The Perth Freight Link: Stranger than fiction
The WA state election could end one of the country’s most controversial infrastructure projects
The bulldozer driver appears at 7 am, his ute escorted by police vehicles. The crowd of many hundreds watch as he enters a compound fenced by razor wire and climbs into the bulldozer’s darkened cabin.
The early morning hours are when the largest number of protesters gather. By 8.30 the majority have to go to work or take kids to school. Greens and Labor politicians and local councillors are always a strong presence. For them the protest isn’t just political – this is their community too.
Four mounted police surround the compound, each taking a corner. They wait for protesters to breach the fence and attempt to lock on. If the protesters do, they will be charged by the horses and brought down, arrested and carted away. One hundred police guard the fence at regular intervals. The cost to the taxpayer for protecting a single bulldozer has been calculated at up to $40,000 a day in excess of the current police budget – drawing resources from community policing.
The bulldozer leaves the compound and proceeds around any protesters locked on to barrels or stationed in nearby trees. It is followed by a cloud of dust and the protesters’ shouts of distress.
This 97-hectare, 5-kilometre section of bushland, in the southern suburbs of Perth, is far from homogenous, bridging two geological formations. What the Whadjuk Nyungar people called Booyeembara, or limestone country, is characterised by rolling hills that were once giant sand dunes, hardened over millennia. Booyeembara country contains tuart, marri, Christmas tree, woody pear and balga trees. Gandoo, or what is known as the Bassendean Sands formation, is characterised by jarrah and banksia woodland. The Beeliar Wetlands are part of this latter formation, and constitute a large proportion of the barely 10% of wetlands remaining on the Swan Coastal Plain. It has always been considered a high-value conservation area for this reason.
Down on the Gandoo wetlands, the bulldozer has little trouble pushing over 400-year-old paperbarks and banksia, but up on Booyeembara country the tuart and marri tree roots are bedded deep in limestone. The bulldozer struggles, half-climbing the trees, which appear to resist before eventually toppling with a sickening crack.
The clearing began a few days before Christmas, in the heart of the most populated area within the Roe 8 “development envelope”. This is the first stage of the Perth Freight Link (PFL). Two months in, most protesters, including me, still cannot believe this is happening.
This disbelief isn’t the result of naiveté, or denial. It’s the simple fact that so many scientists, town planners, traditional owners, academics, public servants and environmentalists have discredited this project. So how has this happened? What were the material conditions required to create such a situation, so close to a state election?
Since the gold rush of the 1890s, there has been in Western Australia a strong correlation between the health of the mining sector and the health of the industries dependent upon rapid population growth: property development and the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects. It wasn’t long ago that the state was in the middle of a “once in a generation” boom. Perth was the fastest-growing city in Australia, boasting near-full employment and a roaring housing market. Urban sprawl continued apace; schools were crowded with new arrivals and the traditional flight of the city’s young talent to larger cities was being reversed. The Liberal premier, Colin Barnett, was lecturing other states on how to manage their finances.
But this boom masked an impending economic deterioration that appears to have taken the government by surprise. The logic of diversifying royalties into state investment in tourism, manufacturing, the arts, apprenticeships and training was never really applied. As soon as the construction phase of the boom was over, the state’s “big three” mining companies began shedding jobs. Having used their combined financial clout to bring down an Australian prime minister, they now exercised their near monopolistic power by increasing iron ore production in a time of falling prices, effectively pricing out smaller competitors and reducing the flow of royalties into the state coffers. Premier Barnett was even forced to remind the companies who their landlord was, but his words fell on deaf ears.
Worse still, the end of the boom saw a corresponding decline in the fortunes of that other cohort of significant Liberal Party donors – property developers and construction magnates. Failed infrastructure proposals such as the James Price Point LNG plant and the Oakajee port and rail took their toll on a premier already thinking about his legacy.
