Minister for the Illawarra Greg Pearce faced critics of the controversial Port Kembla port privatisation at a public forum in Wollongong last night.
More than 100 Illawarra residents turned out at Wollongong Town Hall to listen to the debate and express their own opinions over the state government's planned 99-year lease of the public asset.
Mr Pearce was the first speaker and explained the O'Farrell government rationale for the lease, which would reap an estimated $500 million, of which $100 million would be set aside for infrastructure projects in the Illawarra.
He emphasised that to continue to deliver new infrastructure and services the government had to find new ways of raising revenue, adding that the delivery of services through the private sector was a "tried and true" route around the world.
"First of all, when you have a government asset like Port Kembla, a long-term lease of the asset is a way of bringing forward an upfront cash payment," he said.
"The second reason is that when you bring the private sector into running an asset like the port, you avoid the need to pay for the growth of the port or the asset."
Mr Pearce said the outer harbour development was "crucial" for Port Kembla and privatisation meant the government could avoid the estimated $700 million price tag for the project.
He also argued that a 99-year lease would allow the people of NSW to retain ownership of the port, later saying that Port Kembla was "already overwhelmingly privately run" and the majority of jobs were through private companies.
"We bring forward funds, we avoid future capital, we continue to own the asset in the long run, we look after employees, and we have in this case an extra $100 million for the Illawarra," he said.
The government's plan has met strong opposition in the Illawarra.
Critics including the South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris have argued the $100 million trade-off for privatisation is a dud deal for the region.
Speaking last night, Mr Rorris said a 99-year lease was "as good as a sale".
"If we are to operate this state in a businesslike fashion ... how is it that we can expect the business sector to borrow $500 million, invest in this and reap the profits, whilst all we have to do is manage it correctly, as it has been done, and keep receiving those dividends for the people of NSW?" he said.
NSW Greens MP John Kaye also backed the campaign against privatisation.
"The Illawarra will lose control over its own economic future as control passes to a new landlord whose only interest will be maximising its own short-term profits," he said in a statement before the forum.
Panellists at last night's forum had five minutes to present their arguments.