Labor eyes airport spend

Taelor Pelusey and Nick ButterlyBusselton Dunsborough Times

Busselton-Margaret River Regional Airport has been swept up in Labor’s review of State Government-backed projects, casting doubt on the finished scale of the project and the tourism experience.

The Times understands of the $55.9m commitment by the WA Government, $45.9m has been paid to the City of Busselton, while the remainder sits with the Department of Transport and will be paid in arrears on milestones.

Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the final $10m would remain available but a “closer partnership” with the City was now sought.

“It’s a big project in one where we believe as custodians of taxpayer funds that we need to be more involved in the scoping and management of the project,” Ms MacTiernan said.

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The Government is seeking savings unlikely to be revealed until the September Budget, and sources said the quality of the visitor terminal was under threat from the cuts.

Despite the minister’s reassurances, the comments have sparked discussion among residents, some of whom have warned the project is vital for local jobs, tourism and agriculture.

Busselton Mayor Grant Henley said the Government already had representatives on the governance committee and he was unsure how it planned to ramp up its involvement in the City-managed project.

While the Government says it will not claw back the final $10m, the City — on the back of Labor’s review of funding — is already identifying cost-saving measures.

“We’ll be looking ... to see if there’s any way we can postpone some of those works — some of the roads, landscaping and car parking,” Cr Henley said.

“We recognise the State Government has budgetary issues ... although it could be argued that it’s a short-term saving because it will need to be done at some stage.”

All funds for the multimillion-dollar project have been secured and about half has been spent or allocated to contracts.

The upgrades aim to accommodate international freight and interstate flights to the Eastern States — deemed viable in a confidential business plan prepared by the former government.

Until this week, no official announcement had been made indicating interest from airlines, prompting some residents to question the viability of the plan.

However, outgoing Margaret River-Busselton Tourism Association chief executive Pip Close said “genuine interest” had been shown by domestic airlines — though none were identified — and flights were expected to begin by the end of next year.

“The Busselton-Margaret River Regional Airport, as detailed in the project masterplan, will be a key driver of long-term development, with returns extending well beyond the tourism industry,” she said.

State and Federal Liberal MPs also stressed the project’s importance.

Federal Regional Development Minister Fiona Nash, whose Government pitched in almost $10 m, said the project would provide needed jobs and draw in visitors for decades, while Vasse MLA and shadow tourism minister Libby Mettam said it must proceed without delay.

Cr Henley said the City would continue to push for the project, which he argued was “the most important regional development project happening in the South West, if not, regionally in the State”.

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