Chapter 3, Officials Move to Kill a Second Airfield

Chris Price submitted the Williamsdale airfield proposal to the government by early in 2004 following a meeting that the Chief Minister had with a previous Chief Minister, Trevor Kaine in 2003, to discuss the case for a second airfield.

Mr Price, with advice and help from an ACT Government official put together a formal proposal for the airfield, predicated on the need for emergency services and to replace the industry lost from Canberra International Airport.

In this lengthy proposal which can be found in the ACT Government FOI material here, Mr Price addresses the ownership structure and made the following statement:

"It is assumed that the ACT Government will not want to, and would have some difficulty in, releasing the facility to a non-government body. It is therefore suggested that the Government acquires the necessary land, undertakes the preliminary development and puts in place a management structure overseen by a joint Government-industry board."

In this email of September 2006, Mr van Aalst of the ACT Government's Business and Economic Development unit fowarded some emailed comments from Mr Cox, the director of that unit, and, inter alia, made the following statement:

"The ownership model presented relies on the government granting the land required."

One of the interesting aspects of this saga is that Mr van Aalst and Mr Cox can be relied on to get most facts wrong.  Note that the statement above completely contradicts the ownership proposal made by Mr Price.  Presumably Mr Cox simply did not read the original proposal before offering his opinion. See Chapter 4 for more examples.

Mr Cox then expands his argument, having fed this myth through other elements of the ACT Government public service.

He states:

"Treasury is concerned that the proposal is predicated in the donation of the related land at no cost.  It regards this as an unsuitable precedent in terms of Budget and fiscal management.  The effective future development of the proposed airport as a commercial undertaking should be based on making appropriate rates of return against the full costs of the facility, including land and infrastructure costs"

So by misleading Treasury, Mr van Aalst has found another ally in his quest to stop the airfield.

Is this level of dishonesty even legal?

This failure on the part of Mr Cox to find out what the actual proposal entails seems to have pervaded all of his future advice, and that of Mr van Aalst, who authored much of the subsequent advice and poisoned the proposal within government.

This view is reinforced in this document where Mr van Aalst says:

"It is not for the Government to do the background and legal work of the private group, pushing this proposal and its self interest.  We do not offer solutions - we offered to test some of the issues and assumptions of the proposal."

This is an extraordinarily antagonistic tone in response to a proposal that the Government itself suggested that Mr Price develop. Not only that, but Mr Price had considerable help in developing the proposal from the Government officer, Mr Andy Wilson, then tasked to examine the proposal.

Mr Price put forward a proposal for a piece of essential infrastructure for our city, and Mr Cox and Mr van Aalst either chose to deliberately misconstrue that proposal or were simply incompetent.

The question has to be asked, as it is repeatedly in this story, are Mr Cox and Mr van Aalst simply incompetent or do they have some other agenda?

So we thought we should find out exactly what it is that Mr Cox and Mr van Aalst were employed to do.  Under FOI we obtained both Mr Cox's and Mr van Aalst's duty statements and the organisational chart as it existed at this time.  The point to be made here is that Mr Cox is a senior executive officer on a salary in 2007 of around $170,000 and Mr van Aalst was a senior professional officer on a salary in excess of $100,000.  For this money the taxpayer could reasonably expect some initiative and an ability to read files.

The key description of the function of Mr Cox's area is:

"The Business and Industry development Branch has a strong focus in the provision of programs, initiatives and business policy advice to support strategic business and industry development in the ACT.  Partnership development and whole of government facilitation are key features of the Branch, along with a focus on skills and future workforce development, business innovation and investment attraction."

Compare this worthy objective with Mr Cox's interpretation of his role as stated above:  "...We do not offer solutions - we offered to test some of the issues and assumptions of the proposal."

This is not good enough.


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