Cabinet Papers Reveal Hawke ‘U-turned’ on Third Sydney Runway

Some government decisions never disappear off the radar completely.

Inner-Sydney residents, for instance, are reminded constantly about a Hawke Labor government policy u-turn to build a third runway at Kingsford Smith Airport.

Now, for the first time, cabinet papers for 1988-89 shed some light on the government’s change of heart.  Up until then it was a long-standing ALP policy not to build a third runway.

When Labor came to office in 1983 it stopped all the planning work previously undertaken by the Fraser government.  Instead it favoured building a second airport at Badgerys Creek, 50 kilometres west of Sydney’s central business district.

In March 1989, cabinet gave the nod to an environmental impact statement for a third runway and the go-ahead for immediate construction on the back of a satisfactory outcome.

It was estimated a third runway would increase traffic handling capacity by up to 37 per cent, and relieve congestion at the nation’s largest airport until possibly 2010.

Cabinet knew the third runway would be strongly opposed by local councils and residents groups, especially those in Marrickville, Enmore, Stanmore and Leichhardt where noise exposure would be greater because of increased air traffic.

Then-aviation minister Gary Punch, whose electorate adjoined the airport, subsequently resigned from the ministry over the decision.  The Hawke cabinet also agreed that the construction of a general aviation facility be the first stage at Badgerys Creek.

Paul Keating who was treasurer at the time cabinet made its decision, opened the third runway in 1994 as prime minister.  Two years earlier then aviation minister Bob Collins participated in a sod turning ceremony at Badgerys Creek.

Back then it was hoped the second airport would be operating by 2000. It was not to be.  Nearby residents opposed the $6 billion development.  Despite an environmental impact statement giving the site the thumbs-up, it stalled with the government of the day deciding it was not a priority.

The Abbott government has since revived the Badgerys Creek airport plan and environmental assessments are underway.

The government hopes the airport will be finished by the mid-2020s.

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