Time to Channel the Eric Charlton Tunnel

Time to Channel the Eric Charlton Tunnel

Western Australian farmers have been watching the decades long debate over the future of Fremantle port with growing frustration. Not that being frustrated with the ports is anything new for farmers, those with long memories will recall instances in the 1970s when farmers answered the call to action and took it on themselves to load the ships when the wharfs were paralysed with strikes. Just as the National Farmers Federation joined with Patrick Stevedores to break the rampant inefficiencies of the Maritime Workers Union during the big waterfront dispute in 1998.

Part of the push to make the wharves more efficient was the search for alternatives to the state owned monopoly, the abolition of the state shipping line which coincided with the state liberal government looking at the next line of waterfront inefficiency, a land-locked unionised port stuck in the middle of a growing city. The task was given to the highly regarded National Party Minister for Transport, Eric Charlton to add to his road transport building program which included construction of the highly controversial Polly Farmer tunnel. The search for alternatives to Fremantle led to that state government signing a formal agreement with the James Point consortium in 2000 for a privately-owned Outer Harbour port to compete with the state-owned one in Fremantle.

But the 2001 state election saw that deal ignored by the new Gallop government in part because they did not like the involvement of the late Len Buckeridge, whose construction company BGC Australia was no friend of the unions. Despite the lack of support, the James Point consortium got its plans all the way through to the environmental approval stage but lacked the critical final government approvals needed to proceed.

In the meantime, the new Transport Minister Alannah MacTiernan, set about reviewing the options around a government owned outer harbour port and after five years of investigation in 2006 released the island port plan which included an innovative 2.6km by 700m port just off Kwinana. It was then full steam ahead, with the Minister claiming that a new state-owned port would be needed within a decade, but it never got past the planning stage; the project was cancelled when that government got tossed out by the liberals win at the 2008 election.

The arrival of the Barnett government saw all the previous labor government plans for the island harbour go on hold and with a mining boom in full swing, it focused on the fast track solution of deepening the Fremantle harbour at a cost of $300m and using the fill to expand the Rous Head hard stand.

This was when the planning started in earnest on the Perth Freight Link, with the inner harbour capacity having been expanded there was less pressure to build a new Outer Harbour port. So, the focus shifted to upgrading the road routes for the trucks into Fremantle. Work commenced to examine the options around the long-planned Roe 8 and 9 links. But the failure of the state government to fast track the project saw construction caught up in an environmental campaign and legal stoush around the Beeliar Wetlands which became the hot button issue that was part of the downfall of the Barnett government at the 2017 election.

The new McGowan government now needed to refocus on the Outer Harbour, no doubt acutely aware that a new port had been kicked down the long line of Premiers ever since 1972 when it was first proposed. So they swung into action and did what any new government would do when faced with ten major studies by various public and private entities on options for a replacement port: they commissioned a new study. Except this time the study has turned out to be far more than an engineering solution – the Westport review is shaping up to be one of those pivotal pieces of planning that survives the test of time. Like the Stephenson plan that mapped out Perth’s freeways in the 1950s, or the 2008 Metronet rail plan that vastly expands the potential footprint of Perth’s urban rail network, Westport sets out a 50 year plan for our port infrastructure.

While the final recommendations are not expected until next year, it’s pretty obvious that all roads are leading towards a recommendation that – wait for it – a new outer harbor port should be built at Kwinana. Problem is we need it by 2035 when the Fremantle inner harbour is predicted to grind to a halt through traffic gridlock without Roe 8 and 9 being upgraded.

In the meantime, as the planners plan Perth’s population, vehicle movements and traffic numbers continue to grow. It’s not the port infrastructure that’s the problem – it’s the transport links to get the trucks to and from the port as the car traffic grows. Therein lies the real problem that Dean Nalder, as liberal Transport Minister under Barnett was trying to address with the construction of Roe 8 and 9.

The problem with the current government’s decision to cancel Roe 8 and 9 is there is no guarantee that a future government will push the button on starting the new port in time, or that it won’t get bogged down in environmental and legal fights on seagrass or wetlands. For 50 years we have been waiting for a new port and it’s hard to see it being built in the next 15, particularly if neither party is prepared to put the credit card on the line or sell off any state assets to cover the cost.

In the twenty years since Eric Charlton cut through with the controversial 5c/litre fuel levy to build the Polly Farmer tunnel and said ‘go’ to the private sector to come up with proposals for a new port, the two major political parties have planned and replanned a new outer harbour. All the while, Perth’s population has grown from 1.2 million to 2.1 million and in the next 15 years it is expected to add a further 1.5million. Worse still much of this growth is planned for infill, so if you think our roads are busy now, you have no idea what’s coming. We are talking about a doubling of cars and serious gridlock.

And forget about Metronet being the road to salvation, this new rail network, sometimes referred to as Slownet, is currently only focused on building railway lines to the Airport, Ellenbrook and Yanchep. It is not going to take the pressure off inner city roads or get people out of their cars. Besides while we know voters love rail its only because it is for everyone else, not them, they plan to keep driving, but eventually they wise up and demand government prioritise the road network over rail.

