Anthony Albanese, WestConnex, and the ethics of an activist journalist

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An anti-WestConnex protester is removed from an action by police. Image: New Matilda

A controversial roads project has angered local communities leading into this month’s Federal election in Australia while the companies behind it have dumped truckloads of cash on both major parties. When faced with difficult questions about his position on the project, the would-be Labor leader turned the focus back onto me, writes Wendy Bacon in Sydney for New Matilda.

If you live in or visit the seats of Grayndler and Sydney, you can’t help but be aware of the issue of the WestConnex toll road that is beginning to carve up neighbourhoods with massive dusty constructions sites and the forced acquisition of hundreds of homes and parks.

The WestConnex interactive map - click on the image.
The WestConnex interactive map – click on the image.

The $16.8 billion project is meant to be about solving traffic congestion – a claim disputed by expert traffic planners, the City of Sydney, and 16,000 community groups and individuals who sent submissions to the NSW Department of Planning. More than 99 percent of these submissions objected to the whole project. The NSW government approved it anyway.

This presents a political problem for local Federal MPs Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek. Labor – including leader Bill Shorten and Shadow Minister for Infrastructure Albanese – supports WestConnex.

The convincing wins of Greens candidates in Newtown and Balmain at last year’s NSW state election was partly attributed to a rejection by voters of Labor’s support for Westconnex.

This was a perfect time for Labor to engage in a post election rethink of its policy. There is plenty of expert evidence on which it could rely to argue that WestConnex is a waste of public funds and will not solve traffic congestion. It will saddle Western Sydney with tolls for generations.

Instead, Labor has kept supporting the project, which is why it remains a burning issue across Sydney’s inner west.

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In this campaign, Albanese and Plibersek and their teams began by trying to convince voters, including by direct phone calls, that WestConnex is only a state issue. However, anyone who looks at the WestConnex website will see that it involves a partnership between the NSW and Australian governments. $3.5 billion in Federal funds have already been allocated to the project.

COf this, a $2 billion loan and at least $300 million in grant money is still to be paid over. Community groups WestConnex Action Group, No WestConnex, and the City of Sydney are campaigning for the federal funds and construction to be stopped, at least until a federal audit of the project is over.

Albanese told a packed Balmain Town Hall in May that he would not attempt to block the funds although he would not support additional funding. He failed to answer a question on what evidence Labor’s support for WestConnex is based on, and left the meeting for another appointment before it had ended.

WestConnex and the Federal election
I’ve been researching the WestConnex story, including Federal parliamentary debates on the issue, for more than 18 months. So when I read the pamphlet that Albanese distributed across the entire Grayndler electorate before the July 2 Federal election, I was surprised to see this:

Many locals have also raised their concerns over WestConnex with me. I share these concerns which is why I have raised the issue of WestConnex specifically in relation to problems of financing, planning, lack of community consultation and the impact of the WestConnex project within the community, more than 30 times in Parliament.

Judge for yourself, but I understood that to mean Albanese shared concerns of the electorate about WestConnex and that he had raised these concerns on behalf of his community in Parliament more than 30 times.

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Federal Labor MP Anthony Albanese … champion of the controversial and massive WestConnex tollway project. Image: New Matilda

A review of the 16000 submissions reveals that key community concerns include; traffic congestion, granting construction contracts to companies before an Environmental Impact Statement was completed (which, by the way, was eventually done by AECOM, a company with record of misleading traffic studies), pollution, loss of parks and biodiversity, dislocation of communities, loss of housing and heritage buildings, underpayment of those whose homes have been acquired, poor community consultation and secrecy.

Although I don’t agree with some Labor policies, I expected that the basic content of its leaflets would be factually accurate but this statement did not ring true.

I began with a search of Hansard. It revealed 23 occasions on which Albanese had made a speech mentioning “WestConnex” and one occasion when he raised the issue in a Committee. I asked two people familiar with the tricky Hansard search engine to do the same search and they confirmed my results.

So I decided to write to Albanese.

I wrote:

As a journalist, I have covered WestConnex extensively since December 2014. I was somewhat surprised by your statement, so I did a search of Hansard. I’ve identified 23 occasions on which you have mentioned Westconnex in Parliament and one occasion in a Committee hearing in 2015.

I have not been able to identify any other occasions when you have specifically raised concerns about ‘community consultation’ and very few references to what could be described as ‘impact of the WestConnex project within the community.’