It wasn’t always like this. In 1959, for example, when Liberal premier David Brand came to power, WA was a supplicant state in the federation. Its main industries were fishing, whaling, cereal crops and forestry, and the Swan Brewery was the state’s largest employer. The partial lifting of the federal iron ore export ban in 1960 changed everything, sparking a boom that saw a 40% rise in the population within a decade and cemented the Liberal Party’s hold on power for the next 11 years. The population surge sparked a secondary construction boom in Perth, which rapidly grew away from its river base. Suburbs began to sprawl, fortunes were made, and property development empires were built. Unfettered development was the mantra, and road-building equalled progress. The 1955 Stephenson–Hepburn plan to develop Perth into a city for the car was initiated.
The only blip in this “highways are good” narrative was when Premier Brand implemented one particular stage in the Stephenson–Hepburn plan, leading to the tearing down of the convict-built Pensioner Barracks at the head of St Georges Terrace, on the edge of the central business district, to make way for the Mitchell Freeway. When Brand took his plan to destroy the remaining Barracks Arch to cabinet, members of his own party, under the weight of community pressure, crossed the floor and voted with the Opposition.
Brand’s political “bloody nose” still seems remarkable from the distance of some 50 years, particularly in the context of the Barnett government seeking now to implement another stage in the Stephenson–Hepburn plan – the final stretch of the “Fremantle–Midland Highway” that was envisaged back in 1955. Rebadged in the form of the PFL, the staged highway project aims to deliver freight traffic through Perth’s southern suburbs into the Fremantle Port, via a toll road, without the impediment of traffic lights. The construction of the first stage, Roe 8, has already begun. The Roe 9 tunnel, as yet unplanned but costed at somewhere between $1 billion and $5.8 billion, will link to the as yet unplanned and uncosted Roe 10 section of the highway, traversing the Swan River and entering the port.
The weaknesses in the highway plan date back to 1980, when the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) warned that, due to the likely damage to the Beeliar Wetlands, the Roe 8 section of the project was unacceptable on environmental grounds. It made the same assessment again in 2004. Instead, a bipartisan acceptance grew regarding the need to expand the existing outer harbour, further south near Kwinana, transitioning freight away from Fremantle Port (a 19th-century sailing ship port surrounded by high-density suburbs) as it reaches capacity.
Now that the PFL is a reality, not a single Liberal Party member has dared speak against the project, even though it looks like costing some of them their seats in the state election on 11 March.
Barnett has promised to step down as premier in the next parliament, should his team win the election. Thus far, his big-ticket infrastructure items have failed to materialise. In most people’s minds the visible reminder of the Barnett years will be the construction of social infrastructure projects such as Elizabeth Quay and Perth Stadium, although his real legacy, if re-elected, will be the ongoing stringent cuts to public service institutions, to the arts and libraries, to vital community services, and the mooted privatisation of key assets.
The Fremantle Port is one asset slated to be sold, dating back to the federal government’s now scrapped 2014 Asset Recycling Initiative, which promised a bounty to the states for asset divestments. It was in the same 2014 federal budget that a billion dollars for the Perth Freight Link mysteriously appeared: a “captain’s call” from the then “Infrastructure Prime Minister” Tony Abbott. The PFL wasn’t on anyone’s radar, after Colin Barnett confirmed in 2013 that the Roe 8 extension wasn’t on the agenda for the next term of office.
Under the current Liberal government, the state debt has soared from $3.8 billion in 2008 to an estimated $33 billion in 2018. To be fair to Colin Barnett, he might well have preferred that the billion dollars be tied instead to one of his many public transport broken promises. It’s obviously hard for a government on the skids in the polls, during the middle of a jobs downturn, in a time of burgeoning state debt, to turn down a billion dollars.
So the state government took the money and turned its hand to spin, making the PFL project a manifestation of its positive action on facilitating business and jobs creation. In every sense, Barnett’s political legacy and the future of his government depend upon it. A toll road makes the port more attractive to potential buyers, and banking on the sale of the Fremantle Port has resulted in the funding of key election promises in marginal seats. Surely, knowing the damage that the PFL would do to the affected communities, knowing how unpopular the clearing of 97 hectares of pristine bushland would be, there would also be political advantage gained by positioning the inevitable community resistance as violent, anti-progress and jobs-destroying, and Barnett – powerful and reasonable – as a real, “can-do” man.
What happened next to enable the PFL is hard to credit, perhaps, for anyone not familiar with the ways that big business interests and conservative politics are balanced in WA. As a crime fiction writer who’s made his career looking at how these interdependent forces have played out over generations of this state’s history, I can assure you that you couldn’t make this stuff up. Nobody would believe you.
