In November 2010, three months after the federal election that delivered a hung parliament, then-general secretary of the Australian Labor Party Karl Bitar said that announcing the Parramatta to Epping rail link was one of the three biggest mistakes of the campaign.

Internal polling at the time showed electors saw it as a cynical and vote-grabbing exercise designed to save one of the area’s most marginal seats in Bennelong (which the ALP lost). Voters aren’t stupid, and they well remember governments have been promising, and failing, to build transport infrastructure in western Sydney for decades. In fact, governments have been making announcements about Parramatta to Epping rail since 1998, with no result.

Given the poor record of such announcements, and the current timing — six months out from an election — why would Prime Minister Julia Gillard have pulled such a blatant stunt yesterday morning, announcing more money for western Sydney roads? It wasn’t just the content, it was also the look of it. Standing by the side of the M7 highway with trucks thundering past, she used six of the area’s local MPs — all from marginal seats — as a human backdrop. This wasn’t a serious policy announcement, it was a set piece designed to show the television viewers that Julia had Gone West.

New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell reflected the general view this morning, saying: “Coming in at five minutes to midnight on the eve of a federal election, when it hasn’t been delivered in the past five years, does make people a bit sceptical … This is back-of-the-envelope stuff.”

The centrepiece of yesterday’s announcement was a plan to spend $1 billion on WestConnex, a motorway connecting the west to the centre of Sydney. Several urban planning experts have come out this morning saying what a dumb idea it is, pointing out what we need is fewer cars going into the city, not more.

The University of Western Sydney’s Urban Research Centre recently produced a response to a discussion paper from the NSW government. It concluded more roads were not the answer:

“While there are grounds for optimism that emissions from car use can be minimized, it is likely that the provision of road space will be unable to keep up with demand. The result is likely, on current trends, to be continued high levels of congestion in the peaks and a continuation of the trend to ‘peak spreading’.

“While some growth in road space is warranted, the primary task of the (transport strategies) should be to ensure more efficient use of existing road space.”

In other words, as a new road will soon be as congested as the old one, wouldn’t the residents of western Sydney be better served by having jobs moved closer to them and better public transport? And another airport?

Anyway, not many western Sydney residents are actually commuting to the CBD. In a 2006 report, the URC stated that only 6.65% of residents travelled to the inner city for work, with a quarter of all locals heading to internally located Parramatta, Fairfield and Bankstown.

No one is disputing western Sydney needs more transport. The area is home to almost 2 million people, and many residents spend up to four hours a day commuting to work, much of it in cars. Its two main roads, the M4 and the M5, are crammed with traffic; peak hour now starts at about 3pm.

The ALP vote in western Sydney has dropped so sharply it is now in danger of losing all 10 of its seats — in the words of Tony Abbott, this could be the “new Liberal heartland”. Although roads are primarily a state responsibility, travelling on the M4 every day would make me want to kill someone, and the federal government is a handy scapegoat.

The problem is that fixing this problem will take bold, reformist governing — currently in short supply. The large number of marginal seats in NSW, state and federally, means no one will do anything that might upset the electorate. As The Sydney Morning Herald revealed on the weekend, O’Farrell’s volte-face on coal seam gas drilling was driven by the need to retain crucial western Sydney seats like Campbelltown and Parramatta, which would have been adversely affected.

And the other two major mistakes of the 2010 campaign, according to Karl Bitar? Well, it was the “citizens’ assembly” on climate change (remember that?) and “real Julia”, he said. Actually, these were three occasions on which the ALP treated the electorate like idiots and suffered the consequences.

But the most crucial question of the week: are we currently in a governing mode or an election campaign — have they fired the pistol? Because if I am going to spend the next six months inhaling diesel fumes, fighting off giant insects and drinking filthy coffee, then I really need to know now. I might need a new thermos.

Peter Fray

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