Economic Insanity: O’Farrell Tries To Scupper Second Sydney Airport

IN WHAT CAN only be described as an attempt to put a wrecking ball through a crucial piece of infrastructure, the NSW government has announced its refusal to fund any of the required supporting infrastructure for an airport at Badgerys Creek; it shows a churlishness that runs counter to the common good of Sydney, NSW and the Commonwealth generally, and exposes the shambolic priorities of Barry O’Farrell’s government.

The issue of Sydney Airport and what to do about it has been a political football for decades; anyone who has had direct experience of it, irrespective of where they live (and I’ve seen the inside of it dozens of times in the past few years) knows that not only is it bursting at the seams, but that it routinely causes transport and logistics chaos on a nationwide basis as it labours under the constraints of its ridiculous curfew, cap on aircraft movements, and the perennially clogged airspace overhead.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph has reported that Premier Barry O’Farrell’s newly-minted “Minister Assisting the Premier on Western Sydney,” Stuart Ayres, has publicly told the federal government that NSW will not provide any funding for the road and rail links that are key to making a second airport in the Sydney basin feasible; it is unclear whether this decree also extends to the fuel pipeline the Tele notes would be required, but the atmospheric of Ayres’ remarks is not suggestive of a willingness on NSW’s part to cough up.

Indeed, the language of some of the minister’s remarks sounds ominously like a thinly veiled threat:¬†“I’ll be very, very clear about this: an airport in western Sydney without any enabling infrastructure will be a catastrophic disaster,” Ayres said.

In other words, build it if you dare: we’ll do our best to ensure it’s a white elephant.

The reason I’m posting on this subject today is that just about everyone with any kind of stake in Sydney’s airport politics — the residents whose complaints of noise are treated as political missiles, the NSW and federal governments, the business community, international stakeholders and tourists, and the travelling Australian public — are fed up with Sydney and its barely functional airport wreaking havoc on air travel in this country and the knock-on effects that flow from it.

Ever since the Keating government introduced an 11pm to 6am curfew at the airport — a capitulation to political protest over aircraft noise designed primarily to shore up the marginal Sydney electorate of Barton, which the ALP went on to hold in 1996 — the perennial issue of what to do about airport capacity in Sydney has been a constant feature of the “too hard” basket, with politicians of all stripes fearful of alienating the voters who dwell in the electorates beneath the city’s flight paths.

Keating’s government, to its credit, made a serious attempt to put a Badgerys Creek airport on the agenda. But this — like every other attempt to resolve the situation with anything that allowed for increased flight movements through the Sydney corridor — came to naught, again as the result of fear-based politicking at the local level.

Now — 20 years later — there is ample anecdotal evidence that the tide has turned; not only are the residents of the western Sydney region supportive of the Badgerys Creek facility being constructed, but the employment growth and other (vast) economic benefits that would flow to the area represent gains that local community, business and government figures are keen to secure and exploit.

This makes the stance of the NSW government puzzling, to say the least.

Above the line, it is Tony Abbott’s Liberal government at the federal level that is driving the renewed push for a second Sydney airport, with Treasurer Joe Hockey being its primary champion in the media. Perhaps — in the pass-the-buck, not-in-my-back-yard cesspool that is airport politics in Sydney — the ability to deflect real or imagined political fallout with a “send a message to Canberra” campaign simply isn’t thought to exist if NSW is also seen to be contributing to the project.

On the other hand, however, it doesn’t make political sense, given the ubiquitous prominence with which western Sydney now apparently features in retail political thought, to stand in the way of the very real benefits of the Badgerys Creek airport flowing through to communities in that area. 30,000 additional jobs in a region historically marked by high unemployment is a very big carrot indeed.

It raises the question, at the very least, of exactly what advice Ayres — a Penrith boy and western Sydney local — is providing O’Farrell on the subject that outweighs those benefits.

And the arguments about existing infrastructure spending don’t withstand even the most cursory consideration: the road and rail links at the very least would be subsidised by the federal government even if it didn’t pay for them outright. Given the colossal economic benefits to be had, it is inconceivable that money from private sector partners would fail to materialise, too.

It is for these reasons I contend that the utterances from Macquarie Street — far from being a warning shot across the bows — can more accurately be viewed as an attempt to sabotage the entire project rather than a simple exercise in ensuring someone other than the NSW taxpayer foots the bill.

It is well known publicly that there is little love lost between Abbott and O’Farrell.

It is also well known publicly that O’Farrell triggered outrage behind closed doors in the Abbott camp earlier this year, and rightly so, when his became the first of the Liberal states to sign on to the Gillard government’s so-called Gonski reforms.

