Protest erupts against ‘road to nowhere’ in Perth’s southern suburbs

One thousand Perth residents defied police intimidation to prevent bulldozing of woodland in the Perth suburb of Coolbellup on the morning of 12 January. The protesters overturned fences and surrounded blockaded machinery as Rethink Perth Freight Link community alliance stepped up efforts to prevent the extension of the Roe Highway through the Beeliar Wetlands.

Roe 8 is the first stage of the Liberal WA state government’s planned Perth Freight Link (PFL), a heavy-haulage route for freight to Fremantle Port. If it proceeds, the truck tollway will link the Roe Highway with Fremantle Port at a cost of $1.9 billion over a decade. However, community groups, several councils and the WA branch of the Maritime Union fiercely oppose the project, arguing that it is expensive, unnecessary and environmentally destructive.

Rethink Perth Freight Link community alliance argues that the PFL will triple the container truck traffic through Fremantle in 15 years, leading to a massive increase in diesel particulate pollution. With construction of a new bridge across the Swan River to the historic Fremantle port at least a decade away, freight trucks would be redirected to existing roads into Fremantle without alleviating traffic congestion. Instead, the campaign advocates a shift of freight from road to rail and the construction of a new port at Kwinana, an industrial zone located south of Fremantle.

Environmentalists say that the highway extension through the Beeliar Wetlands will destroy the habitat of endangered animals and birdlife, such as the Carnaby’s black cockatoo. In late 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the state government’s environmental approvals were invalid. However, the government subsequently appealed the decision and is now determined to commence the first stage of the PFL before the 11 March state election.

On 12 January, at 6am, hundreds of protesters converged on a stretch of woodland adjacent to the Beeliar Wetlands, which had been fenced off in preparation for bulldozing. By 7am, one thousand people had encircled the fence, clasping banners and placards declaring the proposed development a “highway to hell”. Outnumbering police by ten to one, they swiftly overturned the fence and linked arms in several rows surrounding an inner enclosure, where police guarded a bulldozer and a mulcher. Two protesters, Jan Rodda and Koro Brown, had earlier locked on to the machines.

At 9am, police on horses began charging peaceful picket lines, shouting, “Move!” Protesters chanted back defiantly: “This is not a police state, we have the right to demonstrate!” and “The people united will never be defeated!”

In the melee that followed, police arrested 31 protesters, including organiser Shona Hunter, arrested while attempting to liaise with police, and Ewan Buckley, arrested while singing to the crowd. Others arrested included former Greens senator Jo Vallentine, Forrest Rescue founder Simon Peterffy, three members of Socialist Alternative and a member of Socialist Alliance. Police charged protesters with trespass and obstruction and barred them from returning to the site for a month. Entertainer Jesse Williamson told the West Australian that police deliberately targeted protest leaders.

With a state election looming, opposition parliamentarians made their presence known, including Labor MPs Chris Tallentire, Josh Wilson and Simone McGurk, and Greens MLC Lynn MacLaren. State Labor leader Mark McGowan has declared Labor’s opposition to Roe 8 and called on Liberal state premier Colin Barnett to defer work until after the March 11 state election. “This road is a $2 billion waste of money,” he told the West Australian.

Protesters have vowed to return to the site in defiance of Barnett’s threat to arrest anyone who enters an “exclusion zone” around the roadwork. Further mass actions will be announced via Rethink the Link’s Facebook page and phone tree.