Sydney takes an interest in Newcastle container terminal

THE federal opposition says it is “time for transparency” over the secret container fee imposed on the privatised Port of Newcastle as the idea gains traction in Sydney as a way of helping to ease the capital city’s increasingly grid-locked road and rail systems.

Labor’s spokesperson for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development, Anthony Albanese, said on Thursday that the secret container fee imposed on Newcastle during its 2014 privatisation appeared to be an “arrangement that will artificially constrain economic diversification, growth and job creation in Newcastle”.

State Labor has been been calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the fee since it was revealed by the Newcastle Herald in 2016 and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission confirmed earlier this month that it was investigating the arrangement.

The state government has repeatedly said it believes a Newcastle container terminal would not be a viable operation but a report commissioned by the port operator from Deloitte Access Economics suggests otherwise.

At the same time, traffic congestion out of Botany has become a major political issue, and a Newcastle container terminal joined to a distribution centre west of Sydney at Eastern Creek is being taken increasingly seriously as a solution.

At a Newcastle Institute forum on Wednesday night, Port Authority of NSW chief executive Grant Gilfillan said he would take a positive view of the proposal back to the Roads, Maritime and Freight Minister, Melinda Pavey, noting the obvious enthusiasm for the project in this region.

But as the chairman of Port of Newcastle Investments, Roy Green, told the forum, the secret fee written into the privatisation of Botany and Port Kembla in 2013, and Newcastle in 2014, remained a major stumbling block to Newcastle’s plans.

An indication of the Newcastle plan’s importance in Sydney can be seen in Thursday’s Sydney Morning Herald, which put the container plan on its front page as a solution to Sydney’s traffic problems. The former steelworks site is remediated and ready for development.

Drawing heavily on the Deloitte study, the SMH article marks the first time in many years that the Sydney media has looked closely at the Newcastle proposal, which was first put forward in the late 1990s by BHP as it was preparing to shut down the Newcastle steelworks.

Greg Cameron, who as head of BHP’s public affairs unit in Newcastle was instrumental in driving the terminal plan, has remained its most vocal supporter across the intervening years.

Mr Cameron long ago linked the argument for a Newcastle terminal with the growing congestion problems he predicted would arise with Port Botany, and it seems his arguments – previously ignored by those in power – are now coming into favour.

Having repeatedly called for an inquiry into the Newcastle container fee, Mr Cameron said on Thursday that the time had come for a thorough investigation of the state’s long-term freight strategy.

He said a Newcastle container terminal, served by by a dedicated rail-freight line to Sydney, would be cheaper than building all of the road and rail infrastructure the government was planning to cope with the planned doubling of Botany’s capacity to 5 million containers a year.