All may not be as it seems with the state’s most controversial road project.
The fateful decision to begin clearing endangered Banksia woodland surrounding the Beeliar Wetlands in the weeks leading up to the March 2017 state election propelled the Roe 8 highway project into the centre of a history-making battle between the community and the state government.
Hundreds were arrested, thousands of words written, senate inquiries conducted, tears shed, and celebrations had, as the victory of the McGowan Labor team brought with it the pledge that the ‘road to nowhere’ would be scrapped.
But one year on, it is worth reflecting on what progress has been made, and what has been done to implement one of the government’s highest profile election commitments that contributed to one of the largest political swings in the history of the state.
The first announcement of the newly minted Premier after the election was to put a halt to works at the Roe 8 worksite. The bulldozers were stood down, and a period of relative calm followed. A community reference group was quickly established, and work began on a rehabilitation plan.
From the outside, things were looking positive at the site of the largest act of civil disobedience in the state’s history.
In what was seen as a significant early political achievement for the McGowan team, Minister for Planning Rita Saffioti negotiated with the Commonwealth Government to enable most of the funding for Roe 8 to be redirected towards Metronet and other Labor transport priorities.
However, the price of this agreement extracted by the staunchly pro-Roe 8 Federal Liberal Party was that the beginning of Roe 8 would still be built, in the form of the Murdoch Drive Connection project.
One year later, a series of calculated moves by the State Government’s Main Roads Commission, and a disconcerting silence from the McGowan Government about the long-term future of the Roe 8 site, threaten to test the goodwill that was generated by the government’s early action on Roe 8.
With the state’s daily newspaper running a campaign to reinstate the project, and repeated promises from various Commonwealth Ministers that funds are available for ‘any government that chooses to build Roe 8’, it is understandable that the community who fought so hard to stop the road are once again becoming nervous.
The legal basis for the construction of Roe 8 rests on two separate pillars.
The first is the zoning of the area as ‘road reserve’ under the Metropolitan Region Scheme (MRS), the statutory planning document that dictates the design of our city. The deletion of the Roe 8 road reserve from the MRS is widely anticipated as the key step to finally see the back of the project, and to get on with the protection of the Beeliar Wetlands for future generations.
On this front, Minister Saffioti has made several public statements that the Government is progressing this deletion process - yet each timeframe that has been given for the amendment to be tabled in Parliament has passed, and there has been no update on progress for several months.
It may be assumed that the Liberal Party would oppose the deletion in Parliament, and given that the Government does not have the numbers to pass legislation by itself, it will be critical that other parties and independents respect the Government’s iron-clad mandate on the issue. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee of this.
While the MRS amendment remains far from certain, the second legal pillar that is required for Roe 8 to proceed is the highly controversial environmental approval for the project - and this can be changed without the need for legislation and Parliament. However, one year on, this legal authority to build Roe 8 that was criticised by scientists and contested in court remains unchanged, and the actions of the agency that holds that approval, the Main Roads Commission, are becoming very worrying indeed.
Main Roads have always been staunchly in favor of Roe 8. Officers in the agency have made it their personal business to go above and beyond in keeping the project alive, progressing it where possible through successive governments. Main Roads have done whatever has been necessary to keep the project on the books, to gain Commonwealth funding, and to remove barriers to the project.
Recently, one senior Main Roads employee was heard stating that it is only a matter of time until a Liberal Government is returned and Roe 8 is built.
It was this dogged pursuit of the project by Main Roads which ultimately made it possible for the Barnett Government to inflict such damage on the Beeliar Wetlands. With an election loss looming, the Liberals knew they could not complete the project, however they could at least inflict major damage to the environmental values which had held it up for so long, so that it would be easier to build in the future.
Perhaps it is not surprising then, that despite the clear change in policy on Roe 8, little has changed in Main Roads. In fact, the behaviour of this agency is now threatening to place the Transport Minister and the McGowan Government’s assurances to the community at serious risk if it is not reined in.
Recently, without releasing any information about it to the public, Main Roads quietly asked the EPA to make what they describe as ‘minor changes’ to the Roe 8 project approval, to allow the building of the Murdoch Drive Connection.
While Minister Saffioti has been at pains to allay community concern that the Murdoch Connection is definitely not the beginning of Roe 8, what Main Roads officers are saying behind closed doors to the EPA is exactly the opposite.
In fact, in order to get away with using the pre-existing approval for Roe 8 to build the Murdoch Drive Connect (which clearly has very different traffic and environmental impacts), Main Roads are saying in private meetings that Murdoch Connect is the beginning of Roe 8. Their argument is that the project does not require a new assessment because it is simply the beginning of a project that has already been approved. So we have an agency directly contradicting what their own Minister is saying in public.
But one might ask, what about the rest of the Roe 8 construction site - the part where public funds are now being spent on environmental rehabilitation? Well here’s where it gets even more interesting. While Main Roads are seeking variations to the Roe 8 approval to allow the Murdoch Drive Connection, there has been no move to delete the main part of Roe 8 from the environmental approval, or to formalise the community-led rehabilitation works that are currently underway.
In fact, Main Roads have resisted any suggestion that the environmental approval should be changed in any of the ways that would give effect to the Government’s policy to scrap Roe 8.
One implication of this is that the environmental rehabilitation that is underway at the Roe 8 site is not subject to any oversight or enforcement by any environmental agency. As the rehabilitation is not an activity anticipated in the Roe 8 approval, it is being conducted by Main Roads without any statutory basis or legal security.
There is no recourse for the government if the rehabilitation works are unsuccessful, and there is no ability to enforce Main Roads actually undertaking the rehabilitation at all.
More worrying is that Main Roads are attempting to leave the legal approval for construction of the entire length of Roe 8 untouched. They are no doubt hoping that the MRS amendment does not pass Parliament, and a change of government or a change of policy will enable them to unleash the bulldozers once again. At best this is an agency that is selectively applying government policy. At worst, it is a deliberate act of defiance in order to keep Roe 8 on the table.
While this situation remains, there is no barrier in place to Roe 8 recommencing, and the best the McGowan Government can claim to have done towards implementing its election commitment is to have suspended works on one section of Roe 8. It is difficult not to be worried that the road to nowhere will return once again.