The government’s first important strategy, by way of its Main Roads Western Australia (MRWA) department, was to promulgate what were at best half-truths about the urgent need for the project. As federal Labor MP Josh Wilson has pointed out, the government is conveniently ignoring that the PFL essentially aims to use $2 billion of taxpayer money to construct a private toll road that ends at a privately owned port, and that this monopolisation means that alternatives such as the continued use of rail and the creation of an expanded outer port will be excluded.
The spin is all about removing trucks from public roads, although an estimated 30% of trucks that carry placard loads, or certain amounts of dangerous goods, will not be allowed to use the Roe 9 tunnel, and will therefore continue to use the same routes as present. Modelling also shows that the number of vehicles using the route has been vastly underestimated, and so the PFL will suffer from what urban planners have known for decades: a new highway encourages greater traffic volumes, which quickly and inevitably reduce its effectiveness, particularly as a freight route. As the saying goes, it’s like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act paint a picture of federal and state public servants scrambling to find data that supports the arguments for the already funded PFL, the reverse of the normal process. And yet for the most part the data fails to do this. The general manager of north-west roads at the federal Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development has observed that the “workings and assumptions” of the MRWA-supplied planning data were “a little rudimentary and not robust”. Four separate MRWA reports show that the PFL will have negligible impacts on reducing traffic flows on Canning and Leach highways, one of the main arguments used by the Liberal Party to justify the PFL. The released documents also reveal that the higher-than-average traffic accident statistics on Leach Highway, another key justification for the PFL, are the result of the route’s numerous traffic lights, rather than freight vehicle traffic. More disturbingly, the released documents include an MRWA table that puts the price tag for the Roe 9 tunnel at between $5.8 billion and $8 billion, where Colin Barnett has touted a figure of $900 million. Such an impost would be impossible for the government to afford, meaning that the promise to build the Roe 9 tunnel was likely made for the sake of the election alone.
Most absurd of all is the claim that the PFL will reduce travel time for freight headed to Fremantle Port. The figures bandied about vary from six minutes to 16 minutes over the current routes, and yet this doesn’t take into consideration the fact that under current plans the Roe 9 tunnel ends at High Street in Fremantle, where thousands of trucks and heavy local traffic will converge, and where no suitable route exists to carry traffic across an already busy Stirling Bridge – meaning gridlock for the last kilometres of the journey and a likely time loss rather than time saving. Because its Roe 10 plans haven’t been released, the government has no answer to the accusation that the PFL, as it stands, is essentially a “road to nowhere”. However, it’s highly probable that the reason why final-stage plans for the PFL haven’t been released prior to the election is also political. The effects that the necessary series of giant concrete superstructures (flyovers and sweeping interchanges) will have on the North Fremantle area would guarantee a negative impact on voters in North Fremantle, Mosman Park and even Cottesloe – all part of Colin Barnett’s electorate.
Even more problematically, modelling by Professor Peter Newman and Dr Cole Hendrigan indicates that without the expansion of a new outer harbour the PFL will drastically hasten capacity issues in the Fremantle Port and on Fremantle’s roads. They note that while the Fremantle inner harbour received 700,000 shipping containers in 2014, with 100,000 of those containers arriving by rail, without an expanded outer harbour, and with the decrease of rail freight, that figure will rise to 3 million containers arriving by truck in 2050. Three thousand trucks were arriving daily at the port in 2014; should the PFL go ahead, 12,000–13,000 trucks per day will be entering the port in the coming decades, leading to terrible congestion in the bottlenecks north and south of the river crossing, and greatly increased diesel particulate and noise pollution in the Fremantle area. Leaving aside the damage done to the Beeliar Wetlands, this impact on Fremantle’s suburbs alone is the reason that no town planners that I’m aware of support the building of the PFL. It doesn’t make economic or civic sense.
