21 May 2024

Council gains an extra 12 months on Wagga Airport decision but the clock is ticking

| Chris Roe
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Wagga Mayor Dallas Tout and Riverina MP Michael McCormack discussed the future funding of the airport ahead of the 2022 federal election. Photo: Chris Roe.

A decision over the future of the Wagga Wagga Airport lease has been delayed after Wagga Wagga City Council (WWCC) and Member for the Riverina Michael McCormack lobbied for more time from the Federal Government.

WWCC’s 30-year lease on the Commonwealth-owned asset was set to expire in June 2025 and Department of Defence representatives indicated in February that the airport would be put out “to market”, raising concerns that it would be privatised.

WWCC launched an advocacy campaign last week calling on the community to write letters of support and Mr McCormack confirmed this week that the current lease would be extended by 12 months.

“Whilst there are several issues to work through, the decision to put the airport out to public tender for leasing has been put on hold until 30 June, 2026, to allow the council to liaise with Defence,” Mr McCormack said.

“I am supportive of Wagga Wagga City Council maintaining a lease agreement with the Department of Defence and will continue to work with council towards this outcome.”

READ ALSO ‘Please don’t privatise our airport’ – Wagga Council rallies community support to save airport lease

In launching the call for community support for the city to retain the lease, Mayor Dallas Tout expressed concerns that a vital piece of regional infrastructure could lose its “community focus” in private hands.

“We are concerned that privatisation will push up costs and create another barrier for people in our region,” he said on Friday.

In the past, WWCC has sought ownership of the airport but council general manager Peter Thompson said this had been rejected on the ground that the airport was an active RAAF base and part of the national defence strategy.

“Now we find that they’re going to give it to a very rich equity company or … potentially an overseas company,” he said.

“I don’t know what their restrictions are going to be to operate for profit, but that’s incredibly disappointing on a range of fronts.

“This is a campaign to try and convey to our elected members in Parliament … that privatising yet another essential community service, particularly in the regions, is short-sighted policy.”

man and woman looking at brochure

Wagga Wagga Mayor Dallas Tout with the council’s Regional Activation executive manager Christine Priest. Photo: Shri Gayathirie Rajen.

The Wagga Aero Club is a key stakeholder in the airport and will hold a public meeting tonight (Tuesday, 20 May) to advocate for leaseholders who have based their operations, and invested in private facilities, at the airport.

Club president Geoff Bruest is a retired regional airline executive and has been advocating since before 2018 for the matter to be resolved.

“The very clear experience elsewhere where airports have been privatised is that the costs have gone up astronomically and those businesses have been forced to either move somewhere else or just shut up shop,” he said.

“You don’t start renegotiating a 30-year lease within 12 months of the termination. This should have been put in place at least five years ago.

“Council has been trying to negotiate some suitable arrangements for quite a few years now and we’ve certainly been advocating that as well, but the bureaucrats in Canberra have not come to the party.”

READ ALSO South Wagga Rotary’s Rocky Hill Regeneration project launches new website and brochure

Former Wagga councillor Paul Funnell has also been critical of a lack of urgency around the issue.

“You can’t wait until 13 months out from the deadline to go into panic mode,” he said, describing the airport as a drain on ratepayer funds and a “failed business option”.

In February 2021, Mr Funnell submitted a Notice of Motion requesting a report into “the consequences and or benefits of handling operation of the Wagga Wagga Airport back to the Federal Government” following the council’s failure to secure “100% funding from the Federal Government for our recent grant funding application”.

“As I said back then, why not hand it back to them and let them run it?” he asked.

“We have poured millions upon millions of ratepayers’ money into that facility and, if we can’t get the government funds, and council aren’t capable of running it correctly, why do we have to have it?

“The government’s not going to ignore the city. This is a commercial entity and other airports like Canberra have proven that it [privatisation] can work.”

Mr McCormack, asked for his thoughts on the potential privatisation of the facility, said it was a matter for WWCC.

“Council now has two years and one month to determine what it wants to do,” he said.

“They’ve been given adequate time to talk to stakeholders, to negotiate with Rex [airlines], to weigh up how much they’re spending and what future liaison they want to have with the RAAF.

“I’m happy to work with council as far as their requirements for the airport going forward and I’ve gained them an extra 12 months on the lease to work it out.”

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All this could have been avoided many years ago if Kay Hull and Michael McCormack didn’t block the sale of the RAAF air strip to WWCC for $1. Their fear mongering that RAAF would pack up and leave, despite being assured many times RAAF Wagga was here to stay. Now the biggest losers are WWCC rate payers who ultimately will have to foot the bill.

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