New port chief's first task is to tackle Newcastle's container restrictions

INITIALLY, few outside of the Hunter seemed too concerned about the secret lease conditions making it all but impossible for Newcastle to have a container terminal, with the general belief being the idea wouldn’t work anyway, so why worry about a piece of obscure paperwork?

Now, however, for a variety of reasons, that line of thinking is being challenged, and the consortium that operates the Port of Newcastle has seen enough in many months of investigations to believe that a container terminal can and will work in Newcastle. To help achieve its aims, it’s hired a former shipping industry manager and government policy expert, Craig Carmody, as the port’s new chief executive, with an explicit brief to try to bring a Newcastle container terminal to fruition.

Nobody under-estimates the size of the task. Botany’s operator will want to hold on to its monopoly status for as long as possible. The Port of Newcastle is hoping the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will say that the Botany protection is anti-competitive, but as the ACCC waved the privatisations through in the first place, that is by no means a certainty.

At the same time, Newcastle has to convince a global shipping industry that there’s enough business to warrant a stop-over when Botany is virtually next door, a little over 80 nautical miles away.

Although it’s early days in the port’s planning processes, the consortium says there is enough interest both from shipping lines and potential terminal builders to show that a Newcastle terminal will work.

Although coal is set to remain Newcastle’s main export commodity for years to come, there is still room to double the number of ships through the port, so capacity is not a problem. Similarly, the former BHP site at Mayfield has plenty of room for growth, although agreements will have to be struck with planning authorities and neighbours about the movements of trains and trucks in and out of the terminal.

Looking more broadly, containerisation is at the heart of international trade. The restrictions on Newcastle are simply wrong in principle, and the sooner that all concerned accept this, the sooner that the port operator can put its planning to the test.

The head of the port has always been an important role in Newcastle. Mr Carmody takes over the position at a crucial time for this region’s economic future.

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