Back in 2015 at the time of the last NSW election, the then Baird government sold WestConnex to the electorate as a way of reducing traffic congestion and cutting the time it takes to drive from the Western suburbs of Sydney to get to the CBD and Airport.
Four years later, the widened M4 now carries a new and very unpopular toll that will remain there for decades. The rest of WestConnex is yet to be completed but promises more tolls. Far fewer accept the mantra of saved travel times and drivers deeply resent the high tolls in Sydney. Without informing the public, the LNP government disappeared the link to the airport from WestConnex, only to add it much later as an extra publicly funded Sydney Gateway. This will provide a further subsidy to Transurban as it will feed into WestConnex.
The impacts on communities turned out to be far worse than ever imagined and WestConnex turned into a bad news story. Far from being impressed, visitors to Sydney were horrified by the vast tracts of devastated land. A NSW Parliamentary Inquiry found that the impacts on residents were not acceptable and that community consultation was a failure. This week, just nine days before a fresh election, hundreds of workers evacuated the M4 East tunnel after toxic levels of fungi were measured. Previously, it was a sewage leak and the time before, it was three gas leaks, all in the same tunnel. The project is so toxic that the Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her Ministers barely mention it, despite having spent tens of billions of taxpayers money on it, if you include the hidden costs as experts say you should.
Also last week, the Australian Financial Review and Channel Nine revealed that a satellite imaging company could supply images before and after tunneling for the first two stages of Westconnex. The images show that subsidence was greater and across a much larger area than predicted. This means that many properties, including higher rise buildings, could have been damaged without ever knowing that they were affected by the tunnelling. Many thousands of homes are at serious risk if Stage 3 tunnelling is allowed to proceed. While the government is batting the issue away by saying it will make contractors pay, this could cause a massie blow out for CIMIC, the major contractor for the M4 East and New M5 tunnels, both of which are already running late. CIMIC would be bound to dispute its liability with Transurban and the NSW government.
Lendlease, which has the contract for the tunnel between St Peters and Haberfield, has lost $500 million on Sydney's Northconnex and is in the process of off-loading its road-building business. The WestConnex budget, which has already officially blown from $10 billion to more than $18 billion, is highly likely to blow out even more as the contractors will either be unable or willing to accept the liabilities without a legal fight. Campaigners will righly insist that the government should pay all compensation.
These huge headaches would be inherited by the incoming government, Coalition or Labor.
WestConnex is a massive political issue. You would think it would be a perfect storm for an Opposition but this is very far from the case. In 2015, NSW Labor supported WestConnex but wanted it to go into the CBD and to the airport and Botany Bay. Since the last election, campaigners have put a huge effort into trying to persuade NSW Labor to shift its position, inspired by Labor oppositions in Victoria and Western Australia who won government on the back of promises to reverse tollway construction. Even before the project was privatised, thousands of letters were written to the then Opposition Leader Luke Foley. All were ignored. Labor's new leader Michael Daley has said he will aim to work better with communities to reduce impacts and the Shadow Roads Minister Jodi McKay has said that the design for Stage 3b - the Rozelle Interchange - will be reviewed, although it is not clear what that means gven that Labor is not prepared to stop work on tunnelling. If Labor is elected, there will be a judicial inquiry. While a judicial inquiry would produce many bad headlines about the current government, it would sap community energy and resources, while residents dealt with the unacceptable impacts of construction.
Labor refuses to even engage in discussion about the amount of compensation that would be needed to cancel or even alter Stage 3. It has said it will defer the Western Harbour Tunnel ( WHT is a a hugely expensive add-on to WestConnex) but since 40% of Stage 3b is the stubs for the WHT, it is not clear what this means. The Rozelle Interchange makes no sense without the Western Harbour Tunnel, so Transurban would can be expected to put massive pressure on the NSW government to continue with building it. At the same time, NSW Labor have offered those who will use the M5 West and the widened M4, cash back on their tolls for decades. This will cost the taxpayer billions and is a massive and ongoing subsidy to Transurban that now as an iron grip on Australia's tollways.
