Published in The Weekend Australian on 22.02.14
As Australia seeks to make the transition to a more diversified, competitive economy with the passing of the mining boom, a convergence of opinion is occurring around the idea of a big step-up in infrastructure investment. It would help maintain employment during the economic slowdown now underway while giving Australia a competitive edge in the Asian Century. Of all the infrastructure investment proposals for our nation, none is more important or pressing than a second airport for Australia’s tourist gateway city of Sydney.
This is a story about how politics has thwarted an essential piece infrastructure investment being put in place. But it is also a story of hope that, at last, the national interest will prevail over electoral politics.
A quarter century ago the federal government was faced with the nation’s biggest infrastructure decision but got it wrong. Confronted with what it saw as a choice between building a third runway at Kingsford-Smith Airport and a new airport at Badgery’s Creek 56 km from the city centre, the Hawke government opted for the third runway. Ironically, the government's decision to build the third runway at the existing airport was the least attractive choice electorally; its intent pure, the Cabinet had displayed great political courage in making the wrong decision.
In that 25-year period the politics of building a second airport at Badgery's Creek have progressively worsened as urban encroachment has proceeded in what, back then, was a rural landscape.
But in a dramatic turn of events the political equation for a Badgery's Creek go-ahead just got much easier. The NSW state and federal opposition political parties - both Labor - have offered support for the project, overturning decades of squabbling among Liberals, Nationals Labor and single-issue parties.
Back in the late-1980s, as economic adviser to Bob Hawke, I ran the case for Badgery's Creek. Eventually a new Sydney airport would be needed, so let's build it now, I reasoned. Though Badgery's Creek would be more expensive to build than a third runway, it seemed like a smart investment that eventually would need to be made anyway.
Hawke accepted the argument and personally advised NSW Premier Nick Greiner that he favoured Badgery's Creek. Though a supporter of the third runway, Greiner indicated he'd work with Hawke on putting in place the necessary transport infrastructure linking the Badgery's Creek airport to the city.
But the pressure on Hawke for the third runway, especially from the tourism industry, was immense. Based on new calculations from the transport department and confronted with this pressure, Hawke and his Cabinet decided to proceed with the third runway, while securing the site at Badgery's Creek for an eventual second Sydney airport.
The right decision at the time was not either the third runway or Badgery's Creek, but both. Still, if Hawke had gone ahead with his original preference for Badgery's Creek, the increasing air traffic congestion at Kingsford-Smith Airport would have ensured the speediest possible construction of the second airport.
Now the chickens are coming home to roost and they're landing at Badgery's Creek. For more than 25 years Sydney has had to make do with a second-rate international airport, hardly the outcome the tourism industry would have desired. At any given time in that period one or more major political parties at the federal or state levels has opposed building at Badgery's Creek, and instead has sought<span> </span>the electoral support of western Sydney voters worried about the impact of aircraft noise on their property values.
But now the stars are aligned. Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten and NSW Labor leader, John Robertson have pledged their support for Badgery's Creek, taking the politics out of the decision. Shadow transport minister Anthony Albanese this week promised not to campaign against Badgery’s Creek if that is the government’s chosen site.
Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey is pushing for a Cabinet go-ahead but yet again a decision had been deferred. If this is simply to inform and reassure western Sydney MPs, then it's understandable. But if the federal government blinks it would be a disaster.
During the 25-year hiatus over Badgery’s Creek a new dynamic has developed in its favour. Around the proposed airport site is a huge amount of industrial land, a prospective jobs precinct that would enable western Sydney residents to find work locally instead of battling their way through traffic towards Sydney every day.
For every bit of bad news, for every factory closure, the Coalition government has found it convenient to blame Labor. That will continue for as long as the government judges it can get away with it. But it cannot blame Bill Shorten or John Robertson or Labor if it shirks its responsibility to give Badgery's Creek the go-ahead.
The previous federal government made large investments in transport infrastructure. Australia will need much more of this and quickly. That will require the sort of bipartisan support that Shorten and Robertson are offering. A go-ahead for Badgery's Creek would be a good start, even if it is 25 years late.