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.