail route – and no East West Link.

Whatever the outcome, the public now has a genuine point of difference. Over to you, voters.

Farrah Tomazin is state politics editor. Twitter: @farrahtomazin

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