Repeating the Wonthaggi disaster: Why the East West Link is prone to fail

Not long ago, the Victorian government made a very questionable decision when approving a huge desalination plant based on vague assumptions and a bad assessment. Residents pay the bill even if the plant is now on stand-still. While the worst is still to come, the government is already pushing for the next disaster. The East West Link will repeat former mistakes in a simple “copy-paste style”.

Climate change can no longer be denied, less so by the Victorian government. Otherwise it wouldn’t have built the Wonthaggi desalination plant. Nevertheless, while more responsible nations are taking steps to minimize their impacts on climate change by reducing GHG emissions, the Victorian government is tempted to increase our emissions and sending strong signals that it’s the best we can do. The estimates on which the EWL’s cost-benefit analysis are based assume that road traffic will increase by more than 38% until 2031 without considering that if so, Australia will probably not be able to meet its already weak target[1] of 5% reduction of GHG emissions until 2020 compared to 2000, not to mention the optional target of 25%, which would be more than adequate considering that Australia is one of the top per capita polluters worldwide, emitting three times more than average European countries.

The estimate does further not consider that transport today already accounts for 16% of total GHG emissions in Australia and that an increase in traffic pollution will mean that stricter measures must be taken in other sectors. A recent published study by ClimateWorksAustralia showed that the 5% reduction target will be difficult to meet even without considering transport at all, not to mention an increase in road traffic!

Adding two and two up, the East West Link not only contradicts with clean energy targets, but is a step backwards in all aspects. It’s a strong signal towards car driver, motivating them to even make more use of their private vehicles. At the same time, public transport will lack necessary investment to expand proportionally to population growth, which might make it less attractive for users. It’s a vicious circle. Meanwhile, climate scientists warn that we must reduce GHG emissions more aggressively. It is estimated that in order to avoid temperature increases above 2°C compared to pre-industrial time, emission reductions in the order of 70% compared to current levels must be achieved by 2050. It’s obvious that Australia will likely fail to do so if we now build unnecessary road infrastructure that will cause more traffic and won’t even be used until 2020.

Coming back to the comparison with the desalination plant, the East West Link will also likely end in a similar financial disaster. We as residents will either end up paying the debt for an underused infrastructure or we will pay by covering for higher abatement costs in order to reduce GHG emissions in other sectors, most likely a combination of both. In any case, we as taxpayers and residents will pay the bill as we did in the case of the desalination plant.

Another similarity that deserves to be mentioned is the missing integration of the public in decision making. Not only did the government fail to inform the public about the planned project in an appropriate manner, but it does anything to shut up critical voices: it asked the City of Yarra, who stands up against a project we residents don’t want, to produce information about the cost of its campaign, whereas the state government itself never disclosed any figures in relation to already occurred expenditures. In an attempt to call for attention, the City of Melbourne addressed the Commonwealth, seeking its help in the matter. It correctly pointed out that the project developer[2] had failed to properly assess environmental elements that are protected under the EPBC Act.:

Art 3: “In order to achieve its objects, the [EPBC] Act promotes a partnership approach to environmental protection and biodiversity conservation through the involvement of the community in management planning.” Further, Art 3A specifies according to what principles an ecologically sustainable development should occur:

  • (a) “processes should effectively integrate both long-term and short-term economic, environmental, social and equitable considerations;
  • (b) if there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation;
  • (c) the principle of inter-generational equity—that the present generation should ensure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment is maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations;
  • (d) the conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity should be a fundamental consideration in decision-making;
  • (e) improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms should be promoted.”

In my view the assessment process has so far clearly failed to address any of those principles.[3] Nevertheless, the Federal government did not yet intervene in the assessment process, and private parties won’t be able to do much about it: whoever is familiar with the Wonthaggi case knows that standing up against the Victorian government can be costly.

It seems that not only will democracy still have to go a long way in Australia, but worse, that we are not able to learn from past mistakes. Wonthaggi will be repeated in the form of an absolutely senseless tunnel project – a project cited by the government as “the largest infrastructure project of this type being offered for tender anywhere in the world this year” and awaited by Wikipedia to get an entry as yet another model failure in Australian history.

[1] Other developed economies aim at reducing 20-30% compared to 1990 levels by the same time.

[2] which is Linking Melbourne Authority (LMA), “a special purpose statutory authority, responsible for managing complex road projects on behalf of the Government and the wider community”

[3] A side note: a Strategic Assessment “Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary” requested under the EPBC Act was approved in August 2009 including major transport projects such as the Outer Metropolitan Ring and the Regional Rail Link. Interestingly enough, though, the discussed East West Link wasn’t mentioned despite the fact that it had been evaluated in the Eddington report which had been published only a few months earlier (in 2008).


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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4 Responses to Repeating the Wonthaggi disaster: Why the East West Link is prone to fail

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