Council gets an extra 12 months on Wagga Airport decision, but the clock is ticking

two men shaking hands

Wagga Mayor Dallas Tout and Riverina MP Michael McCormack discussed the airport’s future funding ahead of the 2022 federal election. Photo: Chris Roe.

A decision on the future of the Wagga Wagga Airport lease has been postponed after Wagga Wagga City Council (WWCC) and Riverina member Michael McCormack lobbied the federal government for more time.

WWCC’s 30-year lease on the Commonwealth-owned estate expires in June 2025 and Department of Defense representatives indicated in February that the airport would be “put on the market”, raising concerns that it would be privatized.

WWCC launched an advocacy campaign last week calling on the community to write letters of support and Mr McCormack confirmed this week that the current lease would be extended for another 12 months.

“While there are several issues that need to be resolved, the decision to put the airport out to tender for lease has been deferred until June 30, 2026, to allow the council to liaise with Defence,” McCormack said.

“I support Wagga Wagga Council maintaining a lease agreement with the Department of Defense and will continue to work with the council on this outcome.”

Launching the call for community support for the city to maintain the lease, Mayor Dallas Tout expressed concern that a vital part of the region’s infrastructure could lose its “community focus” in private hands.

“We are concerned that privatization will drive up costs and create a new barrier for the people of our region,” he said on Friday.

In the past, WWCC applied for ownership of the airport, but council chief executive Peter Thompson said this had been rejected because the airport was an active RAAF base and part of the national defense strategy.

“Now we find out they’re going to give it to a very wealthy stock company, or… possibly to an overseas company,” he said.

“I don’t know what their limitations will be in terms of making a profit, but that is incredibly disappointing on a number of fronts.

“This is a campaign to try to convey to our elected members of parliament that privatizing yet another vital community service, especially in the regions, is a short-sighted policy.”

man and woman looking at brochure

Wagga Wagga Mayor Dallas Tout with Christine Priest, executive manager of the council’s Regional Activation. Photo: Shri Gayathirie Rajen.

The Wagga Aero Club is a key stakeholder at the airport and will hold a public meeting this evening (Tuesday, May 20) to advocate for leaseholders who have located their operations at the airport and invested in private facilities.

Club chairman Geoff Bruest is a retired regional airline executive and has been calling for the matter to be resolved since before 2018.

“The very clear experience elsewhere where airports have been privatized is that costs have risen astronomically and those companies have been forced to move elsewhere or simply shut up,” he said.

“You don’t start renegotiating a thirty-year lease within twelve months of termination. This should have been introduced at least five years ago.

“The Council has been trying to negotiate appropriate arrangements for a number of years and we have certainly advocated for that, but the bureaucrats in Canberra have not come to the party.”

Former Wagga councilor Paul Funnell has also been critical of the lack of urgency surrounding the issue.

“You can’t wait until 13 months after the deadline before you start panicking,” he said, describing the airport as a drain on taxpayers’ money and a “failed business option.”

In February 2021, Mr Funnell tabled a motion requesting a report on “the consequences and/or benefits of returning the operation of the Wagga Wagga Airport to the Federal Government” after the council failed to “To obtain 100% federal government funding for our recent grant application.”

“Like I said at the time, why not give it back to them and let them run it?” he asked.

“We poured millions and millions of taxpayer dollars into that facility and if we can’t get the public money and the city isn’t able to manage it properly, why should we have it?

‘The government will not ignore the city. This is a commercial entity and other airports like Canberra have proven that (privatization) can work.”

Mr McCormack, asked for his views on the potential privatization of the facility, said this was a matter for WWCC.

“The Council now has two years and one month to determine what it wants to do,” he said.

“They have been given sufficient time to talk to stakeholders, to negotiate with Rex (airlines), to consider how much they are spending and what future relationship they want to have with the RAAF.

“I am happy to work with the council on their requirements for the airport going forward and have given them an additional 12 months of lease to work it out.”