Beeliar Wetlands defenders protest to stop tollway

In 1984, a group fewer than 100 in number linked arms and fought a pitched battle against developers and the Melville and Cockburn councils to stop a road being carved through one of Perth’s last remaining wetlands. Beeliar Wetlands, nestled between Kwinana Freeway and North Lake Road, has a special significance for Noongar people where, for hundreds of generations, Aboriginal women birthed their babies. It is home to towering Melaleuca and Tuart trees, some centuries old, and the nationally endangered Carnaby’s Cockatoo.

The Farrington Road blockade in the 1980s failed to stop a 50km wide swath of woodland being destroyed. The Labor state government supported the councils’ bid to use federal funds to extend the road to ease heavy transport congestion, despite its own Environmental Protection Authority saying the road should never be built.

The blockaders – Murdoch University students, conservationists and local residents – subsequently campaigned successfully to strengthen the state’s environmental protection legislation. Two years later, EPA deliberations became open to public scrutiny and local governments became subject to environmental controls.

More than three decades on, protesters are once again standing in the path of bulldozers and “locking on” in a desperate effort to save the Beeliar Wetlands. Since early January, 150 people have been arrested at protests that are occurring almost daily. This road construction, if completed, will extend Roe Highway through the middle of the wetlands to Stock Road and eventually to the port of Fremantle.

As in 1984, the Barnett government has accepted federal government money and flouted Environmental Protection Authority policy to build a road that opponents argue will simply shift traffic congestion from Leach Highway to Stock Road and Stirling Highway, closer to Fremantle’s already congested city centre. Instead, they argue, the state government should fund public transport and freight rail infrastructure and build a new, outer harbour port in the industrial zone of Kwinana.

But corporate profits are at stake.

The biggest winner of the $1.9 billion project will be construction company CIMIC, formerly known as Leighton Holdings. The company, which has donated nearly $700,000 to the WA Liberal and National parties, recently changed its name following a corruption scandal. According to a joint Fairfax and Huffington Post investigation, “the offshore arm of Australian company Leighton Holdings paid millions of dollars in bribes to middlemen as part of an audacious strategy to influence Iraq’s deputy prime minister, oil minister and other senior officials, and win more than $1.3 billion of oilfield contracts”.

Another player in the CMIC-led consortium, GHD, was blacklisted by the World Bank after defrauding a fund it established for Acehnese victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Both CMIC and GHD have been investigated by the Australian federal police.

Yet another contractor, AECOM, is currently the subject of class action for allegedly inflating traffic projections for the Clem7 tollway in Brisbane. In Canada and the USA, AECOM subsidiaries have been investigated following allegations of price fixing and fraudulent overbilling. Last November, AECON and Bechtel paid out $125 million in compensation to the US Department of Energy, according to a report in the Washington-based Tri-City Herald.

The losers in Barnett’s tollway saga will be the residents of Perth’s southern suburbs, who will suffer the effects of diesel particulates spewing into the air for generations to come.

The wetlands destruction is taking place just a month away from a state election. While opposition leader Mark McGowan has pledged the road will not go ahead if Labor is elected, state premier Colin Barnett appears determined to create facts on the ground to make the road inevitable. It is a high stakes gamble. WA electors are increasingly discontented with a Liberal state government that, after presiding over a resources boom, is now attempting to arrest a growing budget deficit by selling off the state’s electricity grid.

As Conservation Council executive director Piers Verstege has observed, “The actual road-building work will not commence here for many months so destroying this place right now, just weeks before the election is totally unnecessary – an act of senseless environmental and cultural vandalism.”

On 11 March, voters will likely take their revenge against the Barnett government. In the meantime, the Rethink Perth Freight Link alliance will continue to mobilise opposition to the destruction of the Wetlands though direct action and a rally in Perth on 26 February.

Visit Rethink the Link’s Facebook page for future actions.