WestConnex: why it shows the disconnect between the government and us

M4 Westconnex Concord tunnel breakthrough. Premier Gladys Berejiklian in attendance. Pic Nick Moir 27 july 2017
M4 Westconnex Concord tunnel breakthrough. Premier Gladys Berejiklian in attendance. Pic Nick Moir 27 july 2017

For the past month Sydneysiders have been subjected to a $2 million advertising campaign singing the praises of the under-construction $16.8 billion WestConnex tollway.

It's a cheerful, animated affair that follows the progress of a little red hatchback along the 33-kilometre route to the sounds of laughing children, singing birds and cyclists happily dinging their bells as they ride through pristine city parks.

"WestConnex is the missing piece of the puzzle that will bring Sydney closer together," the upbeat voice over explains.

"There's a lot to it, but it's part of a larger plan designed with people in mind," it concludes.

As a piece of government propaganda, it's a fair effort.

The same cannot be said about the effort this week of Dennis Cliche, the chief executive of the Sydney Motorway Corporation (SMC), which is building the roadway.

Cliche, with the swagger that comes from a $717,000 annual pay packet (with bonuses driving it to $1 million), stood before an audience of infrastructure executives on Monday to deliver a project update.

He declared it was "exciting" that a toll had been reintroduced to the widened M4 section of the motorway and dismissed concerns about the health effects of exhaust stacks, declaring he'd be happy to live beneath one.

Cliche was brazen, yet it can be argued he was doing his job by spruiking the project so the government gets the best sale price for the 51 per cent of SMC being offered to the private sector next year.

But it was also an example of the huge disconnect between the government and its bureaucracy and the community - a gap usually driven by the pursuit of piles of cash tied to hitting contract deadlines.

We've seen a similar attitude in play with the many hundreds of homes and businesses being compulsory acquired to make way for WestConnex and the Sydney Metro rail project.

In case after case, Roads and Maritime Services and Transport for NSW have been exposed as displaying callous disregard for the circumstances distressed home and business owners find themselves in through no fault of their own.

Even the CBD light rail is a public relations disaster zone, due to the huge impact its ongoing construction is having on local businesses.

If a key role of ministers is to curb the excesses of the bureaucracy to protect the interests of the community, the strong impression given is that either this is not happening or - worse - they are happy with the way things are being handled.

The problem for the government is that the focus on this is sucking much of the goodwill from its flagship infrastructure projects - the very projects on which it has gambled its political future.

There's no sign of the complaints easing less than 18 months out from the next state election in March 2019.

Within the government there has been some grumbling about the sudden exit of the man who kicked off much of this infrastructure frenzy, former premier Mike Baird.

The complaint is that having sold billions of dollars worth of electricity assets to bankroll the transport program, Baird has bolted just as the backlash is building, taking his silky smooth political skills with him.

So while Premier Gladys Berejiklian can boast about the government's impressive transport building program, she and her ministers are also left to manage the fallout.

Labor is already making much of that; despite almost seven years in power the government has yet to complete a flagship transport project.

The light rail is due to begin operating in "early 2019" and stage one of the metro is due to open later that year.

So with the economy powering ahead and the budget in surplus, Berejiklian's primary challenge at the election was always going to be convincing the electorate to allow the Coalition to finish the job it has started.

Since she took the job in January, Berejiklian has emphasised her government's willingness to listen as evidenced by the back down on forced council amalgamations and the problematic fire services levy.

No amount of costly advertising is going to convince the electorate that she means what she says.

Berejiklian would do better to ensure that her ministers, and through them the transport agencies, get the message.

This story WestConnex: why it shows the disconnect between the government and us first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.