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A second Sydney airport? Not anytime soon

Both parties have refused to commit to a second Sydney airport ahead of this election given its likely proximity to the crucial western Sydney region. AAP/Alan Porritt

Western Sydney has been firmly in the spotlight throughout this federal election campaign. From the candidates who can’t remember their party’s plan to “stop the boats” to those who are “feisty and have sex appeal”, it seems western Sydney’s voters and candidates have once again captured the hearts and minds of political junkies across the nation.

Traditionally a Labor stronghold, western Sydney is an incredibly culturally diverse region of over two million people. Their votes are critically important to determining who will be able to form government after the election. No-one wants to upset the voters here, and this political sensitivity is perfectly illustrated by the delay in deciding where to build a second airport in Sydney.

The ALP has pledged to start building the airport within three years if it wins government, but has declined to nominate a site. That the government is currently undertaking geographical analysis at a site in Wilton, despite all the best evidence suggesting Badgery’s Creek is the best option, demonstrates how politics continues to trump policy on this issue.

For the Coalition’s part, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey has declared his support for Badgery’s Creek as the preferred site, but opposition leader Tony Abbott has not committed either way. To further confuse the issue, NSW premier Barry O’Farrell opposes a second airport in Sydney, arguing for high-speed rail link to Canberra Airport. It seems everyone is pulling in different directions on the issue while saying nothing at all.

Sydney’s current airport is creaking under the strain of ever increasing passenger numbers. Unlike many other major airports around the world, Sydney Airport is located only eight kilometres from the city centre. In 2011, Sydney Airport’s operators, Sydney Airport Corporation (SAC), reported that there were almost 280,000 plane movements with over 36 million passengers annually.

A recent redevelopment “master plan” by SAC forecasts the numbers of passengers to more than double to 74 million per year by 2033. While SAC argues that the capacity of Sydney Airport is currently at about 60%, traffic management around the airport, its location away from the majority of Sydney residents, noise pollution, price gouging and declining services led the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to dub it the worst and most expensive airport in Australia, despite bringing in solid profits for shareholders. The ACCC made it clear there either needs to be a massive increase in infrastructure, or that the decision be finally made to build a second airport.

Both the ALP and the Liberals, along with most commentators, have agreed Sydney needs a second airport. However, the problem is that the political battleground of western Sydney is the most likely location for this airport, and placing it smack bang in the middle of a clutch of marginal seats would be extremely problematic.

The more than two million people living in greater western Sydney are split on the issue. If you live anywhere west or northwest of Parramatta and need to be on a plane before 11am, you are better off spending the night at an airport hotel, or a friend’s couch who lives closer to the Sydney CBD.

Students of mine have shared horror stories of spending two hours trying to get to the airport in time for their flight, only for a car accident to stop traffic and force them to give up and book other flights. It’s clear western Sydney is desperate for a new airport, and the much-needed jobs it would provide for the area.

But for all the benefits a second airport would bring the region, those living closest to it may not be so happy. Western Sydney has seen its population expand considerably over the past two decades, meaning the most likely locations for the airport - Badgery’s Creek or Wilton - could be incredibly unpopular with local residents concerned with noise pollution and increased traffic.

Labor MP Ed Husic’s seat of Chifley backs onto a possible site for a second airport. AAP/Paul Miller

The political ramifications of bedding down a second airport become apparent when you view the electoral map of the area. Badgery’s Creek and Wilton are located on the edge of a clutch of very marginal electorates, including Lindsay, Macarthur, Greenway and Chifley. These are seats the Coalition and the ALP are both hoping to win on election night.

So while there seems to be general support for a second airport from both the ALP and Liberals, no-one is willing to make an out-and-out call because of the very real possibility of a long and enduring local backlash. Both Labor’s Ed Husic, whose seat of Chifley backs on to the Badgery’s Creek site, and Liberal member for Macarthur, Russell Matheson, have been vocal in raising their concerns after the prospect of a second airport again emerged.

Like two gunslingers eyeing each other off, no-one is willing to blink or flinch because if someone takes a false step, the swinging electorate will shift very quickly.

A new Galaxy poll, released today, might go some way to altering the thoughts of federal politicians preying on “not in my backyard” sentiments to secure a few more votes on election day. Given the front page treatment in the Daily Telegraph under the headline “All Clear For The West”, the poll of local residents in marginal electorates in the region found an average of 65% of residents polled were in favour of a second airport, with Badgery’s Creek the most popular location.

Yet despite the Daily Telegraph trumpeting this as a clear vindication of a second airport at Badgery’s Creek, the numbers may not be strong enough for nervous politicians. Only around 40 to 50% of voters clearly support this option. The fact remains that there are still a host of undecided voters who are opposed or uncommitted to the project. Considering the ultra marginal status of these electorates, this doubt might just present enough opportunity for the politicians to continue to play on local fears.

So while policy nuts argue the move to Badgery’s Creek is a no-brainer and have moved on to more weighty issues such as a new tax summit, school funding models and the need to transition to a post-carbon economy, it is likely the micro-battles - such as the battle over a second airport in Sydney – could still determine the outcome of the election.

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