I intend [to]publish an article about your statement. I wish to make sure that my search of Hansard has thrown up correct results. If you have information or research suggesting that my search is wrong, I would appreciate it if you or your staff could send me a list of more than 30 occasions on which you raised your concerns about WestConnex by 9 am on Monday.

On Sunday, I attended a rally of hundreds of residents protesting against WestConnex and calling for a halt to the funding. Albanese made a brief appearance to talk to people one on one and walk a dog. He declined an invitation to speak at the rally.

Later on Sunday, I received this reply from Albanese.

Dear Wendy,

It is remarkable that you would claim to be acting as a journalist rather than a campaigner for a political party, but I guess how you reconcile that with the journalists’ code of ethics is a matter for you.

I have raised the issue of Westconnex as a member of the House of Representatives on at least 33 occasions. Further, as a member of the Joint House Committee on Public Accounts and Audit, I have raised the issue many times at public and private hearings. As you may know this Committee provides Parliamentary scrutiny of the Australian National Audit Office and the ANAO has announced an audit into Westconnex. I note the Greens political party have not sought to participate in that Committee.

I do not anticipate these facts will alter the partisan nature of your contribution.

I will return to the question of ethics.

The language in Albanese’s reply was noticeably different from that in the pamphlet. The words “raised….  in parliament” were missing.

By then I had identified seven questions that Albanese had asked in Parliament mentioning ‘Westconnex’ so that brought my tally to 30.

For example, a year after the Abbott government was elected in September 2014, Albanese asked the Minister for Infrastructure Warren Truss why there were no bulldozers and cranes for big projects as the Coalition had promised in opposition. Truss assured him that work on WestConnex would begin soon. Another question just asked for a list of infrastructure.

On other occasions in 2014 he asked whether residents would be consulted or given information about WestConnex. He was told, as you would expect, that this would occur. I can’t find anywhere where he pursued widespread concern about the flawed consultation process or secrecy surrounding WestConnex.

In fact, after analysing all his interventions I concluded that if his claim was intended to communicate that he had raised community concerns on more than 30 occasions, it is false.

In September 2014, Parliament debated changes to Infrastructure Australia. In this context Albanese complained several times about traffic congestion that would be caused by the project in St Peters, Newtown and Haberfield near the WestConnex route. This was in the context that  Labor “were of the view that there is a real argument to extend the M4 to city. It is absurd that it is some considerable distance from the city and then people after being on the M4 hit a traffic jam.” He referred to contributing “$25 million to the WestConnex project to make sure that it got up to speed” when he was the Minister for Infrastructure. In October 2014, he told Parliament that the “M4 has to take people to the city  – that policy was right then and right today.”

Building WestConnex to the CBD is Labor’s policy. It is a concept that has almost no community or planner support. Labor has never explained where the giant portals would be along the route and where the tunnel would emerge in the CBD. Albanese also said WestConnex New M5 should go to Port Botany, an idea which has more support. But he never explained what route it would take to get there or what suburbs and scarce open space and endangered species would be affected.

On October 30, 2014, he complained that the Abbott government had granted a $2 billion concessional loan that had been paid to the NSW government before a cost benefit analysis. This is the first sign of a big ‘misunderstanding’ by Albanese that the loan had already been transferred to NSW. He continued to complain in parliament that it had been ‘made available’. In fact, no agreement was signed until last year and not a cent has been transferred.

New Matilda confirmed this with the Department of Infrastructure on April 26 and the Minister for Roads Paul Fletcher confirmed it again on June 2.  Last year, when concerned residents raised it at a Labor party forum in Arncliffe, Albanese told them it had been ‘prepaid.’ This was before the loan agreement had even been signed.

I do not know if Albanese genuinely misunderstood or if he was merely looking for a way to criticise the process of the project without actually opposing it. But only when confronted with the evidence at the recent Balmain Town Hall meeting did he accept that the money has not been paid. He then said that if he wins Grayndler again, he would not attempt to stop the $2 billion loan being passed to the NSW government. Greens candidates Jim Casey promised to do “everything in his power” to stop it.

This year, more details were released about WestConnex Stage 3. It became clear that a third part of the Grayndler electorate in Rozelle and Balmain would be badly affected. Albanese accepted an invitation to a community meeting. Just before parliament was adjourned on May 4, 2016, he made a short speech expressing his concern. But his focus was on ‘uncertainty’ in the community, not the strong opposition to the project and its impacts.

