The exciting promise of cheaper flights and more destinations from Shellharbour Airport was dashed when a funding announcement earlier this week proved to be an error, but the plan to expand the facility to allow for budget airlines is anything but grounded.
Kiama MP Gareth Ward made the announcement on Monday (25 September) that $15.9 million had been allocated in last week’s budget through the Growing Local Economies Fund to extend the runway by up to 300 metres, which would allow carriers like Bonza, Jetstar, Virgin and Rex to potentially land their fleets in Albion Park Rail.
“It’s going to mean that planes like the 737s and the A320s are going to be able to land here,” Mr Ward told a media conference on Monday. “That means more seats, that means more service opportunities, that means more job and tourism opportunities for our region, that’s why this announcement in the budget is so significant for our region, it’s growing a strategic asset that has so much more to give.”
Construction was set to begin almost immediately, with Council’s CEO Mike Archer initially hopeful that the project could be completed within 12 to 18 months and carriers already interested in operating out of the location.
“We are in discussions with certain airlines,” Mr Archer said at the announcement. “One airline said ‘Come back and talk to us when you have the infrastructure sorted out’, another airline has come to us and said ‘We’d like to fly, if you can get the infrastructure, we’ll fly’.”
But just hours later, it was revealed that there were in fact no new funds and the line that Mr Ward was referring to in a document from Treasury was in fact money allocated years earlier.
A NSW Government spokesperson said: “Total funding of $15.977 million was committed for the project from the Growing Economies Fund, funded from Restart NSW, and this was announced in the 2019-2020 budget.”
“There is a residual committed balance of $1.644 million to acquit the project this financial year.”
Although the document provided to Mr Ward could indicate the commitment to the airport was $15.97 million, it also included other completed projects like planning funds for the Princes Highway Berry to Bomaderry upgrade.
A NSW Government spokesperson told Region that the item referencing funding to Illawarra Regional Airport has appeared in the past five electoral reports for Kiama since the initial announcement and that it was not a mistake in the document.
“Mr Ward’s claims of budget error were themselves wrong and the government is available to explain to him how the budget process works at any time he likes.”
In response to the the incident, Mr Ward said the budget paper was unlike any he had seen before throughout his 13 years in parliament.
“This budget has more twists and turns than a red bellied black snake on a barbeque,” he said. “They’ve given me a budget paper that has presented figures from my electorate which are clearly not true and that causes me great concern.
“I’ve seen budget after budget, I’ve never had this problem before. Ever.”
And although Mr Ward said he would’ve liked for the announcement he made to be accurate at the time, he is still determined to secure the outcome.
“I want the money for the airport. I think Labor would rather make excuses than commitments, and I would like to try and get this project delivered because it’s good for the region.”
Despite the hiccup in the process, Shellharbour Council Deputy Mayor Kellie Marsh is confident that the upgrades will still get off the ground.
“I have every bit of faith in Council, our Councillors led by our Mayor of course that we will make it happen, one way or another, we will make it happen,” Cr Marsh said.
“Obviously it would be beneficial for the state government and for regional tourism as well if they did fund it but Council will keep forging ahead regardless because it’s something that’s no important not just for our Council but for the region.”
She said councillors would continue to search for ways to make this dream a reality and that they were being supported by other politicians in both state and federal governments.
“There’s always other opportunities that come up, there could potentially be federal funding that we could look at, we’ve put these things in an advocacy plan document that Council has which all of our local representatives, Stephen Jones, Gareth Ward and Anna Watson have and we also rely on their advocacy on our behalf.”
“Aviation is generally regulated by the Commonwealth so it may well be that a federal application is forthcoming,” Mr Ward said. “But I would also like to see the state partner with the federal government and Council and fund this project.”
Mr Ward has written to the Treasurer seeking clarification on every item in the budget paper that was presented to him.