Michael Daley MP | Chifley Research Centre

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When I took up the Planning and Infrastructure portfolio, as one of the first order of things, I wanted to review the performance of the Baird Government in the area of planning and delivery of infrastructure.

Important considerations in the context of a growing Sydney and at a time when a large value of public assets are being liquidated and applied to other ends.

 

Sydney is home to over 4 million people. By 2031 it’s predicted to be a city of almost 6 million.

 

Presently, Sydney is the country’s only global city and consistently one of the world’s most liveable.

 

So the stakes are high.

 

The city needs to grow. It needs to develop. But this needs to be managed carefully. It must be properly planned.

It must be done with the right approach and the right attitude, with careful consideration of valuable things, many intangible. No one bemoans growth done well.

 

And it must be done in partnership with its citizens.

 

 

 

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A prudent, rational Government, well-led, properly motivated, with a regard for the past and a vision for the future can make decisions that improve the lives of its citizens for many decades.

 

That’s what the McKell Government did when it created the Cumberland Plan to manage Sydney’s growth.

 

That’s what the Carr Government did when it built the Sydney Olympic Park precinct.

 

That’s what the Wran Government did when it reimagined Darling Harbour.

A project that went from concept, to construction, to opening all within 5 years. 

 

And that included a 3-month period where a full-scale model of the plan was on public display in the foyer of NSW Parliament House for the world to come and see. Real scrutiny.

 

But the current Government is not prudent, nor is it well-intentioned. Far from it. 

 

It harbours misguided values and it is unwilling to listen. Particularly to its citizens.

 

Public policy should rest on the principles of transparency and accountability. For so many immutable reasons.

 

Transparency and accountability, from conception to delivery improve outcomes and ensure the public’s good faith is maintained.

 

But the Baird Government has made secrecy and side deals an art-form.

 

Under Mike Baird, everything is a secret, except the sales pitch which he repeats ad nauseam, to justify a project.

Financial details are concealed.  

 

Environmental impacts are hidden until the impending damage can’t be.

 

Historical considerations, social and heritage impacts are ignored.

 

There is no honesty with communities. But Mike Baird mistrusts his own citizens. His own communities.

But the Premier forgets that real public consultation protects decision-makers. It’s healthy rather than harmful.  

Professor Ian Harper puts it this way;

 

“Engaging individuals, communities and businesses in collective decision making is essential to good governance in a representative democracy like Australia. At the same time, collective decisions are better informed and more durable when individuals, communities and businesses are engaged.”[1]

 

The Baird Government should take note. Its lack of consultation and careful preparation is leading to poor decisions. Sub-optimal outcomes.

 

Let me take some time to give you a few examples.

 

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Firstly, the Eastern Suburbs Light Rail.

 

Labor has long been a champion for light rail. And we still are, if it’s done well, and in the right places.

 

But the rationale on this project was confused from the start. There was an argument within Government about whether it should be about getting buses out of the CBD rather than a genuine transport solution.

 

Infrastructure NSW advised against it.

 

Their assessment of this project at the feasibility stage was that:

 

“…light rail is significantly more expensive than bus services, has no material speed benefits, is less flexible in traffic and…does not offer significant greater capacity”. 

 

They also said there was a need for greater clarity around the reason for introducing light rail into the CBD. 

 

They concluded

 

“Delivering light rail to Sydney’s CBD is not impossible but as other cities have learnt to their cost an ill-considered light rail plan can lead to years of disruption and financial disaster’.

 

The Government ignored that advice. Not surprisingly Nick Greiner and Paul Broad shortly thereafter parted company with the Government.

 

Planning flawed, implementation, worse.

 

The project has blown out from $1.7 to $2.3 billion.

 

The public consultation was a sham. A mere delivery of decisions already made. And only selective ones at that. Not real consultation. The locals know it.

 

If these aspects had been different some of the errors I’m about to describe could not have occurred. And some of it would be comical if it wasn’t true.

 

For starters, the spacious forecourt of Royal Randwick Racecourse was initially announced as an interchange for the 45 metre light rail carriages.

 

Makes great sense. Safe, well built, close to buses and Randwick TAFE, used by up to 35,000 race goers on a big day.

 

But there was a problem.

 

The Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian realised she had overestimated the number of people that could be carried by 45m light rail carriages.

 

So she ordered 67 metre tram carriages, the longest such carriages in the world.

 

She forgot to check whether they would actually fit into the racecourse forecourt. They don’t.

 

I thought naively, then, that a simple solution would be to take the trams down the middle of the road for a distance as in other areas of the project.