At a Federal level, Labor supported WestConnex financially in its early stages. Although, as the project unravels the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure Anthony Albanese has been critical of the project, he has never called for it to be halted before more damage is done in his own electorate during the remaining stages.
This raises the question of why Labor is so determined not to shift its position on WestConnex. This is a question that Labor MPs and candidates desperately try to avoid. When they are forced to answer questions, they either make bland statements about 'sovereign risk' or refer to 'billions and billions' which is meaningless given that their own policy will cost the taxpayer 'billions and billions'. While Labor talks about intervening in the electricity market, it has never explained why the government is powerless to reverse the privatisation of roads. NSW Labor even refuses to commit to filtering stacks, although any government could mandate that.
How can we explain this reluctance?
There is a massive set of questions to be asked about the role of Labor governments in supporting privatisation for the benefit of union-aligned industry superfunds that have invested heavily in Transurban, WestConnex and other privatisations. That is a complex story for another article. The Greens have campaigned to get industry superfunds out of WestConnex and thousands of letters have been sent to superfunds but it has been difficult to get the ACTU or individual unions to engage with the issue.
The next place to look was political donations. I searched disclosures to the Australian Electoral Commission search engine for donations.
Transurban donates to ALP
Transurban's 2017/2018 return shows that the company donated nearly $26,000 to the ALP.
Although this is a substantial donation, it is less than the Liberal Party, which received $30,000. Another $2000 went to the Nationals.
It is easy for corporate donations to be hidden through corporate dinners, private companies or through lobbyists' donations. But a further search shows that Transurban kicked a much bigger donation into the Liberal party fundraising company Cormack Foundation. Cormack recorded two Transurban donations that amounted to $100,000. Labor may also have received other support from Transurban.
In 2016 to 2017, Transurban donated $28,500 to the Labor Party and nearly $36,000 to the Liberal Party. Transurban again donated the Cormack Foundation just over $100,000
In recent years while the LNP have been in government federally and in NSW, Transurban has preferred the Liberals who are very firmly stitched into the road lobby. The LNP have after all gifted Transurban with a steady flow of tollways. But the donations that have come regularly to Labor over the years are significant. Labor has always supported tollroads although it is under pressure from its grassroots members, some of whom would have preferred a much greater commitment to public transport during its long years in power in NSW.
In June 2016, then Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon published a research report on political donations by the roads lobby. This revealed that Transurban had donated more than $730,000 to the two major parties between 2000 and 2015. Leightons (now CIMIC which owns CPB contractors) and its subsidiaries had contributed more than $ 4.5 million and Lendlease and Baulderstone Hornibrook, which later became one company, contributed nearly 1.15 million. These companies are the two big Australian players in tollway construction. Both are now global companies. They are also the biggest winners of WestConnex contracts.
Developer and gambling donations are already banned in NSW due to previous Greens led reforms, which is why Transurban donates through the Federal branches and other states.
In June 2018, a Greens dominated Senate inquiry into donations recommended bans on donations from developers, mining companies, tobacco, liquor, gambling, defence, pharmaceutical industries and developers. This would have included Transurban as a developer.
In November last year, the Australian Senate passed a reforms bill designed to ban foreign political donations. The Greens urged other parties to take advantage of the foreign donations bill to implement reforms to the donations and disclosure systems. They chose not to act. They also declined to introduce a real-time donations disclosure regime. If they had supported it, we would now know what Transurban has paid to the major parties since June 2018.
Last year, Greens MP for Balmain Jamie Parker attempted to amend a NSW bill to include a Greens policy which is to ban on corporate donations from fossil fuel companies. Both the NSW Liberal and Labor parties voted against this bill. Yesterday, Greens MP for Newtown Jenny Leong told a candidates form in Newtown that if she is reelected one of the NSW Greens main goals will be to achieve further reform to corporate donation laws.
Donations should be transparent and regulated in a way that does not allow profit-driven companies to influence political decisions on government expenditure on infrastructure. These decisions should be based on independent expert and community involvement to identify needs and impacts.
This piece has been edited since it was first published on March 16, 2019. The author supports Australian and NSW Greens policies on political donations and corruptioon.