It’s fair to question whether Colin Barnett’s truculence towards those who oppose the PFL refers back to the proposed James Price Point LNG project, which stalled in 2013 after a successful court challenge
Negotiations with the Labor government and key stakeholders to build an onshore LNG processing plant began in 2007, and were said to have been proceeding productively until Colin Barnett was elected in 2008. Barnett immediately threw down the gauntlet and demanded that the native title claimant groups make a decision within three months or the land would be compulsorily acquired. The protest movement that began after an agreement was signed (at a meeting where those opposed walked out) saw yet another massive and costly police presence guarding machines. In 2013, WA’s chief justice, Wayne Martin, ruled that environmental approval for the project was invalid. Members of the EPA’s board had recused themselves from the approval vote due to conflicts of interest, leaving only the chair to vote in its favour.
It was a serious political black eye for Colin Barnett. The public service institutions that monitor Aboriginal heritage and environmental impacts were rapidly transformed into enabling institutions.
One of the functions of the state’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) is to protect and manage places and objects of significance to cultural heritage. In recent years, the DAA has shed some 30% of its staff and marginalised the role of anthropologists, archaeologists and Indigenous experts alike. In 2012, upon request, the State Solicitor’s Office provided advice to the DAA that narrowed the definition of an Aboriginal sacred site, by requiring that a site now had to be associated with “religious activity” in order to qualify for protection under the Aboriginal Heritage Act. This deliberately narrowed definition of a sacred site was used immediately to deregister 37 sites in response to developer applications. Hundreds of other registered Aboriginal sites were also downgraded in the same period. This redefinition of “sacred site” was found to be wrong at law in April 2015.
As reported in the Monthly in 2015, these changes to the DAA process coincided with the recruitment of DAA executives with industry backgrounds, some of whom were considered to be key architects behind the Aboriginal Heritage Act Amendment Bill proposed in 2014 by the Barnett government. The Aboriginal Heritage Act already gives developers the right to appeal DAA decisions made against any development proposal, while refusing the same right to traditional owners. The proposed amendments in the bill sidestep the DAA’s only committee of review, the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee (ACMC). The amendments seek to abolish the position of ACMC anthropologist, and vest the power to make site assessment decisions solely with DAA’s CEO, allowing this person to issue a unilateral declaration that there exists “no Aboriginal site on the land”. There would be no right of appeal against any decision announced by the CEO.
In 2013, the ACMC had advised against approving the PFL heritage application, due to the project’s impact on two highly significant registered sites in the Beeliar Wetlands. The DAA had previously registered the area as a major sacred site, and archaeologists had also documented numerous artefacts in the pathway of the proposed highway, including-human introduced relics of quartz, chert and glass, that indicated an ancient historical connection to the area.
Under the weight of the new political reality of the PFL, however, in 2014, the DAA sent out two archaeologists to dig a single hole, 20 centimetres deep. That they found nothing after such a cursory attempt is unsurprising. The ACMC met again (notably in the absence of a legislatively required anthropologist) and reversed its earlier rejection of Roe 8 heritage approval, on the basis that the previously registered archaeological site could no longer be considered a site for the purposes of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Meanwhile, successive EPA decisions over a period of three decades had made it clear that the Roe 8 highway project was unacceptable on environmental grounds. Perth sits in the middle of the Swan Coastal Plain. More than half of the 8000 flora species found here exist nowhere else on the planet. Urban sprawl and land clearing has led to the banksia woodland within the greater Perth area being recently listed as endangered under the federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The Beeliar Wetlands has always been listed as a “critical environmental asset” for the same reason of protecting biodiversity in what has become a rare wetlands ecosystem.
To make the PFL a reality, the Barnett government had to remove the likely impediment of another negative EPA ruling, as well as the continuing problem of its board members’ conflicts of interest. After conflicts of interest brought down Woodside’s James Price Point project in 2013, the Barnett government decided to act. Not to remove the conflicts of interest, it must be said, but to legislate to retrospectively validate those approvals that had been made without proper management of conflicts of interest. The Roe 8 highway section of the PFL was one of 25 projects where a demonstrable conflict of interest existed, although by way of bridging legislation this was quickly “fixed” to allow the PFL project to proceed.