 

The government arrived at a different solution. It moved the stop and interchange across the road and into Centennial Park.

 

So now racegoers will have to cross 6 lanes of traffic to get to and from the racecourse. Retention walls will now have to be built because there are ponds in Centennial Park. Parts of Centennial Parklands will have to be resumed to stop the interchange flooding. More encroachment on public parks.

 

The present popular bicycle path will be destroyed and a whole swathe of trees have already been cut down. In addition to those trees there are another 100 mature fig trees also slated for removal.

 

All up, there are 800 trees being destroyed along the route. And naturally the community are outraged.

These trees were there to see our soldiers off to the Great War and there to welcome them home.  In 1918, when the Anzacs came home they marched from Circular Quay and their mustering point was under the fig trees at the northern end of Moore Park.  

 

The trees form a beautiful green canopy on ANZAC Parade. But to the Government, that’s all that’s just talk about history and heritage. The trees are going.

 

A change in alignment could save those trees but that would mean a payment to the contractor and a change in the construction timetable. Mike Baird has made his choice. Given a choice between the contract and the environment - the trees will go.

 

And the tragedy rolls on.

 

Bus stops along this route are presently 400m apart. The public are well served. The tram stops will be 900 metres apart.  

 

A big difference.

 

Heaven help the elderly person who wants to catch light rail; or the 1300 school children at the biggest school along the route.

 

No stop nearby for them either.  Students will have to walk a country mile and cross 6 lanes of heavy traffic to get to it.

 

If only this project had been planned properly.

 

 

 

 

 

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Another example is Westconnex, the largest road project in the state’s history; a project championed by Infrastructure NSW.

 

In fact Westconnex was just about the only thing the Government agreed with Nick Greiner and Paul Broad on.  

 

But back then the Westconnex was a $10 billion project. 

 

The cost has blown out 4 times. Today the Government says it’s $16.8 billion.

 

The Auditor General’s assessment of the merits of this project was scathing finding that;

 

‘the preliminary business case submitted for Gateway review had many deficiencies and fell well short of the standard required for such a document.’

 

As I said at the outset, transparency and accountability must be the cornerstones of decisions large and small.

 

This project is being funded by the public by taxes and tolls.

 

So the public have a right to details about the project. But the Government doesn’t agree.

 

In order to hide details, the government formed a private company, the Sydney Motorway Corporation to run the project. The Sydney Motorway Corporation is an organisation with just two shareholders--the Treasurer and Minister for Transport.

 

Why?

 

So that the project is exempt from GIPA, the freedom of information laws in NSW.

 

The Sydney Motorway Corporation is a locked vault. A device to avoid public scrutiny and accountability.

The Government will not even answer this rudimentary question:

 

How much is the CEO of the Sydney Motorway Corporation being paid?

 

The Government has refused to answer via freedom of information provisions.

 

The Minister has refused to answer the question in estimates. Questions on notice, questions in the Parliament. All refused.

 

On the floor of the Parliament, just a few weeks ago, during a break in proceedings, I asked the Premier- “how much was the CEO of the Sydney Motorway was being paid?”

 

Mike Baird’s response?

 

“You can wait for the annual report”. 

 

He and his Treasurer thought that was funny.

 

To them the refusal is sport. They succeed when they withhold information from the public, From the Opposition, and from the media.

 

But the 88,000 people I represent in Maroubra, the wharfies and waitresses, teachers and nurses, the people who pay the Premier’s wage deserve to know how their money is being spent.

 

 

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And then there’s NorthConnex.

 

A $3 billion project.

 

An $800 million direct taxpayer contribution, the rest funded by motorists.

 

The M7 toll has been extended by 11 years to 2048.

 

The truck toll on the M7 has been increased by 50%.

 

When the NorthConnex is built trucks will be forced to use the that tunnel and they will be fined for using Pennant Hills Road. A contravention of the toll road principle that there should be a free alternative.

 

The deal was done by an unsolicited bid. No tender. The inner details of its financing still a secret.

 

The NRMA noted that all this new tolling information was not provided to the public when the NorthConnex announcement was made. They said “it sets a dangerous precedent and breaches the trust of the public.”

 

And the heavy vehicle industry, like motorists, like the local community were not consulted. Just ambushed.

 

 

 

 

 

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Now as if to punctuate my comments this morning, just an hour ago, Andrew Constance the Minister for Transport, announced the start of tender process to build the new metro tunnels under Sydney Harbour.

 

There’s his press release.

 

At the press conference, the Minister was asked, naturally enough; ‘What is the justification for this $11 Billion project?’ ‘And was any of this justification in the public domain?’

