Projects built at expense of community

From The Age 15 February, by Kenneth Davidson

Before the 2002 state election I was asked to chair a meeting of Banyule citizens who had good reason to believe the Bracks government was planning to build a freeway connecting the Metropolitan Ring Road to what is now EastLink.

The Heidelberg Town Hall was full. The audience was sufficiently large and threatening that the then transport minister, Peter Batchelor, and local ALP state member Craig Langdon each promised that it wouldn’t happen. From the platform, I saw the tension go out of the audience.

How easy it is to gull the electorate. The freeway was on the VicRoads agenda even before the first stage of the ring road was built. It was classic salami tactics – one slice at a time.

In parliament in 2001 Batchelor was even less circumspect. Hansard records he said: ”It is not on our radar … there is no truth in the suggestion. It is a tragic and sleazy attempt by a conspiracy of the deluded to try and frighten people living and working in this area. I need to set the record straight once and for all, and these people will have no basis for making the suggestions in the future.”

Of course, Batchelor knew that by the time the plan was public, he in all probability would be responsible for a different portfolio (he is) and Langdon would know he would be on the point of retirement (he is).

Now VicRoads is seeking $15 million for a feasibility study for the road Batchelor swore wasn’t even on the government’s radar. On the other side of Melbourne, the government wants to fast-track Westlink, a road tunnel linking the Port of Melbourne with West Footscray and, ultimately, the Western Ring Road in Sunshine West. As usual, the further incremental transformation of Melbourne into a junior version of Los Angeles is being undertaken without a proper cost-benefit analysis to see whether there are cheaper, better public transport alternatives or a public environmental impact study. They aren’t even on the radar.

The Victorian Government is turning Melbourne into a junior version of Los Angeles without a proper cost-benefit analysis.

And why should they be? Last October the Parliament passed the Orwellian Major Projects Facilitation Bill. The president of Protectors of Public Lands Victoria, Brian Walters, SC, said the legislation was designed to bulldoze freeways through residents’ rights.

Once a project is ”declared”, it can be sped up and the community will have no rights of objection.

According to Walters, the hastening of big projects of developers, at the expense of the community and good planning, appears to be legislation for millionaire mates rather than the good government of Victoria.

The Brumby government appears most sleazy when it attempts to justify the handover of public land that morally belongs to the most disadvantaged groups in the community.

The government justified the sell-off of 3.5 hectares of Carlton public housing land to a developer by claiming it was essential for the social integration of public housing tenants into the broader community. Rubbish. The plans show the private development will be in the form of two gated communities, secured against public tenants by a 2.5-metre wall.

According to the Carlton Residents Association newsletter: ”The much-heralded Public Housing Estates redevelopment is mostly about private housing for sale into the buoyant Carlton real estate market for private profit, and very little about desperately needed public and affordable housing. Despite 40,000 people waiting for public housing, there will be no net increase in public tenant numbers on the Carlton Estates following the $200 million development.”

The redevelopment of the 27-hectare Kew Cottages site that displaced 400 intellectually disabled residents was justified on the grounds that they should be reintegrated into the community – a bogus argument that ignores the evidence that most prefer to be integrated with their peers rather than the general community who, in the main, reject them.

It was also a cruel argument because it ignored the needs of some 4000 disabled on the waiting list for institutional care and their increasingly desperate, ageing carers. Building more cluster housing on the Kew site offered the best hope of an increase in institutional care and a serious effort to reduce waiting lists.

Even worse, instead of making money for the government, the development has somehow lost $17 million from building and selling the first 55 up-market homes on one of the most valuable sites in Melbourne.

The Kew Cottages Coalition of parents and concerned citizens want the development stopped immediately, at least until the Ombudsman’s inquiry into the fiasco is completed and its results published, hopefully before the election.

But this coalition is a tiny organisation with just a small bank deposit. It is up against powerful Sydney developer the Walker Corporation, which employs former Labor senator Graham Richardson as its government lobbyist. Between 1999 and 2007, the Walker Corporation donated $205,000 to the state ALP, $300,000 to the federal ALP and $300,000 to the Coalition parties. In Victoria, money talks.