Australia: Major community victory stops Melbourne’s East-West Toll Road

By Socialist Party (CWI Australia) reporters, Melbourne

Last week, state elections in Victoria saw a new Labor government elected, which promised to scrap Melbourne’s (AU) $6-8 billion East West Link toll road project. This is a major victory for community campaigners and activists. The anti-Toll Road campaign was initiated and led by the Socialist Party (CWI Australia). The following article looks at the background to the successful campaign and the role of the Socialist Party.

It is not often that socialists find agreement with Australia’s Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott. However, when he described the 2014 Victorian State election as a “referendum” on the East West Toll Road, there was some truth in his words for possibly the first time in his career.

In many ways, the election represented an important ratification of the hugely successful community campaign to stop the disastrous $6-8 billion toll road project. This was a campaign initiated and led by the Socialist Party (CWI Australia).

If ‘the people have spoken’, as they say, they have spoken undoubtedly against the East West Toll Road. This was the key election issue and the weakest point in the defeated Liberal government’s election programme.

Rewind back to 18 months earlier, when the long-running community campaign against the East West Toll Road entered a crucial new stage of establishing peaceful but determined community pickets to stop early construction works. At this point, both major parties – Labor and Liberal – were staunchly behind the project, claiming the East West Toll Road would reduce traffic congestion and provide much needed jobs for Victorians.

Over the course of the last 18 months our community campaign has proven those claims to be utter lies, while, at the same time, the campaign successfully held up the construction of the road and was a huge thorn in the side of both the Liberal government and the weak Labor opposition.

While footage of our sometimes rough community pickets was a regular on the nightly news, and Socialist Party spokespersons, Stephen Jolly, Anthony Main and Mel Gregson consistently made strong cases against the East West Toll Road in the mainstream media, many thought that our fight was valiant but ultimately futile. After all, both major parties were in the pocket of the oil, road and major construction lobbies and were committed to building the East West Toll Road.

Critically, we fought not only on the streets of Melbourne’s inner-north to stop construction, but also in the mainstream political debate. We were regulars in the right-wing pro-East West Toll Road media arguing for a sustainable, viable, job creating alternative: public transport. This was the message we took out to various corners of Victoria in the lead up to the election. We visited many outer-suburban and regional areas in desperate need of public transport infrastructure and we won them to our anti-East West Toll Road cause.

These efforts were no-doubt reflected in the unceremonious ousting of the one-term Baillieu/Napthine Liberal government in Victoria State.

The Premier

Napthine came to power mid-term all too familiar with the Socialist Party and our Yarra Councillor Stephen Jolly. One of Napthine’s first acts as Victorian Premier was to concede to our community campaign to stop the sell-off of public housing land in Fitzroy and Richmond areas of Melbourne. Our campaign was gaining such momentum that it became too much of a headache for the new Liberal leadership to take on. Our ability to drag the construction unions in behind our campaign was crucial.

Napthine’s back-down on the public housing sell-off cost his big business buddies in the construction industry the loss of huge profits from this $1 billion project. It would not be so easy to force him to turn his back on the construction industry consortia for a second time.

While we gave the Liberal government hell, as we exposed the rottenness of the East West Toll Road and made the very popular call for investment in public transport, Napthine never backed down. He took the East West Toll Road with him to his electoral grave. Tactically, while putting the Liberal government on the back foot, a key target for our campaign was the Labor Party.

May history never forget that the East West Toll Road started life as a proposal from the Bracks Labor government. Then Labor under Brumby went to the 2010 Victorian State Election refusing to rule out the project. Last year, when Liberal Premier Napthine announced his intention to go ahead with the East West Toll Road, Labor refused to state whether it supported the project or not. It was only after immense pressure from our community campaign that the Labor party stated it was opposed to the East West Toll Road.

The Pledge

We carefully prepared the ground for an escalation in the campaign with a ‘No Tunnel Pledge’ people could sign to commit to taking “peaceful but determined direct action – including community pickets – to ensure the unpopular, costly and environmentally devastating toll road and tunnel is never built”. We collected names and signatures and set the target of 1,000 pledges; when we reached 1,000, we said, we would call the first picket.

We launched the ‘No Tunnel Pledge’ by calling a community meeting in Collingwood. Over 150 people packed out the North Yarra Community Health Centre and listened to a number of speakers. Federal Greens MP Adam Bandt told them the East West Toll Road would be stopped by voting for the Greens. State Labor MP Richard Wynne, visibly shaking and sweating after being booed and heckled by the crowd, said he could not tell us the Labor Party position! Local Socialist Party Councillor Stephan Jolly told the vocal and vibrant crowd that if they wanted the project stopped, each and every one of them would have to join the campaign and fight. Socialist Party organiser, Anthony Main, presented the ‘No Tunnel Pledge’ to eager ears. From that meeting we gained hundreds of pledges and met a number of those who would become the staunchest of community picketers and the backbone of the campaign.

The picket

We called the first picket on September 24, 2013. Around 40 people turned up to Rutland Street, Clifton Hill and we held a street meeting to discuss what we were going to do. Upon our arrival, the drilling contractors stopped work (it was not so easy on following days and weeks!). We had a genuine, democratic discussion about the tactic of linking arms and surrounding the worksite to stop any work from re-commencing. A majority joined in, a few felt more comfortable observing.

It was this modest but defiant act by frustrated local residents, led by the Socialist Party, which kicked off the phase of the campaign that made national and international news. Everyday more and more people joined our picket. As the drilling contractors, Linking Melbourne Authority, and Victorian Police became sneakier and outright aggressive, our community picket responded with discipline and ingenuity.

