Next week Australia will have, no matter who wins the federal election, a new government. It might be led by the recycled, ‘everything old is new again’ Kevin Rudd, or more likely, as the polls suggest, Tony Abbott’s Liberal-Nationals Coalition.
And it appears that that new government will make a new decision on a second Sydney airport.
In the run-up to the election both sides of the political divide promised a decision on this contentious issue during the life of the next parliament. In late July Labor’s Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese went so far as to say he was “absolutely determined” to begin construction of a second Sydney Airport in the next parliamentary term. On the other side of politics, Tony Abbott promised during the first leaders’ debate with Kevin Rudd to make “a decision” on a second airport during a first term of government.
So progress, at last, on this critical piece of national infrastructure?
Don’t bet on it.
A decision on a second Sydney airport site has already been made, several times, over the past decades. Remember the Whitlam government’s 1973 decision to build an airport at Galston? Or the Hawke government’s 1986 decision to build at Badgerys Creek (which even saw land acquisition at the planned new site go ahead, land that even today remains in government hands). Then in 1996 we had the Howard government’s preference for a Holsworthy airport site. And most recently, the Gillard government’s March 2012 anointing of Wilton as its preferred site.
So we have been here before – here we have another election, and another round of promises masquerading as action that most likely masks inaction.
But at some point, someone will have to make a decision. Sydney Airport will reach capacity – if it is not in effect at that now, certainly in the all-important peak times.
Still, if history is any guide, and surely in this debate it is, a more likely scenario is that that by default and necessity, decisions to offer an incremental increase in Sydney’s airport capacity will be taken.
That could see the movement cap at Sydney Airport raised, and the Richmond RAAF base opened up to commercial traffic. But those decisions would only get us so far. Lifting the movement rate at Sydney would offer some useful, but only incremental, capacity increases there, and Richmond, in its current layout at least, due to its runway length and orientation and winter fog, won’t offer a long-term solution.
So increased capacity at Kingsford Smith and perhaps an overflow airport at Richmond might buy us a few more years. Perhaps enough for the definitive second airport site decision to be deferred until after another election cycle. But someone, at some stage, needs to take a leaf out of the Wagner family’s book (see our feature on their new Wellcamp Toowoomba airport project elsewhere this issue), make a decision, and send in the bulldozers.
Funnily enough, by default, Badgerys Creek looms again as the most likely site for a second airport. Remember Churchill’s assessment that the United States can always be trusted to make the right decision once it has exhausted every other option? So too does it seem that our political leaders will make a decision on proceeding at Badgerys by default after exhausting every other potential site.
And encouragingly, there are increasing signs of community and business support for Badgerys Creek, focused on the economic opportunities that a new airport could generate.
The Daily Telegraph has reported on the formation of the Western Sydney Airport Alliance, a coalition of business, union and community groups advocating for Badgerys Creek.
“Start digging. We face significant challenges in employment, there are 200,000 people travelling outside the region every day to work,” Sydney Chamber of Commerce Western Sydney president David Borger told the newspaper.
“We have an alliance of business, unions and the community sector calling on all parties to adopt a position of supporting an airport at Badgerys Creek. It would be a game changer.”
And according to a Deloitte Access Economics report prepared for the NSW Business Chamber has found a new Badgerys Creek Airport would generate 20,000 jobs directly and 10,000 indirectly.
But to realise that potential, a decision to proceed needs to be made. Even in the best case scenario of a definitive decision being made in the life of the next parliament, it will likely take the best part of a decade before a new airport is operational. So it is hard to see a new Badgerys Creek International offering meaningful capacity relief to Sydney Airport before 2025. And if Sydney Airport is congested in 2013, how will it be coping after another decade of traffic growth?
Here’s hoping that whoever is the Prime Minister and the Transport Minister after September 7 they have the guts, and the vision, not just to make a decision, but to execute on it. Australia needs it.
This editorial first appeared in the September issue of Australian Aviation.