The Public Accountability Legislation Amendment (Sydney Motorway Corporation) Bill 2018 aims to restore accountability and transparency to the Sydney Motorway Corporation and in turn the project it manages, which is WestConnex. This is the second time this bill has been introduced into this Parliament. Labor tried last year to have the bill debated but the Government shut down that debate, so the Opposition is trying again with the introduction of this bill today. I hope that given the impending sale of 51 per cent of the Sydney Motorway Corporation the Government this time will do the right thing and allow this bill to be debated. There has never been a more important time than right now to restore accountability and transparency to the Sydney Motorway Corporation as we near the 51 per cent sale of WestConnex—a process that is currently happening without any transparency.
The Sydney Motorway Corporation was established as a private entity, which effectively shrouds the largest infrastructure project in the State's history, WestConnex, in absolute secrecy and removes all accountability and transparency mechanisms that apply to every other New South Wales government agency and infrastructure project. Before working through the content of this Labor bill, it is worth reflecting on why it is needed and how we found ourselves in this situation where, for the first time in New South Wales, an agency is not subject to the usual transparency and accountability mechanisms of government.
In 2015 the Government abolished the WestConnex Delivery Authority which was originally tasked with delivering the WestConnex project. In its place the Government established the Sydney Motorway Corporation. However, unlike other government agencies delivering infrastructure projects in the State, the Government established the Sydney Motorway Corporation as a private company, limited by shares under the Corporations Act 2001. This legal structure means that the Sydney Motorway Corporation is not subject to the same accountability measures as is every other government agency that is tasked with spending taxpayers' dollars. That means by extension that the WestConnex project also operates outside the usual accountability and transparency mechanisms that apply to every other New South Wales government project.
It is an extraordinary situation; it is a shocking and deliberate attempt to shut down long-established and respected principles of public oversight and parliamentary scrutiny. The creation of the Sydney Motorway Corporation remains a deceitful decision that this Parliament must address urgently through this bill, which is why I seek to garner the support of all members. The actions of this Government have set what I believe is a dangerous precedent with the establishment of the Sydney Motorway Corporation. By shielding the Sydney Motorway Corporation from scrutiny and effectively limiting information to glossy brochures and media releases, the Government is refusing to answer the most basic of questions.
They are critical questions that need to be answered.
The Government is sending a clear message to the community that the Westminster traditions that the oldest Parliament in Australia has so far practised no longer matter and do not need to be followed. That is of great concern, particularly when talking about the largest infrastructure project in the history of New South Wales. The bill unequivocally says enough is enough. It seeks to enshrine in law that the Sydney Motorway Corporation and its subsidiaries will be subject to the same public accountability measures as is every other New South Wales government agency. Under the bill transparency and accountability will again be at the cornerstone of the construction of major infrastructure projects in this State.
The bill amends the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 to ensure that the Government must answer freedom of information requests about the project and the operation of the Sydney Motorway Corporation. Those requests are currently not answered. We cannot access even the most basic information through a freedom of information request to the corporation. That means that information critical to understanding the decisions that the Sydney Motorway Corporation board is making are completely shielded from scrutiny. This Government is not just hiding behind commercial- and Cabinet-in-confidence mechanisms. It is tampering with freedom of information requests. That is of serious concern to the community.
Every request that the community, the media and I as shadow Minister have made to the Sydney Motorway Corporation or other government agencies that deal with it have been denied. That has to stop, and this bill seeks to do that. Never before has a government agency been shielded from the Government Information (Public Access) Act. Never before has a multibillion dollar project not been subject to our freedom of information laws. That is what is extraordinary about the establishment of the Sydney Motorway Corporation and the way it has been constituted.
One only has to look at the extraordinary flow of information leaking from government agencies about WestConnex and other major infrastructure projects to understand the precarious situation that this Government is creating through its addiction to secrecy. One could ask why this unprecedented volume of reports and documents are being handed to the Opposition and the media. The answer is very simple and it is at the heart of why this bill is so desperately needed. Public servants—that is, those people who are loyal to the public—see the cover‑ups and secrecy that surround these projects. They are motivated not by personal advantage but by their duty to the public at large. They are motivated by their desire to shed light on the shocking mismanagement of projects. I will deal with that shortly.