With drill sites dotted all across the inner-North, our picketing campaign could not have succeeded without the enthusiastic backing of local residents. We received calls on our campaign phone at all hours of the night from residents peering out their windows monitoring their streets for drilling equipment. The drilling contractors, Linking Melbourne Authority, and Victorian Police were continually astounded by our ability to establish a new picket at 6:30am on any street in the area at a moment’s notice. Their elaborate attempts to set up new drill sites became more and more farcical, and we celebrated many wins in this phase of the campaign.

Our targets expanded from drill sites, to the offices of construction consortia bidding for the contracts, to Liberal Party functions and Labor MP offices. We made our presence loud, clear and constant. Through this concerted effort, we shifted public opinion in our favour and brought the viability of the project into question.

The main parties

It was only at this point that Labor began to waiver. The strongest base of support for our campaign was the inner-North, were our presence was strong. Because of this, Labor was facing the prospect of losing a number of inner-city seats for the first time in its history. Labor under Daniel Andrews also saw the value in jumping on the pro-public transport bandwagon we had helped propel into the political debate.

However it took Labor months of minced words and false opposition before they came out against the East West Toll Road. It is clear that there remain many within Labor who continue to see the project as a Labor policy. Hiding behind contracts and court cases, even in the weeks prior to the election, it remained unclear what Labor opposition to the project would actually mean in practice.

At our pre-election rally – called by the community campaign and organised by a coalition of many pro-public transport and anti-East West Toll Road groups – thousands of people marched behind our banner demanding “Labor must rip up East-West Link contracts”. When the media starting echoing our demands and our distrust of Labor, Labor leader Daniel Andrews responded with his strongest statement yet, saying, “Labor will not build the East-West Link”.

Coming out against the East West Toll Road was enough to win Labor the election and hold onto most of their inner-city seats.

In the seat of Richmond, where the mouth of the East West Toll Road Tunnel was planned – also the site of the strongest opposition to the project – three anti-tunnel candidates contested the seat. Labor’s Richard Wynne clearly worked hard under pressure to change Labor’s policy regarding the tunnel – in order to save his own skin. The Green’s Kathleen Maltzahn was his natural opponent, with the Greens becoming the area’s second most popular party over the last decade. The Socialist Party’s Stephen Jolly played a crucial role in the outcome and won an incredible 9% of the vote.

Had the Greens stood a more active candidate the outcome could have easily gone their way. They, however, decided to focus their attention on the coveted seat of Melbourne, where they won their very first lower-house seat on an anti-tunnel message.

Unlike Labor, the Greens were opposed to the East West Toll Road from day one. However, they always stayed an arms-length from the community picket. Their focus was always on winning Greens seats in parliament, even years out from elections. The Socialist Party was also opposed to the East West Toll Road from the beginning. Not just in words and gestures, but also in actions.

These three distinct strategies: the flip-flopping and opportunism of Labor, the electoralism of the Greens, and the activism of the Socialist Party, played out throughout the campaign and the election. Stephen Jolly’s impressive vote can be seen as an endorsement of the leadership shown by the Socialist Party, winning a fantastic support base amongst the most politically conscious and active. This has further solidified us as an important factor in local politics.

The politics

As we claim victory against the dreaded East West Toll Road and bury it for the foreseeable future, it is crucial that history states accurately how this campaign was won. It was not won by the generosity of Labor. It was not achieved through the political maneuvering of the Greens. It was won by ordinary people, mobilised into action with a determination to stand up for what’s right and defend their community and Melbourne’s future.

No-one can deny the role the Socialist Party played in fostering this confidence in people to take matters into their our own hands. With longstanding experience organising community campaigns, we were able to inspire people from many walks of life to take action that initially surprised even themselves.

We were able to do this because this is our method of politics. We recognise that social change comes from the conscious and active mobilisation of ordinary working class people acting collectively for a common goal.

Every community picket ended with a street meeting to decide on the next day’s actions. Everyone had the right to participate. When we could not reach consensus we voted. This provided a sense of agency and ownership to the picketers, motivating them to get out of bed at 5am for weeks and months, on end.

However, democratic structures are not enough to win a campaign. A sharp and articulate political strategy is also needed to guide the movement. It was the Socialist Party who drove the campaign strategy, who recognising the strengths and weaknesses of the various forces behind the East West Toll Road, and listening to those we were trying to win over to make sure our message hit the mark.

The campaign had an outward orientation towards working people all across Victoria. Our focus on addressing the desperate need for investment in public transport and other infrastructure in outer-suburban areas cut across attempts from Liberal Party figures, like Matthew Guy and Tom Elliott, to pigeonhole us as inner-city yuppies ignoring the needs of working class families across Melbourne. Through these appeals we won the support of many people across Victoria.

Had we only targeted the government, or the drilling sites, or the inner-city, we would likely not have won. It is a huge testament to the strength of our ideas that our strategy and methods were embraced by the vast majority of those involved in the campaign.

We hope that the mark of this campaign if felt far beyond Melbourne and Victoria, and long into the future. What this campaign has proven is that ordinary people can change the course of history, against great odds. This is an important lesson for all those under attack from budget cuts and anti-worker policies.

Most importantly, this campaign contains lessons for those looking for an alternative to capitalism. When working class people come together and fight for their collective interests, mountains can be moved and roads can be stopped. It is these struggles, on the path to a fairer, equal socialist society that will provide us with the experience, confidence and ability to create a better world.

What we have achieved is impressive and historic and we wish to thank the many, many people who contributed to this magnificent victory!

‘No Tunnel, No Way! We fought it all the way!’