Federal Member for the Riverina Michael McCormack has responded to Wagga City Council’s call for an election commitment on the future of the city’s aging airport.
“I share Wagga Wagga City Council’s vision to improve the facilities at the Wagga Wagga airport, particularly as we aim to grow the city to a population of 100,000 by 2038,” he said in a statement to Region Media.
The fate of the Air Force owned facility was dropped onto the election agenda this week by Wagga Mayor Dallas Tout.
With unanimous support from his fellow councillors, he has written to all eight Riverina candidates seeking to end the current standoff between the council and the Commonwealth.
“It’s getting quite urgent now,” Cr Tout said. “We’re down to the last two or three years and we need some security of tenure.”
The council’s current lease agreement will expire in 2025, and Cr Tout wants to negotiate both a long term deal and more federal funding for the maintenance and expansion of the Commonwealth-owned asset.
“Otherwise, we’re doing it on an airport that’s not even ours,” Cr Tout said.
Geoff Breust is a retired airline executive and aviator who has long been advocating for a resolution on what he calls a “bad deal”.
“You’ve got a ludicrous situation where the Commonwealth owns all the assets, but the council is required to maintain them all, as well as pay a significant amount of rent,” he said.
Mr Breust said the uncertainty beyond the current lease agreement was hampering investment from both commercial and private stakeholders.
“I own a hangar facility at the airport and it’s not an inconsiderable investment, but I could be required within three years to either give up my facility or take it down.”
Cr Tout agrees that it’s an issue that can’t wait.
“Every capital decision out there, whether it’s a major airline operator or someone who’s just having a hangar or the vehicle, the car companies, anyone in that whole precinct, they need security for what’s going on,” he said.
Wagga Council General Manager Peter Thompson hopes to secure a 99-year lease and more financial support for federally mandated security upgrades.
“It’s not an unreasonable ask to look to the Commonwealth Government to change the asset that they own so that it can accommodate the infrastructure that they have legislated must be located at the site,” he said.
“The Commonwealth Government should be standing shoulder to shoulder with us and showing that they’re part of this community and their neglect at the airport is an example of how they’re not doing that at the moment.”
But Mr McCormack rejected suggestions that the Federal Government hasn’t been paying their share.
“The Wagga Wagga Airport has received funding through the Federal Government to support its development, including $1,737,000 through the Regional Airports Program to upgrade lighting and $405,000 through the Regional Airport Security Screening Fund to contribute to the cost of purchasing security screening equipment to meet enhanced aviation security requirements,” Mr McCormack said.
“The council was also successful in receiving a $3.719 million grant for capital works at the airport under the Regional Airports Screening Infrastructure program.”
But critics of the current arrangement point to the Commonwealth-owned Newcastle Airport site that includes a RAAF base and is leased to the Port Stephens and Newcastle City Councils.
In April, the facility was awarded $55 million in funding to upgrade and expand its passenger terminal.
Mr Breust said that while the relationship between the RAAF and the councils was similar, the funding and security of tenure were not.
“The Commonwealth owns the asset and so, therefore, the Commonwealth should be ensuring that they maintain the facilities involved in the development.”
Mr McCormack maintained he was strongly committed to the ongoing arrangement with the RAAF and appeared to put the ball back in Wagga council’s court.
“If the council decides not to renew its lease on the airport, its future management will need to be considered as part of a wider review of the disposition of the Defence Estate in relation to the government’s recently released 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the 2020 Force Structure Plan,” he said.
“I am committed to continue working with the Wagga Wagga City Council and other stakeholders to ensure the best outcome for the city and its residents.”