Campaigners against the Roe 8 highway in Western Australia (WA) are celebrating the news that Labor MP Mark McGowan, leader of the opposition in the WA parliament, has announced that Labor will cancel the road scheme if it is elected in March. Now the campaigners need to ensure that the current premier, Liberal Colin Barnett, does not allow more destruction to occur before the election—and they are trying every tactic: court action, peaceful direct-action, petitions, the lot.
The government wants to drive a four-lane, five-kilometre highway through the irreplaceable Beeliar Wetlands, south of Fremantle near Perth. The Beeliar Regional Park is on the Interim List of the Register of the National Estate, its vegetation communities are of international and national significance. The park consists of two chains of wetlands made up of 26 lakes and wetlands stretching 25 kilometres along the coast and covering an area of about 3,400 hectares.
These are the remnants of the once extensive wetlands in the Swan coastal plain, which have been largely bulldozed to allow for development. This ecosystem supports the endangered Carnaby’s cockatoo and Rainbow bee-eater, among many other rare species, and is a rich diversity of habitats, being wetland with connecting bushland.
It is the home of the indigenous Noongar people, who hunted and fished here for generations, and has immense social, cultural and aesthetic significance. The Noongar, for years harassed by governments, feel desperate that their lands are being stolen; see here for an appeal to the Australian government from a local Noongar woman, Corinna Abrahams.
These wetlands are a fine example of the commons which I learn about at international conferences and which we must protect, for those who live there and those who visit.
The Roe 8 extension is part of the $1.6 billion Perth Freight Link, the largest road-infrastructure project ever to be undertaken in Western Australia; it has backing and funding from the national government. Roe 8, which would run between the towns of Jandakot and Coolbellup, is intended to provide a transport corridor between the industrial area of Perth and the port at Fremantle. Despite the environmental importance of the Beeliar Wetlands, the government claims the road will not have a serious impact and that the plans for mitigation are adequate.
Successive governments have known that the environmental arguments against the scheme are powerful, but chose to ignore them, continuing to develop the plan and spend massive sums on it before they had the necessary permissions. In September 2013 the Environmental Protection Authority, which should know better, recommended approval but there were 165 appeals.
In July 2015 the state government confirmed that conditional environmental approval had been granted, but the pressure group, Save Beeliar Wetlands (SBW), challenged this. In December 2015 SBW won in the Supreme Court, which ruled that the environmental approvals by the Environmental Protection Agency were invalid. The Court of Appeal overturned this in August 2016 and on 16 December SBW was refused leave to appeal. (The Australian court system is different from ours, with the High Court being the highest court.)
Meanwhile, protestors who keep a constant watch on these precious lands and camp around the perimeter, got word that the bulldozers might move in. They were right: on 6 December the police issued ‘move-on’ notices to protestors.
On 19 December a huge swathe of the bush was cleared—despite the high temperatures, over 40 degrees centigrade, when such activity would normally be banned because of the severe fire risk and threat to the fauna inhabiting the bush. The protestors have stood in the way, chained themselves to fences and generally tried to stop the work.
But the Liberal government seems hell-bent on getting on with the destruction before the election. Labor and the Greens are opposed. (See here for an article by Lynn MacLaren, Green MP in the Guardian.)
The protestors have made a fresh appeal, which is being heard imminently, into the environmental offsets which must be in place when threatened species are affected—in this case Carnaby’s cockatoo. SBW argues that the offsets offered by the state government are insufficient, having gathered evidence by helicopter, and is now appealing under the federal act, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The previous cases have shown that the WA Environmental Protection Act does not require the EPA and government to follow its own policies, and SBW hopes that by invoking the federal act it will not only save the wetlands but set a precedent for the protection of nationally-important sites.
The state has agreed to halt work until Monday (9 January), allowing a short time for the case to be heard and judgment given.
There are sustainable alternatives, which the government ignores. Objectors such as Rethink the Link have shown that the PFL would lead to gridlocks from east Fremantle to north Fremantle, bringing traffic and pollution into the city, with no easy connection to the port. It would be far more sensible to provide a new port to the south, at Kwinana, and serve it by rail and roads in the industrial areas.
If Roe 8 is built it will be the road to nowhere. All power to the campaigners in their efforts to stop this road. This is a international battle of international importance—the commons of the Beeliar Wetlands are for the Noongar and the flora and fauna, for ever.
Photo: Ian Munro