A policy in name only – Newcastle Herald

IAN KIRKWOOD

LISTENING to the ICAC hearings, the dominant motif last week was still brave Jodi McKay defending the government’s preferred Newcastle container terminal against the alleged ogre Nathan Tinkler’s plan for that evil of evils, a coal-loader.

If only it was so simple.

In my own plodding way, I have been covering the industry rounds at the Newcastle Herald since well before a shipping terminal – bulk cargoes with some containers – emerged in 1997 as a preferred use of the steelworks site once BHP stopped steelmaking in 1999.

And even then, it was government policy in name only. Through various name changes and strategic shifts it was only ever going to get government help once Port Botany reached capacity, which back then was likely to be 2020 or 2025.

Then all caps were lifted off Botany and Port Kembla moved in front of it as the first overflow port, meaning a Newcastle container terminal was farther away than ever.

Ask former BHP operative Greg Cameron, who pushed the Newcastle container terminal from the start and who has put 15 years of his own time and energy into promoting what I think is a very good – if incredibly bold – idea. That is, move Botany’s containers to the steelworks site and join it by rail to a container distribution centre at Eastern Creek. Then expand Mascot airport across the adjacent Botany container site, with the extra runway ending the need for a second Sydney airport. The valuable Botany industrial land is turned into housing.

While going very slowly indeed on the multipurpose terminal, the government called for tenders to lease the landlocked Industrial Highway end of the steelworks site, and Buildev won the right to build an industrial park. It was also obliged to decontaminate the site.

When Tinkler took control of Buildev he moved to change the use from shipping terminal to coal-loader. The government’s probity experts said a new tender would have to be called, and the coal-loader never got much past the planning stage.

Regardless of any alleged wrongs the ICAC uncovers about Buildev, it had its foot on the site and was surely able to suggest another use.

ICAC has described the Tinkler coal-loader plan as upsetting a long-term growth plan for the Hunter coal industry – a planbrokered by former Liberal premier Nick Greiner and approved by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The industry agreement needed the ACCC’s blessing because it was essentially in breach of the anti-competitive provisions of section IV of the Trade Practices Act. The agreement effectively blocked an independent player like Tinkler from upsetting the long-range plans of the big coal companies, mainly Rio Tinto, Xstrata and BHP Billiton. So much for free enterprise . . .

If the government was really serious about a shipping terminal on any part of the steelworks site it would have done what BHP begged it do while the steelworks was open, and create a rail easement from the steelworks through Steel River and up to the main northern railway at Hexham. Instead, the government sat on its hands, leaving the existing rail line through suburban Tighes Hill as the only rail entry to the site.

This is why Tinkler tried buying various Steel River sites to provide the rail corridor the government should have secured a decade before.

Personally, I think the steelworks land has some pluses for a coal-loader over T4’s Kooragang site. It’s already dredged, while T4 would require dredging the river from a depth of 1.5 metres to about 15 metres. Then there’s the environmental costs of the birds and the frogs, whereas a coal-loader could hardly worsen the environmentally dead steelworks parcel.

The existing Carrington Coal Terminal is right next door. Expanding it across to the steelworks makes sense but the extra coal dust on nearby residents is the deal-killer.

You might think I’m batting for the wrong side here but, as I have written previously, the dogs have been barking about Buildev for a long time, and I will lose little sleep if it gets hung out to dry at this inquiry.

But if ICAC is going to prosecute its case, it needs to build it on foundations of fact. And describing a Newcastle container terminal as government policy is to ignore the realpolitik.