The AIMN is often criticised for its claim of being an independent information alternative. I assume the criticism comes because most articles and comments tend towards progressive social justice and philosophy.
The definition of independent is “free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority; not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence.” I am not a member of any political organisation or union. Nobody tells me what to write and nobody checks it before I publish it. I am not paid to write. I therefore defend our claim to independence, but cannot do the same for the head of our supposedly independent Commission of Audit, Tony Shepherd.
As head of the Business Council of Australia, Shepherd advocates for Australia’s 100 biggest companies, and was chairman of construction and services giant Transfield Services until he quit in October after more than a decade on the board.
Transfield has secured hundreds of millions of dollars in federal government contracts in recent years, including reaping $180 million from operating detention facilities on Nauru. In February we learned that Transfield Services will be paid $1.22 billion by the Australia government to run both offshore detention centres
Mr Shepherd left with more than 200,000 Transfield shares, allocated to his family superannuation fund, on top of his final salary of $380,000.
Mr Shepherd’s Commission of Audit was tasked with looking at possible cuts to the ABC and SBS. Considering he is an advocate for pay TV providers in his position as chairman of the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association (ASTRA), this is surely a huge conflict of interest. The group, whose members include Telstra, Foxtel and ESPN, in January issued an invitation to a party at Parliament House in Canberra.
”Tony Shepherd AO, chairman, ASTRA, invites you to join the leaders and stars of Australian subscription television to celebrate the quality, creativity and diversity of content watched by 7 million Australians,” it said
Shepherd is also a director of the international arm of Virgin Australia and heads the WestConnex Delivery Authority which will award contracts to build the proposed Sydney toll road, co-funded by the Abbott government. The WestConnex is at an early stage in Infrastructure Australia’s four stage priority list. Its Benefit Cost Ratio is thought by many observers to be negative.
In October last year, more than 100 people gathered at Leichhardt Town Hall to hear public transport experts Michelle Zeibots and Gavin Gatenby point out the many flaws in the shaky case for Australia’s most expensive infrastructure project.
This led to Leichardt Council presenting a Notice of Motion stating
“The WestConnex is a very bad transport plan. In fact it is not a transport plan at all it is just a very long, very expensive private road. It will generated very high carbon emissions in both construction and use and it will force people off public transport and back into their cars.
It is also has a very bad urban development plan which has been conveniently linked to the private tollway plan.
It would appear that the government is somewhat opportunistically seeking to imply that high rise development along the route of a private tollway somehow equates with encouraging higher density development near public transport hubs. There is no logic to this at all only a hungry grab for land for developers. This is not the future that Leichhardt Council and her residents and local businesses aspire to. The “WestConnex Revitalisation Land Use Planning” , should it go ahead will destroy the Leichhardt we know and love.”
It would be interesting to see who is buying up land in that area.
WestConnex is the biggest urban infrastructure project in the country – with $3.3 billion of taxpayers’ money already committed to it – and hardly anything is known about it.
Taxpayers do not know how many cars are expected to use this motorway. They do not know its estimated impact on local roads. They are yet to be told its precise route. They’re in the dark on construction methods. Even the need for the WestConnex is not known.
WestConnex is really a connection of three motorway projects the NSW government says will cost about $11.5 billion together.
One of the three projects – the second to be built – will be another M5 East tunnel in southern Sydney and a connecting road to Sydney Airport. The state says it will be able to build this for $3.6 billion to $3.8 billion, with construction starting in 2016 and finishing in 2020.
This forecast – presented with no justification to back it up – seems vastly underestimated.
When the former NSW Labor government appealed to the federal government for funding for pretty much the same project in 2010, it put a $4.5 billion price tag on it (with inflation, that would probably be close to $6 billion by 2020). Even then the federal government’s advisor Infrastructure Australia said the $4.5 billion figure was likely to be understated.
So on what basis are Abbott and the NSW State government now so confident that they can do the job for billions less than their predecessors?
The public servant running the project to date, Paul Goldsmith, said
”When we started the business case, we recognised this as a very difficult place to build a motorway. It’s a very expensive place to build a motorway and this is why we developed a couple of industry partners to have some input into developing solutions for that part of WestConnex. We haven’t got a fixed solution but we have a whole bunch of ideas and we’ve got some short-listed solutions to that area.”
In other words, the government is sure it can build this section of motorway for $3.8 billion but it either does not know how or will not say.
Tony Shepherd’s board of businessmen should be providing the workings, analysis and assumptions of WestConnex, in the same way they would if governments proposed massively expensive new welfare, disability, education or health programs.
Research shows us that in most industrialised cities, including Sydney, car use is declining due to fuel prices and other living pressures, while demand for public transport continues to grow. Sydney is a model example of this shift. So while Prime Minister Tony Abbott believes the ”humblest person is king in his own car”, the evidence says many of us are opting out of this 1950s mindset.
The claim that WestConnex is an integrated transport solution is also deceptive. ”Integrated” transport can be interpreted as allowing different travel modes to complement each other. A more holistic understanding implies the incorporation of social, economic and environmental elements, and policies to reduce the need for travel and the impact of journeys made.
WestConnex does neither. First, widening the M4 and M5, and building an 8.5-kilometre tunnel, does not enable private transport users to integrate walking, cycling or public transport as part of their journey. Second, it does not meet key environmental, social and economic outcomes. The government’s business case executive summary provides no insight into how WestConnex will meet environmental criteria or encourage healthier transport choices.
Perhaps that’s because building large motorways increases greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution levels, dependency on fossil fuels and inequitable access to mobility.
Choosing roads over integrated public transport options is not logical, but ideological, as shown by Abbott’s plans to abolish funding for urban rail, while promising support for WestConnex, Perth’s airport gateway road and Melbourne’s east-west link. Mike Baird’s so-called innovative financing model for the WestConnex is underpinned by this same neo-liberal ideology.
Failure by successive Labor and Liberal governments to recognise the need for affordable, reliable, efficient, integrated transport options has earned Sydney the title of the world’s fourth-worst major city for transport and infrastructure.
Public money should be spent on projects such as an integrated light rail connection up Parramatta Road and building Parramatta Council’s proposed full light rail network in western Sydney.
It is time to invest in 21st-century public transport systems that can connect communities, cut environmental impacts, and generate long-term economic success.
Considering Tony Shepherd’s many business involvements presenting a multitude of conflicts of interest, was he really the man to head the Commission of Audit? It appears to me that Tony Shepherd is recommending what is good for Tony Shepherd and the countless businesses he represents.