The bill will amend the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act 1988 to allow the commission to investigate allegations of complaints related to the Sydney Motorway Corporation and its employees. How can we have a government project that is not subject to the Independent Commission Against Corruption? That is extraordinary. The bill will amend the Ombudsman Act 1974 to enable complaints to be made to the Ombudsman about the conduct of the Sydney Motorway Corporation. It will amend the Public Finance and Audit Act 1983 to allow the Auditor-General to inspect and audit the Sydney Motorway Corporation financial reports and transactions. Finally, the bill will amend the Public Interest Disclosures Act 1994 to extend protections under the Act to employees of the Sydney Motorway Corporation who in the public interest make disclosures about any wrongdoing.
The bill seeks to bring under the important accountability mechanisms not only the Sydney Motorway Corporation but also its 10 subsidiaries that are listed in the bill. That is important. Accountability, transparency, openness and truthfulness are not radical principles. They are fundamental principles that should underpin every decision that government makes. Under the Government of Gladys Berejiklian those principles have been stripped away and trashed. They have been abandoned and wilfully ignored. This bill aims to restore and enshrine those principles so that we will have accountability, transparency, openness and truthfulness in the delivery of the WestConnex project and the operation of the Sydney Motorway Corporation.
To fully appreciate the Government's blatant attempt to trash parliamentary tradition we must look at the history of WestConnex and the shambles it is. I will not go through every issue with the project because I simply do not have enough time, but I will try to give a true sense of the problems that continue to plague WestConnex and that show why members must support the bill. Let us start with the cost of the project, which is always brought up in conversation with me. It has gone up and up. When the project was first announced by Barry O'Farrell—three Premiers and I think four Treasurers ago—the Government said that it would cost $10 billion. Then it was $11 billion and then $12 billion. It has finally reached $16.8 billion, but even that cannot be believed because so much about the project is being fudged. For instance, the cost of local road changes have not been included in the figure. The cost of the Sydney Gateway—which is the link to the airport and the justification the Government gave for building WestConnex—has been mysteriously removed from the total cost.
We were originally told that the Sydney Gateway and link to the airport part of the project would cost about $800 million. The Government now says that was an allocation only and that the Sydney Gateway was never part of WestConnex. Every piece of documentation—including the business case, the website and the media releases—all have the Sydney Gateway as part of WestConnex. Of course, the Government removed that because it did not suit its narrative. That is grossly deceitful. What the Government will not say is the total cost of the project. It will not release a business case that is accurate and updated or say how it is going to be funded. Even now, some eight years after the Government first said it would build WestConnex, it still does not know how the road will get to the airport. That is of serious concern.
It is only through leaked documents that we now know that the airport link could cost about $1.8 billion, which will push WestConnex way beyond the $18 billion mark. Then there are the contractor claims that we believe amount to more than $1 billion. Where will this end? Why do the community and Opposition members not have an accurate assessment of the cost of the project? Unfortunately, it is not possible to answer that question because the Sydney Motorway Corporation is not subject to accountability and transparency mechanisms that would reveal the cost of the project. That is what this bill aims to fix.
Let us not forget the many changes that have been made to the project. As I have said from the beginning and several times since, they are making it up as they go. Even now, eight years later, they are still making it up as they go. The Rozelle interchange provides a good example of how the project is failing. Just two weeks ago the project was approved as part of the approval that the planning Minister gave for the M4-M5 Link. It was approved without any consultation and without a design. How could anyone possibly approve a massive interchange at Rozelle without even seeing a design? We know that Roads and Maritime Services [RMS] has had to take back the Rozelle interchange because the Sydney Motorway Corporation has mismanaged the project so much that it is on its second tender exercise for it. It is of great concern that we cannot make a request under the Government Information (Public Access) Act for information from the Sydney Motorway Corporation or RMS because correspondence is in fact to the Sydney Motorway Corporation and it says it does not have to abide by freedom of information laws.
The Rozelle interchange is a good example of what is wrong with this project. A week ago the Supreme Court made a decision in the case of Desane, which took on the Government over its land. Effectively, the court found that the Government tried to steal that land because it needed it for some mysterious purpose associated with WestConnex. The only problem is that the Government could not tell us what that was.