Presented as a willingness to grab a pot of money before it was taken off the table, the NSW government’s actions in fact derailed the federal Coalition’s strategy of opposing the Gonski package, and have directly placed Abbott in the position of being obliged to honour the unaffordable additional education spending that package requires — utterly devoid as it is of any accountability surrounding educational outcomes or standards.

(I’ve said it before and will say it again: “Gonski” money will ultimately fund pay rises for teachers. Nothing else will change as a result of it. Certainly, no child will receive a better education or achieve better educational outcomes as a result of pissing billions of dollars up against a post).

But this is the second occasion in less than six months on which the NSW government has taken a stand diametrically opposed to that of its federal Liberal counterpart on a major issue of national political and economic significance, and it’s too much of a coincidence to be an accident.

Commentators in the mainstream press have increasingly characterised the O’Farrell government as a timid, risk-averse outfit: its stance on the Badgerys Creek airport will do nothing to ameliorate that perception.

O’Farrell and Ayres can rattle on about their infrastructure commitments until the cows come home, but the vexed airport issue in Sydney has been a running sore for too long; for the first time in decades there is both the political will (federally) and the community buy-in to finally and belatedly resolve it.

If O’Farrell’s government proves to be the obstacle that kyboshes that, it will ultimately pay a heavy price at the hands of NSW voters.

To be brutal about it, to sabotage a second airport in Sydney is an act of economic vandalism that will cost the Australian economy tens of billions dollars in coming years in lost trade, tourism and investment spending; the bulk of those dollars would of course flow into NSW, but the damage will be felt far more widely if the project fails to proceed.

It’s not a stain the NSW Liberals would aspire to see on their record in office.

And as for the money, the NSW government was happy to sign on to the Gonski package for extra money from the Gillard government, but in doing so also committed itself to matching one-third of that additional amount: money that would be better spent paying for the very roads and railways it now refuses to fund, rather than the bottomless well to finance the pay claims of its teacher unions it will instead create.

The Miranda by-election earlier this year was not a routine mid-term protest. It contained a clear warning to the O’Farrell government that it was on notice. Clearly, the NSW government has failed to live up to the expectations of voters in the key electorates that put it into office by a record margin in the first place. Revelations of ALP corruption at ICAC and trade union scandals do not necessarily guarantee the Liberal Party a second term in office in NSW.

The NSW government may well opt to stand firm, as is its right. Should it do so, it ought to contemplate the message behind the result in Miranda just a little more closely.

Even governments elected by such overwhelming margins as O’Farrell’s was in 2011 are fallible. South Australia, and its elections of 1993 and 1997, are ready recent proof of it.



Ruddwatch: Populist Airport Pitch Cloaks Ambition

LEADERSHIP TROUBLEMAKER Kevin Rudd has surfaced for the first time since the election, revisiting the issue he initially used in 1996 to seek attention as a candidate. Rudd’s pronouncements on airport infrastructure are wrong, and suggest he may yet retain ambitions of a return to high office.

Anyone who has lived in Brisbane or flown in and out of its airport — and I’ve done both — knows that dear old Brisvegas is poorly served for air travel infrastructure, with flight delays the norm and too much time spent circling overhead before landing a standard feature of any travel involving Brisbane Airport today.

And this problem is not unique to Brisbane; Sydney Airport in particular is operating at full capacity, with its congested airspace, restricted runways and 11pm-6am curfew all conspiring to make travelling in and out of the harbour city a nightmare.

All this makes the public utterances this week of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd all the more interesting: for what he hasn’t said as much as for what he did.

Make no mistake, the cretinous Rudd still hankers after the Prime Ministership.

Back in 1996, prior to that year’s election, Kevin Rudd had been parachuted into the “safe” Brisbane seat of Griffith as Labor’s candidate after the retirement of long-time MP Ben Humphreys; his Liberal opponent was Brisbane City Councillor Graeme McDougall.

Fresh from his stint at the apex of bureaucracy under former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss — which won him great plaudits in ALP circles, and was regarded as a disaster with near-unanimity elsewhere — Rudd had made a name for himself locally by belting the can over the issue of aeroplane noise, which is a perennial issue in Griffith.

Even then, people around Brisbane called the Rudd campaign for what it was: despite living in the electorate, noise from flight paths has been an “old faithful” horse to flog on the hustings for decades for those desperate to generate a bit of attention.

It turned out to be for nought; at the election that swept the Keating government away in 1996 McDougall beat Rudd, and once elected at his second attempt in 1998, Rudd’s public ardour for something to be done about noisy flight paths dimmed. Considerably.

And this is why Rudd’s pronouncements on a second airport in Brisbane, runway duplication at the existing airport, and a curfew to boot are so revealing.

Everyone knows that something has to be done about Brisbane Airport. Sydney too, for that matter, and we will refer to it along the way.

