Sydney Airport II

Waiting game ... houses in Badgerys Creek.
Waiting game ... houses in Badgerys Creek.
In support ... businessman Tarik Houchar at his Merrylands shop.

In support ... businessman Tarik Houchar at his Merrylands shop.

The promise of a rural life brought Pauline Rowe to Badgerys Creek about 16 years ago. Now that lifestyle seems under threat, but from what she cannot say.

"It could be the airport, it could be development," she says.

"It will feel like the urban area is chasing after us."

Badgerys Creek, in far-west Sydney, sits between Penrith and Campbelltown, and about 20 kilometres to the east of Liverpool. By Sydney standards there is not much there, even now.

When Rowe moved there in the late 1990s, she remembers a "ghost town". Back then, the debate about building an airport in the area was in full swing. Rowe, though, had grown up in St Peters, and a hypothetical runway did not worry her, even if later plans that would have meant an airport running through her living room did.

But nothing happened, the airport did not get built, and Rowe is now planning a second house on her block for her daughter.

"The wheel turns slowly; that's why we're not putting it off any more. If you sit and wait, things just don't happen."

Rowe, however, is making those plans just as a push to build a new airport is starting up again.

The talk is being fuelled by the impending crisis of capacity at Sydney Airport, and the desire, stronger now than at any time in the tortuous history of the second airport debate, to do something large to bring jobs and industry to Sydney's west.

"The search for Sydney's second airport site has concluded with the selection of Badgerys Creek . . . Because of the thoroughness of this work and the fact that 40 years of indecision by previous governments has been brought to an end, I am confident of a broad measure of support for our decision."

Those were the words of the federal aviation minister Peter Morris in 1986. Morris's statement led off a glossy brochure titled "The Decision" that committed the Hawke government to build another Sydney airport at Badgerys Creek.

That decision, of course, never amounted to much.

The governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating locked in behind Badgerys Creek and purchased the 1700-hectare site, just to the north of where Rowe lives. But they never built the airport.

In 1989, the Hawke government instead decided to build a third runway at Sydney Airport, a decision at odds with the one on Badgerys Creek, and one that in several ways would make it so much more difficult to build an airport in western Sydney.

Mascot's third runway opened in 1994 to benign predictions of increased airport noise.

These predictions were wildly optimistic.

Almost immediately, dramatically increased noise levels across large parts of Sydney's inner west, inner north and eastern suburbs sparked one of the most effective single-issue political campaigns in recent history.

The No Aircraft Noise party, founded in 1995, peaked at the state elections that year. The party's candidate won almost a quarter of the primary vote and 40 per cent of the two-party preferred vote in Marrickville.

In Port Jackson, since renamed Balmain, the No Aircraft Noise candidate won about 20 per cent of the primary vote and 37 per cent of the two-party vote.

But despite running candidates only in the inner west, the political momentum captured and fostered by No Aircraft Noise would also start to shape airport politics in the city's greater west.

In 1997, when a Badgerys Creek airport remained the stated policy of both major parties, 10 western Sydney councils chipped in tens of thousands of dollars each to start the Western Sydney Alliance.

The alliance would spend the next couple of years commissioning reports and polls into the environmental and political folly of building an airport near Rowe's house at Badgerys Creek.

Some of these reports were written by Noel Child, an environmental and transport engineer. Child remembers the campaign as being driven by the desire to tap into the No Aircraft Noise enthusiasm. Aspiring Labor politicians, in particular, found they could get elected to council by taking a strong stand against a federal Coalition government and western Sydney airport. (These days, those political positions have reversed.)

"Back before a third runway at Kingsford Smith, most of those councils actually supported an airport at Badgerys Creek," Child says.

"What changed the political landscape was the emergence of the No Aircraft Noise party and the fact that opposition to aircraft noise became a big dynamic in Sydney local government."

One of Child's reports looked into the risk of a increase in air pollution from an airport at Badgerys Creek. He stands by the work, but "the reality on the environment risk . . . there was always a greater threat of getting the ground transport wrong than from an airport itself".

Sean Macken ran the campaign for Labor's Andrew Refshauge in Marrickville in the 1995 election and today runs a planning consultancy. Macken agrees the politics of No Aircraft Noise did as much as anything to frame the debate on a western Sydney airport.

"I can remember seeing all the mayors on billboards at Liverpool saying 'Build Badgerys Now'," Macken says.

"When the third runway opened and the No Aircraft movement took off, suddenly all those mayors dived under the table."

(This interpretation is challenged by some. Hall Greenland, the No Aircraft Noise candidate for Port Jackson in 1995 and now the Greens candidate to stand against Anthony Albanese in Grayndler in next year's federal election, says it is "hugely elitist" to think western Sydney residents would not have opposed an airport without the referred trigger of third runway angst.)

But the alliance worked. In 2003, the federal transport minister John Anderson declared the Howard government had no plans for an airport in the city's west.

And, flailing around to boost an ill-fated leadership, Labor's opposition leader Simon Crean and his transport spokesman Martin Ferguson overturned the party's long-standing policy in support of a Badgerys airport.