That is why this bill is so desperately needed; issues like that need to be known by the community. I say to every member in this place that they have a duty to support their communities and they have a duty to support this bill.
We talk about the responsibilities that members of Parliament have to their communities but we also need to mention those Sydney families whose houses and businesses have been acquired to make way for this project. The Parliament will remember that Labor forced the Government to change the Land Acquisition (Just Terms Compensation) Act 1991 and Labor forced it to respond to the Russell report, which the Government did its best to keep hidden. The Russell report was supposed to fix the Land Acquisition (Just Terms Compensation) Act, but the Government did everything in its power to shut it down. Labor sided with the families to get a better deal for them.
When the Government sells the Sydney Motorway Corporation in the coming months it will also sell the tolling agreements. Again, an unfair tax is being imposed on families in Western Sydney. The Government will also sell the construction contract for the M4-M5 Link. I have said many times in this place that Labor does not oppose tolls on new roads, but the introduction of a toll on the widened M4 that rises above the consumer price index [CPI] by at least 4 per cent is not appropriate. It is not a new road and we will not support a toll. We also do not support the inclusion of the M5 South-West Motorway in the sale of the Sydney Motorway Corporation. The road is not, nor will it ever be, part of WestConnex. To fatten the pig for market, the Government has thrown in the tolling agreement on that motorway as well, to entice the private sector to bid. This is another reason why this bill is needed now—so we can shed light on the deals being done and the decisions being made as part of the sale of the Sydney Motorway Corporation, which will culminate in coming months.
At this point it is also worth mentioning that the sale of the Sydney Motorway Corporation was never included in the business case for WestConnex—it goes against all the advice given in the business case. The business case says—I have quoted this before in the Parliament—"the approach of selling a controlling equity stake in stage 2 prior to construction commencement was identified as potentially a sub-optimal strategy". According to its own business case, this is not the proper way to approach the sale of the Sydney Motorway Corporation. Why has the Government not provided an updated business case? Again, we do not know.
Let me be clear: The decision to sell part, or all, of the Sydney Motorway Corporation and its subsidiaries to change the entire financing of WestConnex has given urgency to the bill. That is why I am bringing the issue to the attention of the House today. The Government regularly hides behind Cabinet and commercial‑in‑confidence provisions to refuse freedom of information requests—that occurs regularly across agencies and projects—but its refusal to release even the most basic of information highlights how necessary this bill is to shed light on the Sydney Motorway Corporation.
The House may remember the battle Labor had to have the remuneration of the chief executive officer of the Sydney Motorway Corporation released. The Government refused to release how much he was paid. He declined to appear before the parliamentary inquiry into tolling; he believed he had no responsibility to face that inquiry. Under this bill there will be nowhere for people like him to hide. He and others associated with the Sydney Motorway Corporation will be required to answer questions, just like every other public servant. There is incompetence, dishonesty and downright deceit everywhere in this project. That is why this bill is urgently needed. Those opposite are meant to believe in the rules and institutions of parliamentary democracy. They are meant to believe that the Westminster traditions mean something; yet they have trashed everything they say they believe in.
Under this bill there is a role for parliamentary accountability and scrutiny, but there is no role for a government that does not provide answers to the community. Time and again we have seen that the arrogance of this Government knows no bounds when it comes to WestConnex. Shame on the Government. Shame on all those backbenchers who represent communities impacted by WestConnex and those tolls, but who do not have the courage to go to their party room and say, "Enough is enough." The Sydney Motorway Corporation and WestConnex must be subject to the same accountability measures as any other significant infrastructure project in this State. This bill will restore accountability and transparency to that agency and to the WestConnex project—mechanisms that should never have been taken away in the first place.
If those opposite have nothing to hide they will back this bill, they will back Labor and, importantly, they will back their communities, because in supporting this bill they will finally end the shameful secrecy that has characterised this project from the beginning and that continues to characterise it. I plead with those opposite to support Labor in its bid to restore accountability and transparency to the Sydney Motorway Corporation. There will never be a more important time to do that, with the sale of 51 per cent of the Sydney Motorway Corporation in the coming months. I ask those opposite today to stand for their communities and to walk into their party room, seek the support of Government and support Labor.