Tide out on port dream – Newcastle Herald

Ian Kirkwood

May 1, 2013, 11 p.m.

FOR much of the past decade, former BHP Newcastle public affairs manager Greg Cameron has been an unwavering but almost lone voice in support of a container terminal on the former Newcastle steelworks site.

Cameron, who left Newcastle for Melbourne soon after the steelworks shut in 1999 and who resides nowadays in Canberra, has devoted countless unpaid hours to his industrial dream.

For a while there, Cameron’s view was the official view. When BHP proposed it back in 1997, the state government proclaimed itself an immediate fan.

In October 2003, then premier Bob Carr flew to the harbour by helicopter to stand with lord mayor John Tate, Newcastle MP Bryce Gaudry and Newcastle Port Corporation (NPC) officials to announce  the waterfront half of the steelworks site had been preserved for a multi-purpose shipping terminal.

In the short term, NPC was free to pursue private sector interest in a small-scale operation.

When Port Botany reached its capacity, Newcastle was designated as the state’s next container terminal in the government’s ‘‘three ports’’ policy.

Mr Gaudry said the government’s plan gave stevedoring and shipping companies ‘‘a sense of certainty’’.

I remember that day well, because I had what is sometimes called ‘‘a robust discussion’’ with Mr Carr about precisely when the Newcastle terminal might arrive. NPC said Botany was due to reach capacity in 2013, or 2020 if it was expanded.

I reported these dates, along with another –  2030 – which was the timeline Sydney Ports Corporation had predicted in a newsletter published that same week.

A decade on, however, even that promise of a Newcastle container terminal in 2020 or 2030 has all but disappeared, thanks to last month’s $5billion privatisation of Port Botany and Port Kembla.

For starters, the planning limits on Botany have disappeared altogether.

But if the container trade does get too big for Botany, the 99-year lease signed by the government gives the successful consortium the right to build the state’s next container terminal at Port Kembla.

In Cameron’s opinion, Botany’s 99-year monopoly is a massive mistake.

Roads around the port are already so clogged that Canberra is planning an ‘‘inland port’’ at Moorebank in Sydney’s south-west.

Another facility is on the drawing boards for Eastern Creek, near Penrith.

Cameron says this will simply transfer the traffic gridlock to Moorebank, and  container cargo growth is so great  the new terminal may well run out of space as soon as it opens.

His prescription is to dispense with Moorebank and build the Eastern Creek centre now, fed with containers railed from a major new container terminal in Newcastle.

Even though NPC has signed development deals for some of the steelworks site, most of the 150-hectare site remains vacant, making it big enough for a world-scale container terminal with room for 100years of expansion.

On any measure, the steelworks site is one of the most important deepwater industrial holdings in Australia.

It deserves to be put to its best possible use. Cameron goes as far as saying the former state government scuttled the project by buying the site to take BHP out of the equation.

He says the new Coalition government is just as blind to Newcastle’s potential.

State Treasurer Michael Baird says the government has no plans to privatise it.

Cameron says the Coalition could live up to its free-market rhetoric by letting the losing consortium at Botany/Kembla – or anyone else interested in operating out of the port – propose a container terminal for Newcastle.

If nothing else, it would certainly make a change from more coal.

He has also challenged the region’s MPs to tell him where he’s wrong, but says none of them have taken up his emailed offer.