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Monday, 9 December 2002
Page: 7515

Senator ALLISON (10:17 PM) —This evening I want to speak about a decision apparently made over the weekend, or late last week, by the government that it would effectively change its mind about the Albury-Wodonga freeway. I hope this is not the case, and I certainly will be pursuing it with the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. It was reported that at the weekend the government decided it was not sticking by its reversal about 12 months ago of a decision to take the freeway right through the middle of Albury. At that time the government took the option far preferred by the residents of Albury which was to put in its place an external freeway. There were many reasons why the community wanted to see an external freeway.

In fact, the freeway was called a bypass— a bypass which was not a bypass at all but went right through the centre of Albury, with all of the noise and all of the threats to health that are involved in living close to a freeway. Nonetheless, after a five-year debate which very much divided the community of Albury and represented a battle on the part of those people who did not want this freeway right through the centre of their town, the government saw the light and decided that it and New South Wales should fund the external bypass.

So it is a great surprise that the government should change its mind on this and opt again for the internal outcome. It is reasonable that we should ask why this is the case. Certainly the residents of Albury in poll after poll have said that their preferred position is the external bypass. Back in 1997, 61.3 per cent of voters rejected the Albury City Council's then preferred position of building the internal freeway first followed by the external bypass. The Border Mail conducted a survey in September 1998 showing that 75 per cent of respondents wanted an external bypass. Every poll and every survey that has been conducted since that time has shown the same kind of result. In fact, elections for the Albury City Council have often been fought on this subject of an internal or external bypass and councillors have been elected on the strength of their position one way or the other.

This decision makes no sense because, as I said earlier, it will simply divide this community and put in place a barrier which will be pretty much impenetrable. Albury currently suffers from thousands of trucks going through it. The emissions that they generate are already affecting the health of people who live there. Very few of those vehicles stop in Albury. The argument was that if Albury was bypassed then business would suffer as a result. Clearly, that is a nonsense. That is not the case in so many other towns on the Hume Highway, including places like Wangaratta and Benalla. Economically, those townships have never thrived more than they have since the freeway bypassed their town. Nobody wants the noise, the smell and the pollution that so much traffic brings. In fact, it is fair to say that the internal proposal was promoted by a very small sectoral interest within Albury-Wodonga—those who saw a benefit to be had from a short transport route—but at the end of the day not too many other sections of the community were likely to benefit.

At the time of this debate about the right solution, the cost of the external freeway was talked about a lot. In fact, the government dismissed out of hand the external freeway on the basis of cost. That was said to be one of the original reasons for not proceeding down that path. But, as was demonstrated time and time again during estimates, a true comparison between the internal and the external freeway had not been done. All the costs of an internal freeway had not been taken into account—for instance, the enormous amount of acoustic treatment that will need to be introduced to protect residents and schools. A number of schools are on the route, and they would have to have enormous walls of acoustic panels, and that cost was not taken into account. The costs of overpasses, bridges and the like were conveniently ignored in most of the calculations that said that the internal freeway solution was the most cost effective.

It is a great pity if the government has been accurately reported as having changed its mind on this issue. It is a great pity for democracy. Twelve months ago I visited Albury to celebrate this win with the community, to celebrate that at last a sensible decision had been made by the federal and state governments. To have this decision overturned is a major disappointment. It demonstrates that, no matter what the local community says, no matter what percentage of the community comes out and says, `We don't want this,' it will not matter to the decision makers. They are more likely to be influenced by a very small group for whom there is a vested interest in an outcome one way or another.

Tonight I wish to complain bitterly about this decision, if it has indeed been made. I intend to follow it up with the minister, as I said. I intend to raise this matter at estimatesin February, when we get another chance to do so. I put on the record my great disappointment that it has come to this. On behalf of those residents of Albury whom I know— I have not had a chance to speak with them just yet—I believe they will be feeling very let down by this decision and very puzzled about why the original decision has been overturned at this very late stage. As I said, 12 months ago the government seemed to be seeing the light on this issue. They seemed to understand what the problems were with having a freeway right through the middle of town. They seemed to understand that this was not good for Albury, but for some reason they have changed their mind. This is a shock and a disappointment. I hope that this latest reversal is reversible once more.

Senate adjourned at 10.25 p.m.