Significantly, the Roe 8 highway was the only one of the 25 projects for which the assessment was not complete at the time the validation bill was passed. The argument for the bridging legislation was that major private-sector projects were vulnerable to having their approvals overturned in the courts, and that this represented a major sovereign risk to projects that were already underway, and employing people. However, this logic did not apply to Roe 8, and there is a strong argument that the project should not have been “packaged” with the other projects, but instead should have been reassessed.
In line with previous assessments, the EPA concluded in 2013 that the PFL would “have significant residual impacts” – in this case even after mitigation measures outlined by the proponents of the PFL were put in place. Acting under what can be presumed as significant political pressure, the EPA bypassed the usual conditions associated with damage avoidance and mitigation, and proceeded to directly approve the environmental damage on the condition that offsets were provided. EPA policy, that offsets are not supposed to be used for damage to a “critical environmental asset”, was ignored, meaning that the EPA was in breach of its own policies. To add insult to injury, the offsets purchased by the government, containing large areas of degraded land, are nowhere near the quality as set out in the stipulated conditions.
This has resulted in the absurd situation where offsets designed to construe alternative habitat for displaced species such as the endangered Carnaby’s black cockatoo (whose numbers declined 40% from 6700 to 4000 between 2010 and 2012 due to habitat loss) is located in a completely different ecosystem, situated more than 100 kilometres from the Beeliar Wetlands. The offset properties are part of an estuarine rather than freshwater system, and don’t contain suitable cockatoo foraging habitat. These cockatoos are unable to adapt to forage on the ground, and have just lost 97 hectares of their already diminished habitat. Reports of large flocks of distressed birds circling the cleared area looking for food have been a constant over the past weeks. The EPA knows this, but having approved the project without making things such as the suitability of offsets a condition for proceeding, it was powerless to do anything when this eventuated.
Senate inquiry documents submitted by the Save Beeliar Wetlands group also point to contractors misreporting the rare and fragile flora ecology of the Beeliar Wetlands as a Low Risk, Floristic Community, using scientifically discredited survey practices that essentially involved mapping a small degraded part of the broader habitat, and then superimposing the results of that survey across other, more biodiverse, parts of the wetland.
Unsubstantiated conclusions as to the long-term impact of noise and pollution on migratory birds, southern brown bandicoots, freshwater turtles and other reptiles and mammals were accepted without question. Even more problematic is that now the clearing has commenced the EPA has absolutely no power to suspend works where breaches of ministerial conditions are identified.
The alleged breaches have been numerous and well documented, from the feeding of asbestos-laden soil into mulchers, raining plumes of toxic dust across neighbouring suburbs, to the failure to use protective mesh on site fences and the clearing of land without the appropriate preventative trapping of bandicoots, lizards, turtles and other species. In some cases, traps have been set an hour before an area is cleared. I have personally seen a dead bandicoot picked up by a security guard and tossed outside the fenced area. Those bandicoots that have been trapped have generally been released into proximate bushland across busy roads, and in seeking to return to their homes they have been inevitably crushed by traffic. The full extent of those animals killed within the fenced areas has been deliberately concealed, and despite repeated questions in parliament, and in two Senate inquiries, it remains unclear whether any legitimate surveying of cockatoo nesting sites took place before 97 hectares of roosting habitat was cleared.
Because the EPA failed to make breaches of stipulated ministerial conditions a trigger to repeal approval for the clearing, it falls to the federal minister for the environment and energy, Josh Frydenberg, and the state environment minister, Albert Jacob, to police noncompliance. They have shown little interest, despite having been presented with documentary evidence of repeated breaches of MRWA’s fauna management plan.
In 2015, Minister Jacob introduced into state parliament the Biodiversity Conservation Bill. This bill remarkably included a “God clause”, allowing Minister Jacob to sign off on the extinction of a species wherever he sees fit.
It was because of that legislation, passed by parliament last year, that a group of the state’s most respected scientists formed the Leeuwin Group of Concerned Scientists. In January this year, their convenor stated that “recent court findings and government decisions have demonstrated that WA needs to join the rest of the country and establish an environmental court urgently”. This proposal was immediately slapped down by industry groups. It was no coincidence that the corporate position was voiced in the West Australian, a newspaper belonging to a media organisation that also owns the state’s most popular television news channel, Channel Seven.
