19 February 2024

'Privatisation under another name': Senator grills the Commonwealth over Wagga Airport future

| Chris Roe
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Nationals Senator Perin Davey raised questions over the future of Wagga Airport. Photo: Screenshot/Supplied.

The future of Wagga Wagga Airport remains up in the air this week after Department of Defence representatives indicated that the Commonwealth-owned asset would be put out “to market”.

With Wagga Wagga City Council’s (WWCC) 30-year lease set to expire in June 2025, Nationals Senator Perin Davey sought assurance during senate estimates that the airport would not be sold off.

“It’s on lease to Wagga Wagga City Council and is run as a publicly owned and operated airport,” she said.

“Is that one of the blocks of land that could be up for privatisation?”

Defence representative Celia Perkins replied that, for WWCC, “there are no further options on that lease arrangement” and said that following discussions, the next step would be “an approach to market for an arrangement to come into effect from June 2025”.

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Ms Davey questioned how a regional council could hope to compete with commercial interests and declared that “an approach to market is privatisation under another name”.

Ms Perkins pushed back on the characterisation, saying that “a commercial lease arrangement is quite different from privatisation” and that lease arrangements were already in place at “about eight dual-use airfields around the country”.

Federal Member for the Riverina Michael McCormack has always fought to maintain Commonwealth ownership of the airport and its historic connection to the adjoining RAAF Base.

He said there is a risk that a new 99-year lease would be snapped up by private enterprise.

“What you’ll end up with is a foreign company or a foreign superannuation firm taking out the lease – a company that has absolutely no regard or connection or link to or association with regional Australia,” he warned.

“If it’s then operated on a profit basis so that they can make a buck out of it, that means charging a high price to the local airlines, charging a high price to the Airline Pilot Academy – which has a huge presence there – and the difficulty for Council is that they can’t have any say in it.

“It’s a real problem.”

Wagga City Council’s lease on the airport will expire next year. Photo: Chris Roe.

WWCC General Manager Peter Thompson has been pushing to secure a 99-year lease for the city and for more financial support to upgrade and maintain the Commonwealth-owned facility.

He met with Assistant Minister for Defense Matt Thistlethwaite last year and was told to raise the matter again after “a full audit of all of their property portfolio”, which is due to be completed soon.

“We remain hopeful that the federal government will see merit in that airport continuing to be run by the government rather than leasing it to a private entity who will do whatever private entity thinks is best for their shareholders,” Mr Thompson said in January.

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The uncertainty over the airport’s future raises questions over the ongoing investment of ratepayer funds and Senator Davey pushed home the point during senate estimates.

“If they’ve got no certainty of an ongoing relationship, it’s really curtailing any incentive to invest in maintaining or upgrading,” she said, pointing out that WWCC recently took out a loan for a $5.3 million taxiway upgrade.

“If the Commonwealth decides not to renew that lease, is there any process by which the City Council can be re-compensated?”

Ms Perkins replied, “There are many ways we can negotiate those use arrangements”.

Ms Davey also raised concerns over the ongoing management of PFAS contamination.

“Would Defence remediate the PFAS contamination before privatisation?” she asked.

“That hasn’t occurred to date, even though Defence has been well aware of the issue … and PFAS is leaching into the groundwater.”

PFAS (Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) refers to a group of manufactured compounds used by Defence in firefighting products at the RAAF Base Wagga for over 30 years.

Sometimes called the “forever chemicals”, PFAS break down extremely slowly and have been linked to poor health outcomes.

A Defence spokesperson indicated they would continue working with state and local governments at contaminated sites across Australia.

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