An extensive public inquiry process into Victoria’s most expensive infrastructure project wound up last week. An Inquiry and Advisory Committee (IAC) appointed to hear and make recommendations on the ‘reference design’ for the North East Link Project (NELP) completed its 36 days of hearings.

The IAC now has 30 business days in which to produce a report for the Minister of Planning, including recommendations and findings on environmental effects, planning arrangements and environmental protection measures. The work of the IAC is not to be under-estimated, as it provides the key moment of public scrutiny and consideration of a very large infrastructure project. It included:

  • 28 chapters of the Environmental Effects Statement prepared by NELP (more than 10,000 pages of content;
  • 874 public submissions;
  • 440 documents (or bundles of tabled documents) tabled;
  • 57 expert witnesses heard and examined; and
  • 30 + solicitors and barristers engaged.

This type of inquiry process is not intended to be adversarial in the manner of a court. The general community – and the communities directly affected – should be grateful, however, that four local councils pooled resources in order to provide robust opposition to and interrogation of the NELP. They effectively played the function of ‘contradictor’ in the hearing process.

EJA represented the Yarra Riverkeeper Association and we took the opportunity to examine witnesses in ecology and water. We called our own witness in urban ecology too. A copy of our submissions to the IAC is available here.

In essence, we submitted that the NELP was unacceptable in its present form, given its impacts on the urban environment and given some significant uncertainties (such as how groundwater and surface water impacts would be managed).

There is a key clash evident in the NELP, and in these massive infrastructure projects more generally, between imperatives to ‘green’ infrastructure in cities, or create more ‘grey’ infrastructure – between bringing nature back into cities at scale and contributing to its ongoing loss.

In our view, how this tension is to be managed is central to this project. The NELP in its present form does not reconcile the tension. The NELP will be business as usual, accept ongoing incremental losses and trajectories of decline in the urban environment. There is an untenable ‘cognitive dissonance’ in this approach.

Many other community members, community organisations, schools, environmental groups, and businesses made submissions to the IAC and some called their own evidence. Special mention should go to our colleagues at Friends of Banyule and Warringal Conservation Society who attended all the hearing days and made strong cases before the IAC.

The hearing process did expose the limitations and, ultimately, political imperatives facing infrastructure projects on the scale and with the potential impacts of the NELP. It is questionable whether the State’s desire to fast-track these types of projects can accommodate proper and effective assessment of their impacts and alternatives. The capacity for there to also be an ‘equality of arms’ between State construction agencies and those communities ultimately affected by major projects should also be questioned. Were it not for the contingency of councils pooling resources and community groups doing their best to keep up, the IAC would not have been presented with a diversity of interests and technical evidence properly representative of the wider community, notwithstanding the best efforts of community and other groups.

Subjecting development and resource use projects to public scrutiny through hearing processes is an important form of accountability and review.

It is now several years since EJA campaigned for reforms to environmental effects processes to enable it to work better – a project that the previous Labor Government began to take up, but did not ultimately pursue. This may be a policy and law reform process that needs to be revisited.