garden islandBy Matt Lennon

Could you imagine – 30 to 40 years down the track – when Sydney’s cruise industry has long hit its capacity ceiling over the peak season, and the debate over Garden Island still hangs in the balance? It could happen.

Chew on this then. The first inkling that Sydney would one day need a second airport first began way back in 1946 – nearly seven decades ago – when Ben Chifley was the Prime Minister of Australia. It took until last year for PM Tony Abbott to finally declare Badgerys Creek as the site, with a tentative opening date in the mid-2020s.

A second airport is poles apart from a second cruise terminal, but the precedent for critical infrastructure has been set. After seemingly endless debates, reports, studies, and the political tug-of-war over opening up cruise ship access to Garden Island, a resolution could be some way off.

An array of considerations need to be taken into account in order to come to an informed assessment on the situation.

First, the current tenants of Garden Island – the Royal Australian Navy, occupants for over 200 years – are reluctant to move, primarily because of the costs and suitability of nearby ports rather than the threat of Sydney Harbour being attacked. Newcastle, Port Botany and Port Kembla have all been tossed around as alternatives, but the costs and logistics of relocating the Navy are, for now, out of reach.

Next is the cruise industry. It is no secret Sydney’s cruise sector is soaring at heights never seen before, and there are no signs of abatement in the near future. To the industry and its proponents, cruising is on the crest of a seemingly endless wave, but where all the cruise ships will dock remains the question.

Also not to be forgotten are the three levels of government, all with strong views on the Garden Island solution. At federal level there are concerns over defence and immigration, while the NSW government is apprehensive about roads and transport around the area – where would hordes of tour buses fit at a Garden Island terminal to take passengers on shore excursions? The City of Sydney also has matters such as local traffic flow to consider. Cruise ships usually arrive in the height of peak morning traffic, meaning local residents would have to deal with fleets of coaches, adding to the existing traffic bottlenecks. See the headache?

Many different parties have opinions on who should go where and whether Garden Island should be opened up to the booming cruise sector.

The latest idea came from Sydney architect and urban designer David Vago and his firm Habit 8 around one month ago. Vago’s vision offers up a $20 billion plan for a major overhaul of the inner-city zone. His design includes the development of a new cruise terminal, a holiday resort and restaurant precinct, ferry wharf, naval museum, and 16.6 hectares of green space, on top of residential and serviced apartments.

But the key element is that Vago’s idea involves the relocation of the Navy, which has subsequently earned its dismissal from local MP Malcolm Turnbull, who has sided with the Navy in that it would cost too much to move.

Vago, meanwhile, is a realist, claiming that his design has been met with “mixed reactions”, but that it at least puts a concrete design on the table.

Another important element to consider is the Sydney Ports Cruise Schedule for next year. A quick glance shows there is ample availability from early May until mid-September, with gaps also in April and October. Unlike another airport, Sydney doesn’t need a second cruise terminal year-round – only in the ultra-busy period of November through to March.

Carnival Australia has long held the same view on Garden Island, and according to a submission to the 2015 Defence White Paper – due out this year – its message remains unchanged; cruising and the Navy can share.

The submission points out the irrepressible growth of the cruise sector, stating that it is “one decimal point from being a $3 billion-a-year industry”. Labelling the sector as “an Australian industry success story”, Carnival is hopeful the Navy will open the doors to the cruise industry and allow it to move in next door.

“Looking toward the future, this sustained growth means that the Royal Australian Navy should look forward to sharing Australian waters and ports with even more cruise ships than they do today,” the submission said.

Carnival has bolstered its lobbying forces in recent months too, with former Carnival Australia employee Sandy Olsen being welcomed back to the role of vice-president corporate affairs. Olsen returns to Carnival after a four year hiatus to assist CEO Ann Sherry in making the cruise industry’s voice heard on Macquarie Street and in Canberra.

Key to its ammunition is a 10-year Cruise Development Plan, released last year, which puts Garden Island firmly in the spotlight. However, the strongest point of view will come from the federal government on the release of the aforementioned White Paper.

It’s a virtual certainty that not everyone will agree on the Garden Island solution, but until then, all ideas and suggestions are destined to remain just that.

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