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Policy contestation: Australasian examples

We take a look at examples of transport planning between affected community groups that led to antagonistic community-state relationships in Australia
© RMIT Europe and EIT Urban Mobility

In this step, you will examine a case study in antagonistic transport planning, revolving around urban freeways in 2010s Australia.

In 2013, a newly elected Australian government discontinued federal funding for public transport infrastructure projects. Instead, infrastructure funding was diverted to a new round of inner urban road megaprojects with the partisan support of state governments in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. In all three cities, this new investment focus contradicted an earlier policy consensus that was articulated in a succession of metropolitan strategic plans and supported a reduction of car dependence and an expansion of public transport and improved accessibility as dominant policy priorities.

The political shift resulted in antagonistic community-state relationships, a pattern of shifting alliances in transport planning between affected community groups, different tiers of government and political parties and ultimately, the cancellation of two of the three road projects after considerable time and resources had been invested in the planning process.

Community campaigns were mounted against each of the projects and included affected residents living in the project corridor, neighbourhood associations, long-standing public transport advocacy groups, local governments, some former government advisors and some concerned transport bureaucrats.


In Melbourne, a (centre-right) Liberal state government had been elected in 2010 on a clear platform for building public transport. However, two years later an inner-city road tunnel (East West Link) became the State’s top infrastructure priority. Prior to the following election in 2014, the government had proceeded to sign the contracts for the road while withholding the business case from public scrutiny and supplying inconsistent and inaccurate details over the cost-benefit of the project.

Meanwhile, the community campaign fighting the East West Link extended beyond the immediate neighbourhood of the project to encompass a metropolitan-wide scale. Some groups embraced direct action protest strategies to articulate their dissatisfaction with the proposed project and with the decision-making process. Media and political commentary in the lead-up to the 2014 election described the forthcoming poll as a “referendum on the East West Link”. Following an opposition victory by the centre-left Labor party and in response to pressure from community activists and Green party challengers, the campaign promise to cancel the project was honoured by the incoming government even though this step incurred a contractual penalty payout in excess of A$1bn to the road building consortium.


In Sydney, a series of mostly underground tollway links in the city’s inner west (WestConnex) was positioned as the state’s top priority infrastructure project by the responsible agency (Infrastructure NSW) in 2012.

The antagonism exercised by the government manifested in a succession of decisions that were criticised as designed to diffuse the fierce contestation and to reduce the political impact of the local contestation mounting in the inner west, including amalgamations and voting rights reforms at local government level. The WestConnex project galvanised the interest of a wide range of residents, community groups and local government based along the project corridor, raising questions about project delivery, the governance and transparency of the process, and arguing for public transport alternatives.

Unlike in Melbourne, however, WestConnex enjoyed bipartisan support of both major parties at state government level, leaving parliamentary opposition to Greens and independents who were not able to build the political majorities for a policy turnaround.


In Perth, an incoming Liberal (centre-right) government reinstated an older plan to link the Port of Fremantle to the city’s freeway network in 2008, renaming it the Perth Freight Link.

During the planning process, there was no option for public input on the transport needed for the project, only on the alignment of the route. Prior to the subsequent federal government funding commitment, the Perth Freight Link had not appeared in state government planning documents, no consultation with stakeholders was conducted, and the state government refused to release the business case or the underlying traffic modelling. The project was opaque in detail on how exactly the road would link to the port in terms of traversing built-up areas and crossing a river.

Community opposition formed around the desire to protect a significant wetland area and adjacent green corridors of high environmental value threatened by the project. After a summer of highly visible direct action protests against early construction measures that the incumbent government sought to criminalise, the subsequent election in early 2017 resulted in its defeat and the installation of a Labor (centre-left) government, which had campaigned against the Perth Freight Link and proceeded to cancel the project.


  • Legacy C, Curtis C, Scheurer J (2017) Planning transport infrastructure: Examining the politics of transport planning in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Urban Policy and Research, Vol 35, No 1, pp 44-60,

In the next step, you will examine another case study, revolving around the issues of a highway extension project.

© RMIT Europe and EIT Urban Mobility
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