LABOR’S push for an inquiry into the privatisation of the Port of Newcastle appears to be treading water, with MPs from both conservative crossbench parties signalling that they don’t see a need for the parliamentary probe.
Opposition leader Luke Foley and the state member for Newcastle, Tim Crakanthorp, called for an inquiry after the Newcastle Herald revealed in July that the Baird government had negotiated a “strictly confidential” cap on container ship movements through the Port.
The inquiry, which is currently on the Upper House notice paper awaiting a vote, calls for, among other things, a committee to investigate “terms of the Port Commitment Deeds for Botany, Kembla and Newcastle” and “whether the privatisation of the New South Wales ports was structured to limit competition, or has that effect”.
But those efforts appear to have hit a snag, with key Christian Democrats MP Paul Green saying his heavy workload – he’s currently on six inquiries – made him question the worth of the inquiry.
Mr Green is an all important crossbencher on the general purpose standing committee responsible for roads, maritime and freight.
He said he and Mr Nile were “considering” the motion, but he was “not of the view that an inquiry is warranted given there are currently so many currently running”.
“We’ve asked the government about it and they are starting to feed us some information,” he said.
“What we have got to work out is whether we think Labor’s concerns are valid.”
The Herald understands Mr Crakanthorp is hoping to convince Christian Democrats leader Fred Nile on the merits of the inquiry.
If he can’t, Labor would need to get the inquiry voted on through the Upper House, in which case it would also need the support of the Greens and the Shooters and Fishers Party.
While the Greens have said they would support the inquiry, Shooters MP Robert Brown echoed Mr Green’s sentiment that the already significant workload of the crossbench would be better spent elsewhere.
“I looked at what Labor are saying and what the government has told me and I came down with the view that we have far bigger fish to fry,” Shooters MP Robert Brown said.
“We don’t have a hell of a lot of time to be looking at things that might be a waste of time.
“If [the Christian Democrats] support it we might go along with it [but] I don’t think there’s a lot in it.”
The government had denied the existence of a cap until the details of the Port Commitment were revealed by the Herald, and Labor’s leader in the NSW Parliament’s Upper House, Adam Searle, last week accused the Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian of misleading a previous government estimates hearing when she said she was “not aware” of a cap.
The cap means that if a “cross-payment” threshold of 30,000 containers – plus 6 per cent yearly growth – is reached at the Port of Newcastle, the operator has to pay the owners of the Port of Botany $1 million for every ship.
Mr Searle says it has the effect of “putting a brake” on the Hunter economy, and has pushed for the inquiry.
“The Government did a deal that prevents competition between Ports Botany and Kembla – because they now have one private operator – and has condemned Newcastle to being a coal port only, putting a break on efforts to diversify the economic base of the Hunter for the next century,” he said.
“Even the chair of the ACCC says the deal is so bad it has changed his view on privatisation, and that he would prosecute the State of NSW - but it has claimed immunity under competition laws.
“In light of the Baird Government’s attempts to cover up the truth about the cap on Newcastle Port and the consequences, NSW Labor is calling for a Parliamentary inquiry into these issues.”