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Forging Forward

By Mark Beale

The first international flights from New Zealand into the Whitsunday coast are on track to touch down later this year.

At a special meeting of council held in Proserpine yesterday, a new company – Whitsunday Coast Airport and Infrastructure Pty Ltd was formed.

Sitting on the interim board as initial transitional directors are council’s current acting Chief Executive Officer Barry Omundsun and McKay’s Solicitors principal Suzanne Brown.

Council CEO Scott Waters, who has been leading the charge to turn the airport into an international transport and export hub, has been named as the interim CEO.

Notably absent from the company was a private partner.

At the end of last year, council announced it had whittled its list of potential candidates for a public / private partnership venture down to one.

Yesterday, due to confidentiality constraints, Mr Waters was unable to say more than that the binding bid process was still in effect.

Others around the boardroom were not so tight-lipped, with divisions called come decision time.

Some councillors said the steps taken yesterday to drive the Whitsunday Coast Airport forward were “a great start to the year 2016”, with a range of measures passed including not just the formation of a corporate entity, but resolves to obtain the freehold land, and a number of provisions for moving forward with airport users such as the Whitsunday Aeroclub and Mackay Whitsunday Taxis.

Others however said they hadn’t been able to properly consider the 600-page agenda report and therefore couldn’t make an informed decision as per the Local Government Act.

“You can’t half tell there’s an election around the corner,” Cr Dave Clark said.

“We’ve been a number of months dealing with another proponent as a joint venture and, as late as yesterday, we were told that had fallen over,” he said, adding when cautioned about confidentiality by Mayor Jennifer Whitney: “I know you wouldn’t want any of this to get out because that would be embarrassing for you”.

Cr Whitney called a point of order, saying: “You are requested to refrain from mentioning any confidential information – and what you are saying is totally incorrect, so keep to the task in front of you”.

“Tell me what part of what I’ve said is incorrect so far,” Cr Clark challenged, to which Cr Whitney replied: “I will when you get into a confidential meeting”.

Cr Clark concluded by saying he wouldn’t support the corporation, calling it a “knee-jerk reaction” – an opinion to which Cr Whitney said he was entitled.

Cr Peter Ramage said while he supported an international airport in principle, “we’ve got a small rate-base that we’ve got to answer to… and I’m very concerned that our 30,000 ratepayers are going to incur a huge cost somewhere down the track if we don’t get it right”.

“And Cr Clark is right – it’s all because there’s an election coming up and people need something to hang their hat on.”

Both Cr Whitney and Mr Waters maintained this was not an election issue, with yesterday’s resolutions simply an enactment of the resolution of October 22, 2015, when council initially resolved to take the airport further.

Mr Waters, while noticeably disappointed by the hi-jacking of what should have been a momentous day for the development of the facility by political divisions, went to great pains to outline exactly what it was that council was setting out to do.

He said the airport was an important piece of infrastructure beyond the realms of council’s core business to operate.

He explained that by moving to a corporation, the airport would no longer be constrained by council processes, and this was a way whereby the council and the community ultimately retained control.

Without giving too much away, he said the door was still open in respect to a public / private partnership with milestones expected on that front in late February and April.

He said the CEO position would be market tested once a full board was established and he stressed: “No, council has been very clear that it is not selling the airport”.

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