There has been a public push in the past week or so to upgrade Archerfield Airport, in Brisbane’s inner/mid-southern suburbs. It is no solution, and its proximity to residential communities will make the kind of noise people complain about because of the existing airport at Eagle Farm seem mild by comparison.

In one of the reports I have seen, Rudd makes no mention of the Archerfield option. This is a shame, as I would love to know what he makes of it.

Because the warped version of a “solution” he now says he supports for the existing Brisbane Airport is ridiculous; taken at face value it represents a case of two steps forward and one step back, and could only be seriously advanced by a lunatic.

The single runway at Brisbane Airport — last upgraded 20 years ago, save for more recent modifications to prepare it for use by Airbus A380s — is in urgent need of duplication, with growth in aircraft movements far outstripping capacity.

Belatedly, preliminary works on a parallel runway began earlier this year, with the new airstrip due for completion in 2020.

Until very recently, Kevin Rudd was opposed to any expansion of capacity at Brisbane Airport at all, although as readers will see from the Courier Mail article I have linked to, this opposition was abandoned when he briefly reclaimed the Prime Ministership in June.

(Rudd’s position on many issues underwent U-turns at about the same time, but I digress).

Yet Rudd wants a curfew slapped on Brisbane Airport’s operating hours between 11pm and 6am as soon as the new runway is completed.

The position makes no sense whatsoever: one runway, currently available for use 24 hours a day, is to be doubled — with 14 hours’ effective capacity instantly chopped out?

I tend to think the airlines, the Queensland government, the Brisbane Airports Corporation and other stakeholders footing the $1.5 billion bill for a new runway would be less than impressed to find the money had purchased a capacity increase of just 40%.

That result would do little to advance Brisbane’s claims to be a “World Class City;” as it is, there is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest Brisbane ranks behind Perth in international perceptions of which Australian cities, after Melbourne and Sydney, measure up against those elsewhere.

What Rudd says he wants to see happen is therefore bewildering.

Moreover, such a position would immediately set Brisbane Airport on course for the same problems that currently bedevil Sydney Airport.

Some of the additional capacity from a new runway will be immediately absorbed to remedy the present situation of delays, cancellations and the like; more again will be eaten away as the rapid growth in air traffic to and from Brisbane quickly fills the extra slots that even a curfewed expansion will enable.

But then it’s back to square one, and sooner than many might think. What then? The availability of land around the existing Brisbane Airport isn’t exactly plentiful.

Rudd claims Sydney Airport¬†“remains an entirely viable airport” despite having a curfew since 1995. But this ignores the fact the curfew was introduced by the Keating government in its death throes to try to salvage a few marginal Labor seats, and it ignores the fact that Sydney Airport as a consequence is simply a far bigger version of the problem currently facing the Brisbane facility.

He also claims that “sleep disruption” will become a far greater problem for residents in communities beneath aeroplane flight paths, but this problem is already being dealt with to some extent by Airbus and Boeing as they introduce quieter, more efficient aeroplanes into their product ranges.

The point has to be made that anyone who buys a house in the noise footprint of a major airport can’t say they weren’t warned; in any case, people have to make choices: do they want quiet skies, or do they want airline services and the benefits (trade, tourism, investment etc) that flow from the facilities that enable them?

There are no magic puddings on this issue, which is why it’s praiseworthy that the new federal government seems set to bite the bullet and build Sydney’s second major airport at the same Badgery’s Creek site that Keating’s government should have 20 years ago.

It is also why the notion of Archerfield Airport as a second major airport in Brisbane is a red herring.

But it brings up a neat summary of Rudd’s position on the issue, and from that a clear picture emerges.

Rudd has campaigned against aeroplane noise, intermittently, for nearly 20 years.

He opposed expanding Brisbane Airport, but now supports a second runway.

His support depends on the benefits of expansion being immediately cruelled by a curfew.

There is a very real problem here, but Rudd’s posturing adds up to virtually nothing.

It’s reminiscent of Rudd’s “termination” of a carbon tax…only to replace it with the (far higher) eventual European trading price, allowing him to sate both the anti-carbon tax and pro-ETS lobbies — semantically at least — at a stroke.

It’s not too much of a stretch to see Rudd is still trying to promise all things to all people.

The mighty Rudd, fighting off aeroplanes on behalf of his constituents, yet sending the signal — however half-baked — that he’s a friend of airport expansion to everyone else.

He wouldn’t bother if there was nothing in it for him, surely?

Heavy Kevvie still harbours thoughts of another stint in the Prime Ministership, methinks.

And with Rudd’s longstanding history of subterranean destabilisation of Labor leaders as good a pointer to future conduct as any, it will be interesting to see how Showbag Bill deals with Rudd as the latter gets up to all of his old tricks.

This could be Rudd’s first move in his latest leadership game. We’ll keep an eye on him.