Victorian Labor’s decision to dump the East West Link project has been widely portrayed as a high-risk strategy. I disagree. Labor faced more risk sticking with its each-way bet policy, opposing the road but too fearful to scrap it should the party win government. But to call Labor’s current stance the result of a strategy is overstating the way things work. As is so often the case in modern politics, tactics and reactions to events trump the hard policy grind.

Labor tacitly opposed the East West road project since its inception, but was conflicted. More freeways don’t play well in the inner city. That was a no-brainer. But what would people in the marginal eastern seats think? Since the 2010 election loss, Labor was nervous about misreading their mood. I heard a lot of criticism within the party that in the 2010 campaign, too much attention was given to inner-city seats. A frequent target of derision were billboards proclaiming support for various social issues on roads exiting the city. The messages would hardly have resonated with people reading them while stuck in traffic on their way home to the suburbs.

Labor hardheads were also concerned the party would be vulnerable to the old narrative that Labor can’t be trusted with the commercial affairs of state. They feared accusations about sovereign risk, business confidence and a flight of investors. So Labor had a contradictory policy, opposing the road in theory but supporting it in practice. The signing of contracts for the project would be the defining moment. After that, the project would proceed no matter who won the election.

According to polling published in The Age, community support for the road was soft. Although some Labor insiders have told me the poll’s significance was dubious, the memory of 2010 was again in play. That’s when the electoral worm seemed to turn away from roads, with Labor losing a swag of seats on the Frankston line after the Liberals highlighted problems with train services. But then, once in government, the Liberals sat on their hands for two years before deciding they needed a major project to spruik — and reverted to typical form with a big road policy.

A cross-section of Labor MPs, not limited to the inner city, recently confronted the leadership about the party’s East West policy. They were being questioned by constituents on why Labor would build a road it opposed. It didn’t stack up. Some tough media interviews also had Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews on the defensive.

Labor needed to find an exit from the policy morass.

A Supreme Court case brought by Moreland and Yarra councils opposing the road became the vehicle. The councils claim the planning process to approve the road was flawed and that any contracts signed will be invalid and unenforceable. Labor lawyers were associated with developing these arguments and the opposition obtained its own legal advice supporting the councils’ stance.

With the government determined to get pen on paper, it announced the preferred bidder for the project and it was clear the contract would soon be signed. Now the pressure was really on the opposition. If it was going to announce any policy change, it had to be before the contract was signed or the arguments about its unsteady business credentials would be much stronger.

The final piece of the jigsaw was the councils obtaining a hearing date in the Supreme Court. When this was set for December 15, the opportunity for a policy shift opened up because the validity of the contracts would be in doubt until after the election. Labor announced it would not go ahead with the road and Andrews said a new government would itself argue the court case on the side of the councils.

This announcement is not so much a reversal of position as the outcome of a flawed initial decision. In hindsight, it would have been preferable for Labor to have stated from the outset that it would not build the road rather than running on a confusing and muddled policy. But Labor now has a coherent policy and Victorians have a choice.

Peter Fray

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