Third time lucky? Opposition vows to build the East West road project

Albert Einstein is often credited with saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result.

If the Victorian Liberals think the East West Link road project can win them the election, they must be assessed, medicated and popped in an asylum post haste.

The opposition vows to revive the East West Link project, which has been rejected twice in the past.

On Thursday, the opposition vowed that, if elected, it would build the East West Link tunnel linking the end of the Eastern Freeway in Clifton Hill to CityLink in Parkville.

The only problem is, it’s been rejected before. Not once, but twice.

Even Liberal MPs were sceptical of the plan. As one shadow cabinet minister somewhat despondently asked following the announcement: “If we lose next year, will we pitch it up again in 2026?” For those lucky enough to have missed this 14-year saga, let me remind you.

Back in 2007, Labor asked transport expert Sir Rod Eddington to find a way to fix the bottleneck where the Eastern Freeway meets Hoddle Street. A year later, Sir Rod reported back and suggested a new road linking the Eastern Freeway and Western Ring Roads. Labor seemed open to the idea.

But Labor’s John Brumby lost the election and in 2012, the new Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu committed a modest amount to produce a business case for the road.

During his premiership, Ted Baillieu committed some funding towards a business case for the link.Credit:Pat Scala

A spill of the Liberal leadership and a government bereft of policies prompted the state’s new premier Denis Napthine to commit to building stage one of the projects, a tunnel connecting the Eastern Freeway and CityLink.

A year out from the state election in November 2013, then-opposition leader Daniel Andrews rejected the idea but added that he was not one to go “irresponsibly ripping up contracts” if the project was under way by polling day. But two months out from polling day, he had a change of heart.

Not only would Labor refuse to build the road, it would also tear up any signed contracts and refuse to pay compensation to the winning bidder.

The Napthine government signed a $5.3 billion stage one contract for the building of the link.Credit:Joe Armao

The Napthine government rushed to sign the $5.3 billion stage one contract and added a boobytrap in the form of a side-letter that offered compensation if the project was scrapped.

In an incredibly unhelpful move for the Liberals, then-prime minister Tony Abbott declared that the state election was a referendum on the East West Link infrastructure project, much to the chagrin of Napthine.

All the polls pointed to the East West Tunnel being an election winner. A Roy Morgan poll in 2014 found a clear majority of Victorians (64 per cent) wanted the road built.

But on polling day that didn’t amount to much. Labor won and Andrews demanded work on the road stop.

Labor tried to wriggle its way out of the contract but ended up handing over $339 million in taxpayers’ money to the consortium for the bid process, project design and early construction. And an extra $81 million in bank fees.

And Victorians were left without a tunnel.

You’d think voters would have been angry, marching in the streets and demanding their cash back. Here’s the thing: they didn’t seem to care.

This has long baffled Liberals in Canberra and on Spring Street; so much so, they fail to accept it.

Ahead of the 2018 state election, the Liberals revived the project. Again it looked like an election winner, with 58 per cent of voters apparently backing the plan.

On election day, the Coalition suffered a humiliating defeat with huge swings against the party in its once-powerful eastern-suburbs heartland, where many drivers would have benefited from the road.

It seemed voters had again told pollsters that they wanted it built, but voted for the mob that opposed it.

While involuntarily cruising past the Melbourne Zoo at 18km/h recently on a trek from Williamstown to Fairfield, I too wondered why this tunnel was so unpopular with Victorians. It struck me that the road isn’t necessarily hated, it’s that it’s simply not popular enough to win an election.

Finding soft support for infrastructure isn’t difficult. Voters generally like it when governments build things. But relying on it to swing an election when it’s been on offer for almost a decade is naive.

It also sends a message that the Liberals simply don’t care what Victorians think.

In 2018 then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull dumped the government’s plan to cut taxes for big businesses – a key, albeit unpopular, policy he took to the 2016 election, which was nearly lost.

After unexpectedly losing the 2019 federal election, Labor leader Anthony Albanese dumped the party’s policy to overhaul franking credits, which was blamed for its election loss.

By churning out the same old policy three elections in a row, with few changes, the Liberals risk sending a message that they simply don’t respect the wishes of the Victorian people.

Annika Smethurst is state political editor.

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