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NSW ports privatisation probe energises opponents

Newcastle container terminal proponents buoyed by concerns being recognised


Opponents of how the New South Wales government went about container port lease privatisation have seized on news that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is looking again at the move.

Former BHP executive and long-term Newcastle container port proponent Greg Cameron has written an open letter to federal treasurer Scott Morrison charging that NSW Coalition government misled the NSW parliament by concealing its decision in 2012 to charge a fee for containers shipped through the Port of Newcastle and to pay this fee to the future lessee of Port Botany and Port Kembla.

Cameron believes the government obtained a false valuation on leases to the ports of Botany and Kembla “because promising to pay the fee to the lessee artificially inflated the price.

“In 2012, the government was negotiating with a container terminal developer, Newcastle Stevedores Consortium, to develop a container terminal at the Port of Newcastle,” Cameron’s letter reads.

“The government represented that charging the fee was lawful. In fact, the Consortium paying the fee was likely to breach the Commonwealth Competition and Consumer Act 2010 [Competition Act].

“The State Cabinet was misled because the guidelines for negotiating a ‘Public Private Partnership’ (the negotiation between the government and the Consortium was administered as a PPP) required Cabinet to approve contract conditions.

“The government misled the media by advising that the Newcastle container terminal site was not leased to the Consortium because ‘a suitable outcome’ could not be reached.

“In fact, the site was not leased because requiring the Consortium to pay the fee required Cabinet approval and Cabinet could not approve a contract likely to breach the Competition Act.

“The government failed the people of NSW by not evaluating the systemic transport and economic development implications of a container terminal at the Port of Newcastle.

“The government breached its contract with Newcastle Stevedores Consortium in 2013 if the Consortium paying the fee was unlawful under the Competition Act.

“Does the Australian government agree that it is contrary to the purpose of the Competition Act if an unlawful fee became lawful simply by a decision to lease the port?”

Meanwhile, state opposition leapt on the ACCC’s move saying the way the lease was sold aimed to boost the sale price of Port Botany by selling its container business as a NSW monopoly, as an entrenched monopoly fetched more than a business facing robust competition.

“The NSW Liberals and Nationals concocted an arrangement that is clearly anti-competitive and designed to entrench a private monopoly,” Opposition leader Luke Foley says.

“It is astonishing that any government would enter into a secret deal so deliberately designed to hurt Newcastle’s economic development.”

Labor has called on the NSW Government to make public “all the secret arrangements it entered into as part of it privatisation program and to guarantee its full cooperation with the ACCC’s inquiry”.


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