The Seven West Media 2014 Annual Report makes no bones about its influence in the state. “The West Australian drives the news agenda and public opinion in Western Australia … Both the Monday–Friday edition and the Weekend West deliver among the highest market penetration of any Australian major metropolitan newspaper, and the West Australian’s online news site thewest.com.au is the leading Western Australian news site.”
The effect that this driving of public opinion has on electoral outcomes and government policy is implicit, although what is less known is Seven West Media’s familial relationship with the real money-spinner of the Kerry Stokes empire: Seven Group Holdings. In an article examining Seven West Media’s representations of recent protest movements in WA, scholars Dr Thor Kerr and Dr Shaphan Cox quote Stokes’ upbeat message to shareholders about the performance of Seven Group Holdings’ star performer, WesTrac Australia, and its “leadership in the mining, resources and infrastructure sectors in New South Wales and Western Australia”. Kerr and Cox point out that WesTrac’s successes “drove Seven Group Holdings’ record AUD 4.8 billion revenue in the 2013 financial year. The company’s revenue comes largely from the supply of industrial machinery to resource and infrastructure projects around Australia.”
The West Australian’s editor has proudly claimed that “this newspaper supports Roe 8 going ahead”. There was no mention in the West Australian of the awarding of the PFL contract to companies that in other countries would be excluded due to a history of corporate “integrity offences”. The consortium, or “alliance”, of contractors is led by CIMIC Group, formerly known as Leighton Holdings, a company so familiar with WA government contracts that you might be forgiven for thinking it an arm of the state. It certainly didn’t matter to the Barnett government that Leighton Holdings is being investigated by ASIC, for failing to disclose to investors its alleged role in a foreign bribery scandal. Instead, it was left to Fairfax Media to report on Leighton Holdings’ dodgy dealings after leaked internal documents allegedly indicated “widespread corruption within the senior executive ranks of Leighton’s offshore arm”. In federal parliament, WA Greens senator Scott Ludlam has argued that, reminiscent of the way business was done in the Wild West in the ’70s and ’80s, Leighton Holdings could “throw down $700,000 [as a donation to the federal and WA Liberal parties] and, as if by magic, through some black-box tendering process that is shrouded in commercial-in-confidence … they nailed down a $1.2 billion construction contract”.
Another member of the consortium, AECOM, whose company blurb claims that it manages “projects and programs that unlock opportunities, protect our environment and improve people’s lives”, is also under scrutiny. In an article for the Guardian, former WA premier Carmen Lawrence points out that AECOM is the subject of a class action “from investors claiming damages as a result of … allegedly inflated traffic projections for the Clem7 tollway in Brisbane [that] seems to have resulted, so far, in payouts of $280m and 121m”. She also describes how AECOM was caught out in Iraq after partial auditing of a contract worth US$1.1 billion discovered serious financial irregularities, indicating that AECOM had “exorbitantly overcharged for routine items”.
Privately owned engineering and environmental consultancy GHD is another consortium member with a dodgy history. In 2013 the Australian reported that none other than the World Bank had barred GHD from tendering for contracts, after the company was found “to have defrauded a fund set up for Indonesian victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami”. GHD was found to have engaged in repeated instances of fraudulent practices, including billing for “false housing reimbursements worth $US210,000, fake transport cost receipts of $US150,000 and a hidden $US43,000 ‘marketing fee’ to a sub-consultant employed by the company”.
These are the three major companies to whom the WA Coalition government has chosen to hand over $1.7 billion of taxpayer money, in collaboration with two other local companies, Georgiou Group and WA Limestone, who have both done very well over the years on government contracts. That the consortium as a whole is visibly grateful for this public money is openly displayed, day after day, on the ground.
The Roe 8 section of the PFL is supposed to be a three-year build, and yet in the space of mere weeks WA Limestone’s contractors have cleared almost the entire 5-kilometre length of the proposed route, through some of WA’s most valuable wetlands. There have been alleged breaches of occupational health and safety guidelines, and MRWA’s own fauna management plan. The pace of the clearing, in the face of concerted community protest and watched over by a large and expensive police presence, appears, if anything, to be accelerating. Hundreds of ordinary people have been arrested, and this number is likely to grow (despite the Barnett government introducing into state parliament in 2016 a new law to imprison protesters for terms of up to 24 months, a law criticised by the United Nations as representing a clear breach of human rights).
