NEWS: Parliamentary Speech on WestConnex Transparency

Member for Newtown and NSW Greens spokesperson on WestConnex Jenny Leong MP speaks on the Government Information (Public Access) Amendment (Sydney Motorway Corporation) Bill 2016.

This bill is designed to ensure that the information held by the Sydney Motorway Corporation  - the entity created to administer the WestConnex project - is subject to freedom of information requests.

You can watch the speech here and find the Hansard of the full debate here.

Transcript

Ms JENNY LEONG         (Newtown) (11:31:00): 

I speak on behalf of the Greens in debate on the Government Information (Public Access) Amendment (Sydney Motorway Corporation) Bill 2016. As has been outlined by other speakers, the object of this bill is to amend the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 to provide that the information held by the Sydney Motorway Corporation may be accessed under that Act. I thank the member for Strathfield for introducing the bill and acknowledge the work that she is doing to push for more transparency around this project. The fact that we are today, arguing to bring basic transparency to the largest government transport infrastructure project in the Southern Hemisphere—with a cost greater than that of the Channel tunnel crossing from France to England—is highly indicative of the way that New South Wales politics is rapidly sinking back to the bad old times when secrecy and backroom deals were the order of the day. The question has to be asked: Did we ever leave those times?    

Today in this Parliament we are faced with the complicity of senior Ministers in the deplorable process of allowing our Parliament to become the handmaiden of private corporations and for our public service to become nothing more than a rubber stamp for projects, such as WestConnex, which would never pass muster if they were subject to proper objective analysis and evaluated against well-developed alternatives. A proper objective analysis and evaluation has never been made of the WestConnex process, despite the fact that $16.8 billion is going into this polluting motorway and despite the fact that the Secretary's Environmental Assessment Requirements [SEARs] demand that alternatives to this mega tollway be properly explored and presented.     

Premier Baird may hide behind a very enthusiastic Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight in the other place, the Hon. Duncan Gay, but it should be clear that the Premier is overseeing the destruction of the New South Wales public service and is removing its involvement in the delivery of projects like this. These so-called private‑public entities woo banks and private companies into sweet deals for the wholesale sell-off of many of this State's major assets, lands and services that is not in the interests of the people but in the interests of the corporations and the big businesses that fund and fuel the Liberal Party and The Nationals in New South Wales. Unfortunately, those businesses—the corporations and their profit motives—are driving the decisions that are being made in this State, not the interests of the people.     

WestConnex is perhaps the flagship example of a privatisation and destruction agenda that seeks to put communities last and the interests of corporations and profits first. Apart from the information that we get from press releases announcing billion-dollar contracts that have been awarded for WestConnex construction, the community, the public and the media have been able to access contracts only via the New South Wales Government Information (Public Access) Act. From what we can tell, these contracts are worth just over $165 million, but this is a figure gleaned only from those contracts that have been available via the Government Information (Public Access) Act prior to the development of the Sydney Motorway Corporation.    

This figure does not include details of the billions of dollars of construction contracts that have been awarded to companies like Leighton and Samsung. Leighton has been publicly exposed for illegal activities and million-dollar bribes paid to gain overseas contracts in Iraq and Algeria. We cannot see the details of the contracts but we know that many of them were awarded after the Sydney Morning Herald's first exposé of bribery scandals in 2011 and Leighton's own reporting of the actions of Leighton Offshore to the Australian Federal Police in early 2011. Nor can we see any contracts for less than $150,000.    

Another issue that needs to be dealt with in the future is the fact that the information about contracts is currently removed from public access when the contract is completed. This Government is going to endless attempts to try to ensure that there is no public scrutiny of this project. The question to be asked is: Why? It is because the Government knows that the project is a dud. If the Government opened up the books and if people looked at them and at the alternatives, they would ask: If we spent $16.8 billion solving Sydney's congestion transport problems what could we do? If the Government had asked that question and had looked genuinely at the alternatives, it would know that a 33-kilometre polluting private road with massive tolls is not the answer.     

The companies that have laid the framework for this disastrous project are Leighton and AECOM. AECOM has a shocking reputation in relation to problematic traffic modelling in relation to Brisbane's Clem7 tunnel. But those companies are now getting a whopping slice of the WestConnex cake—a huge transfer of public money into private hands. Leighton and AECOM were brought in at the beginning—at the establishment of the Sydney Motorway's project office. They helped to provide the initial business case and design for this infrastructure monster, and they are reaping larger and larger contracts as the project has developed. But now, without the Government Information (Public Access) Act, the whole situation has become ever more opaque. It is incumbent up us—the members of this House, who make decisions about how public infrastructure is funded in this State—to question why information is being kept secret.     

There were reports recently that the Sydney Motorway Corporation has sent a request proposal to investment banks, inviting the likes of Macquarie Capital, Goldman Sachs, UBS and boutique banks to pitch for advisory roles to put together a new $1.5-plus billion funding package. Unless this important bill goes through the Parliament the details of this funding package will never be known. Even with access via the Government Information (Public Access) Act, we know that the details will be obscured as they were in the updated business case, where much of the important information was redacted. The Government is attempting to hide the details because it knows that they do not add up. Now adding to this obscurity is the Sydney Motorway Corporation, which exists outside the reach of the Government Information (Public Access) Act. Members are elected to Parliament to be accountable to the people. Instead, this Government is hiding decisions about the largest infrastructure project in this State and handing over its oversight to consultants and unaccountable corporations who are wreaking havoc on our cities and neighbourhoods.    

The Liberal Party, here and in Canberra, is happy to divest its responsibilities to corporations to govern on its behalf. That is unacceptable. Somewhere along the line, democracy is getting in the way of the Liberal Party’s privatisation agenda. There is no better way to disrupt the process of people starting to ask questions than to remove their ability to access open, transparent information about the infrastructure projects that the Government is delivering by setting up a private Sydney Motorway Corporation. That happened in August 2014. It was an attempt not only to hide information from the public record but also fundamentally to remove the public service from the planning and delivery of public infrastructure in this State.     

Now all transactions concerning WestConnex are signed off by the Sydney Motorway Corporation's board. It is unclear how it is accountable. It is not Premier Mike Baird, Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian, the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, the Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight or the Minister for Planning who people can go to and ask about these projects. It is seven individuals whose names will probably be a little less familiar to any members of the public who might be listening: Peter Brecht, Penny Graham, Mary Ploughman, Cameron Robertson, Rod Pearse, Leilani Frew and Dennis Cliche. They are now the ones making the decisions about this $16.8 billion project, not the people who were elected to, allegedly, deliver on this construction project. The effective transfer of money and power away from the New South Wales Government and public service into the hands of private corporations that will never operate with the transparency and protocols required for a well-functioning public sector is nothing short of highway robbery.    

All of this is being done under the cloak of 'commercial in confidence'. As I mentioned earlier, responses to the Government Information (Public Access) Act requests are often highly redacted or not released at all. While this bill attempts to bring some semblance of transparency to the body that will be managing more than $3.5 billion of Federal funds and more than $1.8 billion of State funds, let us be clear that this is only one step towards greater transparency and accountability for this disastrous project. Federal funding is going into this project and State money is going into this project, yet at the same time the processes surrounding it are so appalling and so disturbing—and the destructive impacts on communities across the 33-kilometre route are astounding. This bill is an important first step towards providing some transparency and I thank the member for Strathfield for introducing it. The Greens will continue to fight for transparency and accountability when it comes to this disastrous motorway project.


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