The Victorian Parliament passed laws last week to make it even easier to approve and build major transport projects such as freeways, rail lines and ports. The new laws, an expansion of the Major Transport Project Facilitation Act, passed in 2009, are designed to push through Melbourne’s massive East-West link freeway project.
The original Act gave extensive and unprecedented powers to the Planning Minister to do whatever was necessary to complete a major transport project. The combination of the 2009 legislation and the current changes will mean that essentially nothing can stop a government-sponsored transport project, and that no other body (aside from the Planning Minister and the government developer) will have a role in deciding how the project should proceed.
Local councils and other government agencies have been stripped of their powers to determine how land will be used and impacts will be managed when it comes to big transport projects. Local councils will no longer have any say in relation to projects that go through their local area. Planning schemes, local laws and council policies can all be overridden.
Similarly the EPA and environment agencies no longer have powers to assess and manage the environmental impacts of major transport proposals. All such powers are in the hands of the Planning Minister (who is essentially the proponent), who does not even need to comply with the same requirements the original decision maker had to comply with.
This has enormous consequences for the community and the environment. Both public and privately owned land can be can be compulsorily acquired by the government and handed over to the project. Houses, local parks, local sports fields, childcare centres – in short anything – can be demolished to make way for a freeway. National parks, heritage listed buildings, threatened species habitat, native title land, coastal foreshores and council land can all be acquired by the Planning Minister and cleared for roads and rail.
The laws also allow the project minister to delegate his or her powers under the Act to any person – including the project proponent or a sub-contractor – such as the power to order councils to surrender land or the power to order compulsory acquisition of native title rights.
Almost all the safeguards that previously existed in various pieces of legislation are being removed to allow major transport projects to be rushed through. Although the most significant of these changes were made in the 2009 Act, that Act did at least contain a number of mandatory steps that the proponent had to complete to show that it had properly considered the social, economic and environmental impacts of the project, and would minimise and manage them appropriately. The new provisions remove almost all of those requirements and leave it up to the Planning Minister (ie. the proponent) to decide what the development agency must do.
Governments justify this kind of fast-tracking legislation by saying that they must be able to exercise whatever power they need to, in order to get major infrastructure projects built. There is no need for public consultation on the merits of the project, no need for an open process to determine whether the negative impacts will outweigh the positive, no need for a consideration of alternatives – the government has already decided this is what’s best for the community and the legislation merely facilitates the building of it.
But there is another view that is the basis of many project assessment regimes – that project assessment legislation should require a genuine and open assessment of the social, economic and environmental impacts of a major project, in partnership with the community, followed by a genuine consideration of whether the project should go ahead or not. Governments across Australia are moving away from this view, in favour of project facilitation legislation.
The fast-tracking of large projects in Victoria it is unlikely to stop at transport projects. The trend across Australia is to bring in fast-tracking for any project that the State government deems to be "major". This will mean that the projects that are the most complex and have the highest impacts on the environment and the community will have the fewest assessment and safeguards.
What can stop this trend? Probably only community outrage at the disregard for community views and the removal of environmental protections, as happened in NSW when the Labor government introduced fast-tracking legislation for a broad range of developments.
Will we see that outrage in Victoria? The East-West link has already been declared to be a major project under the Act. Once the process gets underway it will quickly become apparent how much power is now placed in the hands of the Planning Minister and just how little the community and local councils can do about it.
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