At the time, that decision met with howls of outrage by Albanese, the man who would become the present Transport Minister. But the policy stuck. Labor remains formally committed to not building an airport at Badgerys Creek.

So what has changed? According to the federal government, the urgency of supplementing Sydney Airport has become more pressing.

"Sydney needs a second airport, and it needs it sooner rather than later," Albanese said this week.

A study commissioned by him, but including Sam Haddad, the director-general of the NSW Department of Planning as co-chair, reported in March that by the end of the decade it would not be possible to fly any more planes in and out of Sydney Airport during the peak morning and evening periods.

A proposal by the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, to increase the cap on flight movements from 80 to 85 at Sydney Airport, buys only a few years of extra capacity.

Albanese has commissioned another study into Wilton, more than 80 kilometres from the city centre. But the expectation is that that study will deliver a negative verdict, leaving him with no choice but to try and reverse Labor's policy on Badgerys Creek.

And some councils and politicians in the region are once again preparing to back the idea of an airport in Sydney's west.

In 1999, David Borger was the mayor of Parramatta, one of the councils contributing funds to the anti-Badgerys campaign.

Borger, who went on to become the roads minister in the Keneally government, now works for the Sydney Business Chamber as its western Sydney point-man, and is an enthusiastic backer of a Badgerys Creek airport. Last week, he helped organise a meeting with western Sydney councillors and business people to hear the merits of a proposal.

The meeting was addressed by Barry Murphy, the former chief executive of the Federal Airports Corporation, and Chris Brown, an adviser on the recent joint report.

Both Murphy and Brown back an airport for its economic stimulus. Murphy is enthusiastic about the creation of a "Sydney West Airport Partnership" to update the voluminous work already prepared into a proposal for Badgerys Creek.

Tarik Houchar is the type of western Sydney resident the partnership would appeal to.

The 24-year-old started his company, Hijab House, 2 years ago and owns stores in Bankstown and Merrylands, filled with blue and silver headscarves for the fashion-conscious Islamic woman.

"Young Muslim girls had nothing to wear: we've filled that gap," Houchar says.

"In Australia, the hijab has become a commodity like any other item of clothing. There's a constant need for new [designs]."

Houchar spends $50,000 a year on freight, bringing headscarves from China. Like many businesses in western Sydney's $83 billion economy, his depends on freight.

"Shipping out to Smithfield or Bankstown or Merrylands is very expensive," he says. "A second airport would open a lot of possibilities."

On Child's reasoning, the prospects of an airport in the west could be determined as much by the state of the economy as anything else.

"In the 15 years when that opposition to an airport was at its peak, that was at quite a buoyant stage in the Australian economy," Child says.

But the area has de-industrialised, becoming more dependent on freight and transport than manufacturing.

"Everything that was a factory is now a warehouse, and people are a little nervous," he says.

Houchar, for instance, travels to China about four times a year and is negotiating with a new supplier in India. He takes advantage of cheaper fares but the cost of a cab to Sydney Airport from his Guildford home can run up to $100. An airport at Badgerys Creek would be more convenient for his personal travel and his online store.

"We expect things faster and quicker, yet the . . . city hasn't caught up with that," he says.

Councils in the area are responding to these sorts of arguments. The Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils had been a vocal opponent of an airport; it will review its position in February.

One of the leaders of the 1990s campaign against Badgerys Creek was Allan Ezzy, a former mayor of Holroyd Council. Ezzy insists an airport remains a political killer.

"Any sitting members who opposed it would be done dinners at the next election," he says.

But the mayor of Holroyd, Liberal Ross Grove, is now a backer.

"There is no question in my mind that construction of a Sydney West Airport would serve as a catalyst to local job creation – in aviation, in logistics, the visitor economy and high-tech industries," Grove says.

"Every morning we see a massive exodus of our workforce head down the M4 to other areas of Sydney to work. It is as if each year the CBD gets further out of reach for people in Western Sydney – we need to bring these jobs closer to home," he says.

Ned Mannoun, the new Liberal mayor of Liverpool, is having a bet each way. "As council spokesperson, I have to go with council's position, which is that we are against the airport," Mannoun says.

But he is open to "having a discussion about the airport".

"We need commitments to bring jobs out here."

Above all, he says the area needs certainty. "We are going to build 50,000 homes on the doorstep of Badgerys Creek. People need to hurry up and make a decision."

The foundation director of the urban research centre at the University of Western Sydney, Phillip O'Neill, offers a word of caution. He would support a western Sydney airport, but only if it was conceived of as part of an "aerotropolis" of distribution centres, logistics parks, convention and exhibition centres, hotels and entertainment, and sporting complexes for the area promising good jobs.

"If all it is is two runways and some sheds, you are being sold a pup," he says.

At Badgerys, the ghost town has been stirring. On the airport site, the federal government-owned homes remain frozen in time, backing onto empty paddocks bound by barbed wire.

But a couple of kilometres south, developers have been busy. On Medich Place, there are vast mansions with security cameras and fountains.

"It will definitely lose its rural appeal," Rowe says.

This story Sydney Airport II first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.