City back in the base race

EVERY few years, it seems, governments reawaken to the possibility of using Newcastle as a naval base. Last time the subject arose was in 2010 when then Newcastle Labor MP Jodi McKay suggested the city host six of the Royal Australian Navy’s proposed new submarines.

It has been apparent for some time that the navy will need a second east coast base, a need made more urgent by growing pressure from commercial interests for access to navy sites in Sydney Harbour.

The idea of a naval base in Newcastle vanished from public view until, recently, a defence force review ruled the city out in favour of Brisbane, arguing that the Port of Newcastle was already fully occupied.

Ms McKay’s Liberal successor, Tim Owen, is trying to put Newcastle back in contention by pointing out to the government that the former BHP steelworks site is very much available.

Novocastrians will wish Mr Owen well in his efforts. A naval base would be an extremely valuable acquisition for Newcastle, bringing jobs, work and money to the city. It would also help the port diversify away from its present overwhelming reliance on the coal trade, a reliance that is problematic because of the historical boom-bust nature of mining.

The biggest obstacle, as usual, will be politics. Like the politics that cost Newcastle opportunities to build submarines and frigates and prevented the city becoming the headquarters of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. And like the politics that stopped a car import terminal being established in the city, despite the strong publicly expressed desire of the importers to invest here.

It seems fair to suggest that, if politics were not such a big factor, Newcastle would be a strong contender for a permanent naval presence on some scale. The city is close to Sydney, it has a long maritime history and a continuing role in naval ship-building and repair.

This time around proponents of a Newcastle navy base must acknowledge that it’s the federal government – not the state – that makes decisions on defence installations. And recent indications are that the Gillard government is striving to win friends and votes in Queensland, a factor that may tend to cement Brisbane as favourite in the race.

Loan for repairs

A SIMPLE $10million grant would have been preferable, but the loan offered by the NSW government to help repair Newcastle City Hall and Merewether Baths is still a good deal.

The government will reportedly pay the loan interest, and although the sum isn’t enough to complete the council’s outstanding repair jobs, it provides a fair incentive to the organisation to find the balance from its own sources.

From a ratepayer perspective, it will be important for the council to demonstrate convincingly that it is achieving genuine value for money with these projects.

Providing maximum transparency and openness, and thorough enough documentation to permit meaningful scrutiny of proposed expenditure, will be a good start.

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