Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Benita Kolovos

Another election year leads to another Victorian debate about the East West Link proposal

Matthew Guy, Tony Abbott and Michael Sukkar stand in front of a billboard that says
Victorian opposition leader Matthew Guy (left) then prime minister Tony Abbott and Liberal MP Michael Sukkar (right) criticised the scrapping of the East West Link project in 2014. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Almost seven years after Victoria’s Labor government scrapped a billion-dollar contract to construct the East West Link, the project – once dubbed a “zombie” by the state’s treasurer – refuses to die.

The federal Coalition has previously pushed the case for the project. But this time, it was the state opposition reviving it by announcing it would build the underground tunnel to connect Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway to CityLink if was elected at the November election.

The opposition spokesperson for transport infrastructure, Matthew Bach, said the Coalition would continue to advocate for the toll road, despite voters rejecting it at two state elections.

“I represent a large constituency in the eastern region, I talk to people in my area all the time about this road, who are fed up. They’ve been fed up for years, sitting in traffic on the Eastern Freeway,” he told reporters on Friday.

In the scheme of East West Link announcements, it was a subdued affair. Neither the party’s state leader, Matthew Guy, or prime minister Scott Morrison – who was in Melbourne at the time – attended the event.

The 2014 state election was dubbed a “referendum on the East West Link” by then prime minister Tony Abbott. The premier at the time, Denis Napthine, had vowed to build it while then-opposition leader Daniel Andrews promised to cancel the contract, describing it as “not worth the paper it’s written on”.

If the election was indeed a referendum on the project, voters responded with a resounding no. Andrews won, making the Coalition the first single-term government in Victoria since 1955, and the contract was cancelled.

In 2018, Guy gave new life to the project, proposing a modified route to minimise property acquisitions if elected. The Coalition went on to suffer a humiliating defeat with huge swings against the party, including in the eastern suburbs, where many drivers would have benefited from the East West Link.

It’s not to say the East West Link cost the Coalition the election – an internal review found the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull as the federal party’s leader had a major impact, as did the party’s law-and-order-led strategy.

But it was expected the proposal would be confined to the history books, given Andrews would be forging ahead with the North East Link, connecting the Eastern Freeway and the M80 Ring Road at Greensborough.

Less than six months later and a week before the 2019 federal election, Morrison committed $4bn for the East West Link as part of his bid to retain seats in the eastern suburbs. The same suburbs that turned red in 2018 ended up sticking with the Liberals in 2019.

The money remains in the federal budget, handed down last month, as a “contingency”, to be given to the first Victorian government prepared to deliver the project.

Bach said the state could “immediately begin” construction using the funds.

“Who doesn’t take $4bn to build a road?” he said.

The announcement also works to counter the Victorian government’s argument that the state has been shafted by their federal counterparts when it comes to infrastructure funding.

Earlier this week, Victoria’s transport infrastructure minister, Jacinta Allan, gave Barnaby Joyce a spray at their first meeting since the Nationals leader took over the portfolio at a federal level, telling him “Victorians are Australian taxpayers as well”.

She said 6% – or $208m – of the $3.56bn in new infrastructure funding promised by the Morrison government is allocated to Victoria.

Andrews on Friday said his government would forge ahead with the infrastructure that Victorians voted for.

“I’m not here to be committing to projects that don’t stack up and committing to projects that Victorians have voted against,” he said.

“With the East West Link, you lose money for every dollar you spend.”

Indeed, the business case for the East West Link, put together in March 2013, found that for every $1 invested only 45 cents would be returned. An updated business case three months later showed a return of 80 cents. When wider economic benefits were factored in, the benefit cost ratio was $1.40.

A 2015 report by the auditor general found abandoning the project was expected to cost more than $1.1bn but if the East West Link had proceeded to completion, the project would have cost in excess of $22.8bn.

Meanwhile, Infrastructure Victoria’s latest strategy, released last year, found there was no “immediate need” for the East West Link due to other major projects being built. The advisory body suggested preserving the East West Link corridor for it to be delivered “if circumstances require”.

It’s hard to see how churning out the same policy three elections in a row, with almost no changes, will help the Victorian Coalition win any extra votes. If anything, it makes them look like they aren’t listening to Victorians.

But it might get their federal counterparts talking.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.