The political point scoring around the port and Roe 8 and 9, and the failure to unclog our city roads, underscores the point that something is not working if projects can never get past the planning stage before each government is tossed out. We currently have two plans and they are both good to go – Roe 8 and 9 to Fremantle and a new Outer Harbour. The reality is we need both, and in addition we need many more major roads upgraded to service the rest of Perth plus the country freight network, all of which should be a priority over extending Metronet.
We know that Roe 8 and 9 can still be majority federally funded through the current Federal Government commitment and they will even agree to turn it into a long tunnel along Roe 9, which will help bury the activist campaign. This road will be critical in managing the inevitable congestion that is coming through existing population growth and will eventually serve a new mini city around Fremantle harbour. Think of Elizabeth Quay on North Quay, all high rise on waterfront land that used to house fuel tanks and containers. Stopping the sprawl by creating high density living next to existing urban rail lines should be part of the vision that gets leaders elected.

So, here’s an opportunity for Liza Harvey to buy back into the Outer Harbour debate and dress it up as her own bigger picture urban planning. Throw in a Roe 9 and 10 tunnel under the Swan River though to Stock Road and call it the Eric Charlton Sink Link funded with a toll at the port gates to cover the cost of construction. It will be paid for by the time any new outer harbour is completed, plus it will ensure the farmers’ freight needs keep moving as the pressure grows on the inner harbour.
By using these projects as political wedges to start the debate of road vs rail the Liberals will have something to challenge the governments narrative on Metronet. Like the Northbridge tunnel, the English Channel tunnel and the Sydney Harbour tunnel, tunnels capture the imagination of the voting public.

As for the Outer Harbour, both sides need to commit. But it needs to be part of a bigger freight link from the port to the farm. We need to link the new port all the way around the outer metro area past Midland and up the hill on a new Perth-Adelaide Highway that travels along Toodyay Road through to Northam thereby bypassing the forever-being-upgraded Great Northern Highway. It’s nothing new – this is all part of Main Roads 2050 plan and the Country Freight link Plan. But let’s get in front of the traffic. Farmers need to get their sheep, hay, grain etc to the port. A freeway grade road proposed by the Liberals from Northam to Kwinana would show the country voters that everything that happens in the bush is not always driven by the National Party.

To do all this we don’t need any more planning – it’s all been done and can be found sitting on the Department of Transport’s web site; Perth Freight Link, Westport, Country Road Strategy, and Perth Peel @3.5million. What we now need are political leaders who are going to commit to building the ports, tunnels and roads to keep the city working, which is critical in servicing the miners and farmers who create the wealth that keep city wheels turning.

Politically, we need another farmer politician like Eric Charlton. Someone brave enough to stare down the naysayers, to tell Premier, treasury and the community to accept the cost and instruct the planners to stop planning and start digging. We know the current treasurer has come out in favour of a new port when he campaigned on a promise; “if we win in 2017 and we don’t get that (outer harbour) underway, I will resign,”. So he’s one politician that is putting his job on the line to get this port happening (a few more should follow his example) but note, no timeline was set and the planning process around the final approvals will take at least five years so there is no great risk here to his career, but the question remains: will he find the money to at least start the roadworks or is he more interested in building surpluses to further his career?

As for the Premier, if he is to avoid ending up being just another Premier with a port plan, he needs to take some risks and spend up big. The challenge for both political parties is to explain to the voting public at the next election where the next $10 billion over four years in state funds will come from to do these essential port and road developments, bonus is it becomes $20 billion when matched by the feds. McGowan deserves credit for putting the budget back into surplus but at these interest rates a case can be made for a special $10 billion capital fund for port related infrastructure in partnership with the private sector, or if they don’t like debt swap existing state assets to fund these big projects.

If both parties are serious about taking the pressure off Perth’s roads as we head towards 3.5 million people, then they need to channel a bit of Eric Charlton’s ‘make it happen’ approach and a bit of Paul Keating’s asset recycling formula which was applied to Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank. There is no reason why we can’t swap Fremantle Port for a new Outer Harbour Port and the Western Power line network for a new road and rail network across the state. $15 billion buys an awful lot of digging and building, far more than Barnett’s long list of city road and rail projects during the life of that government.

So far we only have the Liberals who have committed to one of these key infrastructure projects, so credit to Liza Harvey for taking the political pain of ploughing on with Roe 8 and 9. If Libby Mettam as Shadow Transport Minister takes a leaf out of Eric Charlton’s book, the Liberals could be elected in 2021 on the back of an ambitious port and road policy and ready in 2025 to cut a lot of ribbons. The first would be to the new North Fremantle Rous Head high rise city before cutting the ribbon on the new Eric Charlton Roe 8 and 9 tunnel before cutting another ribbon for the start of construction of the new Outer Harbour before lapping the city to open the new Perth Adelaide highway link to Northam.

But if the Liberals go small target and don’t think like the Nationals with their big picture Royalties for Regions or the ALP with their Metronet then Alannah MacTiernan as Ports Minister and Minister for Regional Development will be there in five years time with the scissors to take all the credit just as she did in completing the liberals Perth to Mandurah railway and highway. The road to political success starts at the ports.

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