On three occasions, Albanese has mentioned Vince Crow a constituent who got two letters on the same day, one stating that his house would be resumed and another that it wouldn’t. He has never spoken about the hundreds of people who have lost their homes in St Peters or Haberfield or the destruction of heritage homes. He has never mentioned the pollution that will threaten the health of residents and children, not just in inner Sydney but in south west Sydney as well. He hasn’t mentioned the contracts being let before the EIS was completed or the farcical community consultation, concerns that have been expressed thousands of times in submissions. He has not referred to independent reports providing evidence that tollways such as WestConnex will not solve Sydney’s traffic congestion.

If less informed voters have got the impression from his leaflet that he has supported his community on WestConnex or communicated its impacts to the broader public, they would be wrong. It is true to say that on several occasions he has expressed concerns about uncertainty, planning processes, and traffic congestion.

Journalism, politics and ethics
It is the job of journalists to hold politicians accountable for their statements.

Professor Wendy Bacon
Investigative journalist Professor Wendy Bacon … campaigns “not going to stop me being a reporter”. Image: YouTube clip

Albanese raises the issue of my integrity. I know from experience he is thin-skinned so I was not surprised by his response.

As I have explained on my own website, I am an activist and a journalist. If you ever read the Daily Telegraph, you’ll know that many journalists are activists for particular political causes, but those who work in the mainstream media don’t usually disclose it. I do where relevant – see the bottom of this story. I apply the ethics of my union, the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance.

I am also a long term supporter but not a member of the Greens. My reasons include their anti-corruption stance, donations reform in NSW, support for those experiencing miscarriage of justice, support of public education, resistance to the privatisation of TAFE services at a time when Labor was supporting privatisation, opposition to coal mining, coal seam gas, and to fossil fuel subsidies.

I support their strong feminist program including decriminalisation of abortion, support for equal rights in every sphere including equal marriage. Unlike Labor and the Liberals, they opposed the Federal Intervention in the NT, which I also strongly opposed. Last but not least, I would not consider voting for any party that condones what I regard as concentration camps on Nauru and Manus and our inhumane refugee policies.

I have campaigned for both Jim Casey for Grayndler and Sylive Ellsmore for Sydney and endorsed Senator Lee Rhiannon in tomorrow’s election.

But that’s not going to stop me being a reporter.

Road lobby donations to WestConnex
Facts do matter, so I have been delving a little deeper into why it might be that Labor got locked in so early to the WestConnex project.

There has been a perception that it is all about votes in Western Sydney. Labor politicians may have convinced themselves of that but a small No WestConnex poll suggests that support is not strong and a case could easily be made that $16.8 billion would be better spent on public transport rather than roads.

Democracy for Sale, a project associated with Senator Lee Rhiannon, published a report just before the Federal election showing donations from big road industry companies over 15 years.

Support for roads has been built through donations over a long period.  Over 15 years, major companies associated with the industry have donated more than $15 million with Labor receiving slightly more than the Coalition, probably because there were more Labor governments in power during the selected period. Macquarie and Leighton Contractors ( now CIMIC), both of which are heavily involved in WestConnex, have been the biggest donors.

Since the GFC, NSW reforms banning developer donations in 2009, along with the publicity around the corrupting influence of donations, have seen a reduction in donations, but the timing of more recent Leighton donations is interesting.

The Gillard Labor government went to the polls in August 2010. It was always going to be a tightly fought contest.

Leighton’s annual return for 2010 – 2011 shows that the company made a $50,000 donation to Federal Labor on July 7, 2010 and further donations to Federal Labor totalling more than $10,000 between July and April 2011. On July 7, Leighton also made a donation of $70,000 to the Federal Liberal Party and on July 30, $5,500 to the Federal Branch of the National Party and a further $10,000 on August 27 and $1,750 before June 2011.

The NSW LNP government was elected in March 2011 and then Premier Barry O’Farrell set up Infrastructure NSW, which was chaired by ex-LNP Premier Nick Greiner. In October 2012, Infrastructure NSW recommended a 33km tollway system which it called WestConnex.

On January 28, 2013, the then Shadow Minister for Infrastructure Anthony Albanese announced $25 million to “advance the WestConnex project”. The NSW government invited a number of companies to work on the business case that would justify WestConnex.

Despite the corruption allegations and the company’s record of being involved in failed tollways, Leightons was one of several companies that was invited to be part of the planning and development of WestConnex. This was a key moment in a number of decisions through which the O’Farrell government attempted to make the project a political fait accompli.

NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon
NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon with colleagues at Lilian Fowler Reserve, Erskineville, 10 May 2014. Image: Mark Riboldi, Flickr.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon raised the issue of donations and WestConnex tollway company political donations in February 2013 when she told the Senate, “The ears of politicians have been successfully bent by the likes of the motorway construction companies… companies like John Holland, Leighton, Thiess and Macquarie Bank have given big donations to the major parties. The public do not know if deals are done behind closed doors, but there is the perception that MPs are favouring private road building businesses at the expense of public transport.”

In the March 2013 budget, Labor included $1.8 billion for the WestConnex. One of its conditions was that it should go to the Sydney CBD. The LNP opposition promised $1.5 billion. In 2013, Leighton Contractors and its subsidiary Thiess were awarded more than $4 million dollars to work on early plans to justify WestConnex.

Analysis of Leighton’s donations for 2012/2013 shows that several donations during this critical period totalled $7272 to Federal Labor. The pro-tollway Tony Abbott led opposition also received $2450 in donations to the Federal Liberal Party branch, $2,200 to the Tasmanian Liberal Party and $909 to the Nationals. In 2013/2014, Leightons donated a further $10,700 to Federal Labor with the Liberal party only receiving $3000.

But the Democracy for Sale report reveals some fascinating detail about the politicians who were directly funded by Leighton in early years. Unfortunately later donation returns do not include such detail.

In 2005/06, Leighton executives attended a private dinner with the then Liberal Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer, a fundraising lunch with Labor’s Kim Beazley, lunch and dinner with then Liberal shadow Minister Chris Hartcher, who retired in 2014 after NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption investigated his involvement with Liberal party donations, a dinner with then ALP MPs Paul McLeay and Michael Costa, dinner with National Party MP Warren Truss, and a boardroom dinner with Victorian ALP ex-Premier Steve Bracks. There was also a private dinner with Wayne Swan and Peter Garrett, lunch with former LNP Defence Minister Kevin Andrews, dinner with Queensland Labor ex-Premier Peter Beattie and a NSW Labor cabinet dinner for which $5000 was paid.

In 2006/2007, Leighton’s donations returns record that the Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen’s Prospect Campaign received two donations totally $2700 and Labor’s now Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek Election Fund received $1800. In the same year, Tony Abbott’s Warringah campaign received $1000. In 2007/2008, Leighton’s donations return shows that then Labor Minister Martin Ferguson’s campaign account received $3000 in September 2007, and the current Shadow Labor Minister for Communications Jason Clare’s campaign received two donations of $2000 in July and August 2008.

Transfield Services, which has since been acquired by Ferrovial, a major player in tollways, also provide some earlier details of support for particular politicians.

The donations return for Transfield Services in 2010 recorded that in March 2010, the NSW ALP organised a fundraising lunch with Labor Treasurer Wayne Swan and the Minister for the Status of Women Tanya Plibersek, at which Transfield Services donated $2,500. On June 7, 2010 Transfield Services attended a dinner with then Labor MP and now Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Anthony Albanese and donated $2500. Two weeks later, Transfield attended a dinner for PM Julia Gillard at which a further $5000 was donated. A week later a further $1000 was donated at an NSW ALP budget dinner. On June 5, 2012 Transfield Services donated $5500 to the North Sydney Business Forum, a business political funding associated with then North Sydney Liberal MP Joe Hockey.

It is likely that donations to the Coalition and Labor have had far more influence on transport policy than the concerns of ordinary citizens.

Just before the Federal election, Albanese pulled in ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating for an old style boots and all attack on the Greens at a Labor campaign meeting in Grayndler. I found this ironic because just 30 years ago, I was one of several Fairfax journalists who published an expose on the links between Keating and the property industry in NSW. Our attempts to expose ALP corruption in NSW so angered Keating that it led him to punish Fairfax by allowing Rupert Murdoch to take over the Herald and Weekly Times in 1987. This delivered News Corporation the dominance that allows it to so unfairly campaign against Bill Shorten and the Labor team today – except Albanese, of course. News Corp is campaigning to SAVE ALBO, providing him commentary space and a whole front page promotion to kick of his campaign for Grayndler. I wonder why?

Wendy Bacon, who lives in Newtown, a community heavily affected by this roading project, is a supporter of the Greens and endorsed Lee Rhiannon for reelection — she succeeded. Both Labor’s Anthony Albanese and Tanya Joan Plibersek were also reelected. Bacon supports the WestConnex Action Group. This article was first published by New Matilda and is republished here with permission.

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