WA Labor’s decision to repeal the PFL if it wins government, and to reallocate the funds towards expanding the outer harbour – which is more cost-effective, less environmentally destructive and will ultimately create more jobs – has made the PFL an election issue of note.
That the clearing and preliminary road-building work is proceeding while the government is in caretaker mode, and where the election result is uncertain, points to a toxic mix of a politician’s ego and the belief of contractors that, in the event of a Labor win, they will be paid for work done up until the election date. Given that the project’s future depends upon the election outcome, and given that the PFL was not mentioned as Liberal policy in the last election, a more reasonable government would halt proceedings and let the people decide.
The PFL aims to bolster support in the riverside Liberal seat of Bateman at the expense of those who live in safe Labor seats. The PFL would certainly not be proceeding were it to cut through Liberal heartland. One other unfulfilled aspect of the 1955 Stephenson–Hepburn plan, the proposal to build a traffic bridge from Point Resolution in Dalkeith to Point Walter in Bicton, has been quietly and permanently removed from the books.
Colin Barnett has misjudged the power of community anger before. Following his announcement in late 2013 of a shark cull on the beaches of Cottesloe, and following those now infamous images of him grinning while holding up a giant shark hook, there was immediate community protest, even as the West Australian predictably prosecuted the case for the culls to proceed. Barnett’s Liberal predecessor, Richard Court, misjudged the broader community’s revulsion towards the woodchipping of what remains of WA’s old-growth forests, and it cost him the 2001 state election.
Since the announcement in 2014 that the PFL will proceed, the West Australian has been relentless in its misrepresentation of both the case for and against the project. It has depicted those in the community engaged in peaceful, non-violent direct action as troublemakers and ideologically driven “professional protesters”. It has openly reported on unsubstantiated claims that protesters have laid “trip wires” to injure police horses, and assaulted security guards (as though the rhetorical principle of cui bono, or who gains from such claims, needn’t apply). Any objective observer to the nature of the protests (peaceful and non-violent) and of the protesters who have gathered since the clearing began could tell you that this body of people is drawn from all ages, classes, professions – all walks of life. To suggest otherwise is also a profound misreading of the motivations of the protesters, for whom “the environment” in this case is not some abstract principle but a place where generations of community members such as myself have walked with our children, and marvelled at the area’s ancient paperbarks, banksia, tuart and marri – the rare sedges and rushes. It’s not only disappointment and anger that we feel at the pointless destruction witnessed day after day, but grief.
The Conservation Council of Western Australia is petitioning for a royal commission into Roe 8 and the PFL, and the ALP is talking about launching a commission of inquiry into the Barnett government’s contracts with the private sector. Perhaps the details of the decision-making process that led to such environmental destruction, dismissal of heritage listings, questionable handing-out of contracts and suppression of opposition will one day be revealed.
Or not, as the case may be.
This is Western Australia, after all, and little appears to have changed in terms of the “tight little system” that maintains the way business and conservative politics are done. There appears to be little appetite among those who inhabit this dysfunctional and dissociated world to understand something the environmental scholar George Seddon once said, when he pointed out that WA is both mineral rich and mineral poor. There is wealth to be had digging up the ground, yet at the same time our soils are impoverished and our niche ecosystems are ancient, vulnerable to pollution, disturbance and climate change. We disregard this reality at our own risk, as do politicians who underestimate its understanding in the broader community, mindful only of the exigencies of the electoral cycle. Such hubris has brought down Liberal governments before, and there is every chance that it may spell the end of this one.
Only one thing is certain. Should Labor prevail on 11 March, the community that has stood with the Beeliar Wetlands, and for the Beeliar Wetlands, will be there, on the cleared ground, replanting the trees that belong on that ground.
David Whish-Wilson is the author of the Perth book in the NewSouth city series, and the Frank Swann series of crime novels set in 1970s and ’80s Perth. His most recent release is Old Scores (Fremantle Press), which examines the links between organised crime, business and politics in the WA Inc period. He lives in Fremantle with his wife and three children, and co-ordinates the creative writing program at Curtin University.