Over the past few weeks, I have written quite a lot about the East West Link. In this post I want to show how the assessment process for the proposed development has been manipulated in different ways with clear bias towards approval of a very questionable project. It is self-explanatory that this contradicts with key features of a democracy such as transparency, responsibility, fairness and accountability.
Insufficient room for Public Participation
Public participation is an important part of any assessment process as outlined in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration:
“Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.”
This is also reflected in Art 3 of the EPBC Act, which states that “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.”
In terms of the EWL project, the competent authorities have clearly failed to fulfil this duty. The first steps were undertaken without informing the public about the plan. Whenever information leaked through and the public started to express their concerns, the government tried to silence those who spoke out instead of integrating them into the assessment process.
Further, until today interested parties were not adequately informed about the detailed plans and figures and one has to gather any potential evidence from all kinds of sources available. As an example, reports about field investigations that have been carried out (preliminary flora and fauna as much as cultural heritage assessments) are to be found on the department of planning website but not on the official EWL website. That is a clear failure and doesn’t reflect a transparent and accountable approach.
Mistake in assessment procedure: the need for a Strategic Assessment
The project was first declared on 20 December 2012 by the Governor in Council for the purpose of applying the assessment, approvals and delivery powers under the Major Transport Projects Facilitation Act 2009. Terry Mulder, Minister for Roads, appointed Linking Melbourne Authority (LMA) as Project Proponent. On 14 May 2013, the Minister for Planning determined that a Comprehensive Impact Statement assessment process should apply to the project.
Considering the impact of the proposed project it is rather surprising that it wasn’t assessed on strategic level, more so since on 4 March 2009, the federal environment minister signed an agreement with the Victorian Government to “undertake a strategic assessment under national environment law of the expansion of Melbourne’s urban growth boundary strategic assessment” including other major transport projects such as the Outer Metropolitan Ring and the Regional Rail Link. Despite the fact that the discussed East West Link had been evaluated in the Eddington report published only a few months earlier, it wasn’t included in Melbourne’s urban growth boundary.
In my view, this is further evidence for a significant administrative and operative failure in the assessment process.
The importance of an assessment on strategic level (strategic assessment) is in so far important, that an impact assessment on project level does not usually account appropriately for cumulative impacts and/or alternatives. Versions of the latter have been proposed by different stakeholders but didn’t find room in the assessment process nor were they disclosed to the public.
As concerns cumulative impacts, please refer also to the points below.
It is today widely accepted that climate change needs to find appropriate room in any environmental impact assessment process, particularly on strategic level. Not only does climate change affect a proposed development but vice versa.
Besides of immediate local impacts, a traffic plan does also affect the environment and other policies’ goals on a larger scale. As an example, any transport decision will have an impact on GHG emissions and hence, will affect GHG emission targets. The estimates in which the EWL’s cost-benefit analysis are based assume that road traffic in Melbourne will increase by more than 38% by 2031 without considering its impacts or possible adaptation measure. The estimates do not consider that today transport already accounts for 16% of total GHG emissions in Australia and that an increase in traffic pollution can put other policies (e.g. Clean Energy Targets) and commitments (i.e. Kyoto Protocol) at risk. Consequently the estimates fail to acknowledge that Australia will probably not be able to meet its already weak target of 5% reduction of GHG emissions until 2020 compared to 2000, not to mention the optional target of 25%, as proposed by environmental groups and some political parties. Having those policies and climate targets in mind, alternatives to the proposed road project must be considered!
Further, climate change will have an impact on the environment, regardless of any additional project. It is estimated that climate change effects will increase pressure on ecosystems, flora and fauna, which has to be considered in the assessment of proposed developments, because both together will result in cumulative impacts that can be more significant than when assessed in isolation.
Poor quality of reports/studies with clear bias towards approval of the project
Several documents, studies and methods reveal a strongly biased approach in the project assessment.
Preliminary assessments on flora and fauna as on cultural heritage have clear lacks in information and approach. For example, when investigating the presence of endangered birds, the consultants failed to contact stakeholder groups involved with long-term monitoring of birds in the project area (e.g. Friends of Royal Park). They did further not consider data available on websites of mentioned groups and instead based their judgement in only two temporal very limited site visits.
Under 5.8. Cumulative Impacts the flora and fauna report finds that “This existing landscape is not expected to change significantly in the near future due to the highly developed nature of inner Melbourne limiting development potential. Therefore, impacts to existing biodiversity from future development in the locality are likely to be limited.”
That is not only completely wrong as a judgement but it fails to consider aggregate impacts in space and time. In an already highly developed area, every minor action can trigger a significant impact. In terms of endangered species present in the area, it means that any minor action can lead to their immediate extinction due to an already very limited resilience of the local ecosystem due to current pressure of already existing developments.
Likewise, the report came to the conclusion that the “Swift Parrot mortality as a consequence of collision with wire netting fences, windows and cars is well documented. Temporary fencing and the presence of machinery may increase the chance of Swift Parrot mortality. However, fencing, glass windows, and vehicles are commonplace in the indicative corridor and the chances of a Swift Parrot colliding with fencing or machinery associated with the project is unlikely to be significantly different to the background conditions.”
The Swift Parrot is a species listed as endangered and deserves appropriate protection. As I have outlined above, any additional harm will put more pressure on an already endangered species and is thus significant – the exact opposite of the conclusion in the report!
The report also correctly identifies “a regionally significant population of White’s Skink” but comes to the conclusion that “this species is not listed under the EPBC Act, FFG Act or on the DSE Advisory Lists.”
Even if the species is not listed in any of those lists, it is locally significant and the efforts put into its conservation over the past years explains that its conservation has importance and value for the local community.
Some stakeholders found that species and cultural heritage were not properly assessed and that there were a number of objects/species that the report had failed to identify.
Indeed, there are many more weaknesses and lacks in those reports (e.g. aspects of climate change are not considered at all in any of the so far available assessment reports). However, there is not enough room and time to discuss all these here.
Overall, the interpretation of gained information and data can be questioned and suggest that the consultants who carried out the survey had no other goal than to prove that the impacts of the planned project where not relevant.
The figures in which the profitability of the proposed development is based have been criticized by several sources. However, until today the proponent did not disclose their calculations or clarify potential misinterpretations.
An online community survey by LMA carried out in August 2013 as “one of the research activities for the East West Link Social Impact Assessment, a key part of the specialist investigations” was so strongly biased in its approach that it would deserve a price for “worst example of what makes a good quality survey”.
The survey did not mention any aspect of negative impacts of the proposal, nor costs or what these would mean for the people participating in the survey. There are many historic examples that have shown that if people are not informed about costs and other trade-offs, they are likely to welcome a proposal and it was thus not correct to hide this kind of information in a survey! It is evident that the outcome of the survey will not be representative at all.
All these findings are not new and others have pointed at them as early as in 2011. Democracy is not a one man show and those who do not understand the key principles of democratic negotiation shouldn’t lead a society, be it on council, state or national level. I hope that sooner or later, also the Victorian government will acknowledge that ego-trips and boys toys have no room in a public space.