Friday, July 21, 2006

Australia has some Lessons for us IF we heed their Cautionary Tale

opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

Open up tunnel deal

By Tristan Peach
Posted Tuesday, 27 June 2006
For a democracy to function effectively, citizens must do more than just vote in elections.

A democracy, just like an economy, works best when citizens are active participants in the decisions that affect their lives.

The increased use of public private partnerships (PPPs) to deliver government infrastructure is presenting significant challenges to our democratic systems. Recent PPP ventures in Sydney and Brisbane have excluded the community from key parts of the decision-making processes.

In Sydney, the Carr State Government developed, negotiated and signed the contract for the controversial Cross-City Tunnel behind closed doors.

Only after the tunnel opened did the public find out how high the tolls were, that surface roads could be closed to "funnel" traffic into the tunnel, and that the private operator could sue the government if public transport improvements led to a loss of revenue.

Without citizen involvement in the PPP process, the interests of shareholders triumphed over the interests of the public.

And to further blur the line between private and public interest, soon after Bob Carr resigned as NSW premier he went to work for Macquarie Bank, a company involved in huge public private partnerships all over the world.

In Brisbane, Lord Mayor Campbell Newman recently signed the contract for the North-South Bypass Tunnel during a private press conference.

The contract locks Brisbane people into a 45-year agreement with the RiverCity Motorway consortium, which is promising shareholders a 6 per cent return on investment before the tunnel is even built.

The public will not see the contract before financial close, which is expected in early July.

To be fair, Brisbane City Council has provided the public with information on the North-South Bypass Tunnel over the past two years.

But it is worrying and unfair that the public are being excluded from the most important part of the decision-making process. The contract is where the rubber hits the road for this tunnel proposal, which has changed drastically since Newman proposed it in his 2004 election platform.

Secrecy was partially justified during the tendering stage because it allowed council to have the upper hand in negotiations between the two competing consortiums.

But once RiverCity Motorway was chosen, there was no longer a need for secrecy. Since then council has selectively released information regarding the contract.

The Lord Mayor has promised that there will be no onerous conditions in the contract and reassured us this won't be a repeat of the Cross-City tunnel disaster. But given the Lord Mayor's track record on promises and honesty, I think we have reason to be worried. In 2004 Newman promised us a $2 toll for the tunnel, which has risen to $4.10. More recently he told us that the tunnel would cost "$2 billion plus", but later revealed that this actually meant $3 billion plus.

And in May The Courier-Mail revealed that there are clauses in the contract that will give the council financial incentives to funnel traffic into the tunnel.

The Cross-City tunnel contract in Sydney includes similar profit-sharing agreements between government and the private sector.

It is certainly in the interests of the Lord Mayor and RiverCity Motorway to keep the dirty details of the contract secret until it is too late.

But ratepayers already have paid more than $83 million for the tunnel, will pay another $54 million this financial year, and will contribute $292 million for construction costs in the future. The community is a huge financial shareholder in this project, and we must ensure that a deal is made that promotes the public interest.

Therefore I call on Brisbane City Council and the RiverCity Motorway consortium to release the tunnel contract for 20 days of public scrutiny prior to financial close.

This is not an unreasonable request in an advanced modern democracy. If it is in the public interest then there should be no problem in releasing it for a brief period of public scrutiny.

First published in The Courier-Mail on June 19, 2006.

Tristan Peach lives and works as a part-time lecturer and tutor in urban and regional planning at the Queensland University of Technology. He is a member of Brisbane Group, Communities Against the Tunnels. He does not own a car and walks, cycles and uses public transport for most trips.

George Eliot


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