 

The answer?

 

None.

 

So the media asked the Minister; ‘Will you be publishing financial details; the benefit cost ratio; the business case; an EIS?’

 

And the answer?

No.

 

Now either they haven’t done the work or they won’t release it.

 

But either way it is completed and utterly unacceptable for an $11 Billion project; a project that will subsume much of the proceeds of our profitable electricity assets.

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Thirdly, the Albert Tibby Cotter Bridge.

 

In the scheme of things, a small project, but in miniature, an illustration of this government’s fundamental irresponsibility.

 

For the un-initiated, Albert Tibby Cotter was a Test Cricketer renowned for his low slinging action. In his honour, this Government has built a low slinging bridge at a very high cost.

 

The Government never released a compelling rationale for its being.

 

The bridge takes up precious public parkland and involved no public consultation. It was built without going to tender.

 

The bridge doesn’t link up with existing pathways and is hundreds of metres away from the most common walking route between Central Station and the SCG. And almost comically, it will be nowhere near any of the stops on the Light Rail.

 

It took the NSW Auditor General to access the secret business case and when he did he found that the NSW government could have saved up to $25 million on the cost of the $38 million walkway had it followed different procurement processes.

 

The Auditor General’s assessment was that there was no; ‘…compelling economic or financial argument to support the construction of the walkway or for the tight deadline."

 

Some people might simply characterise it as a mistake. A planning error. A misdirection of funds, poorly thought out. But it is a symptom of another factor at play within this Government. The property play.

 

 

You see the Tibby Cotter Bridge was part of a property play to expand the stadium into Moore Park, prime public land, put a car park in Moore Park West, assume even more of the public space and parklands and connect east and west with a footbridge. This structure was the Government’s down payment on that deal, which is still playing itself out in the cabinet room and now the public domain.

 

And now we know, this property play was the harbinger of others.

 

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Like the Sirius building at the Rocks. This is a purpose-built building mostly of bedsits and 1 bedroom units designed for elderly public housing tenants in 1979.

 

It was home to about 200 of them. Just a handful remain. The rest have been evicted. Scattered and discarded so the Government can cash in on the site.

 

The Heritage Council recently decided unanimously that the building contributed to Sydney’s heritage.

The NSW Government has been arguing that a heritage listing would cause “undue financial hardship to the owner”– itself!

 

This Government’s treatment of those residents and its motivation for doing so embodies all that is wrong with this Government.

If you're a public housing tenant in an area with high property values, you have every right to be afraid of this Premier.

 

Just ask the residents of Millers Point.

 

They too are caught in a property play. The public housing properties at Millers Point are being progressively sold and the tenants evicted.  Some of the new purchasers have already taken to the dismantling of those heritage buildings, empowered by Mike Baird.

 

I think the heart of Sydney should be home to bankers and builders labourers, the well to do and the working class.

 

 

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Much has been said of the Powerhouse Museum going to Parramatta over the last few weeks. I won’t go over the relative arguments.

 

But it occurs to me that the people of Parramatta, of Western Sydney were never really asked about what artistic or cultural facilities they wanted to see in their public spaces. If they had, the views would have been thankfully diverse.

 

No doubt if they had been, the Powerhouse Museum, or something like it, would have had significant support.  But I reckon more than a few might have said, “let’s have an annex, a campus of the Art Gallery of NSW out here.”

 

Apart from the obvious merits of that idea, with 90% of the gallery’s incredible exhibits in storage at any given time, it might have negated the need for another potentially expensive and unnecessary land grab unfolding as we speak.

 

The Art Gallery’s $500 million play to expand into the Domain and Sydney’s Botanical Gardens. Further encroachment on prime public lands.

 

It’s still under consideration by the Government.

 

It needs to be rejected.

 

 

 

 

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Infrastructure and planning decisions must be in the public interest and undertaken with public support and confidence.

 

To build public confidence, to improve public outcomes, public investment in infrastructure should be open to public scrutiny.

 

But the Baird Government, armed with a capital fund from the sale of public assets, has plans to move on with more programs with cloistered details and no doubt, a plague of more property plays.

 

Tunnels under the harbour, further iterations of WestConnex, new metro lines.

 

And let’s keep in mind the redevelopment of huge tracts of public land, prime government-owned sites, at North Parramatta, the Bays Precinct and White Bay and others.

 

With this Government’s conduct over the last 5 years charting the course for the next 3 and no sign of improvement, all of us, the Opposition, the community and the media will need to be on high alert.

 

The stakes have never been higher.

 

[END]