Thursday, 31 May 2012

Treasurer Wayne Swan attacks local council over dumping the Cairns Entertainment Precinct

Daniel Strudwick
Thursday, May 31, 2012
© The Cairns Post

Decision: Councillors Terry James and Rob Pyne vote on the entertainment precinct as protesters look on.

FEDERAL Treasurer Wayne Swan has served Bob Manning a shocking scolding, telling the Mayor and his councillors to "hang their heads in shame" for effectively killing off the Cairns Entertainment Precinct. 

In an 8-2 vote yesterday, the troubled waterfront project was suspended, rather than terminated, leaving it on life support while the council urgently negotiates to keep $97.3 million of state and federal funding in Cairns.

Cr Manning wants to "preserve and protect" that money, but put it towards a smaller and cheaper performing arts complex, and use any spare change for other projects. He has flown to Brisbane for urgent talks with the State Government today to secure $57.3 million the former Bligh administration pledged to the project. He will also have to convince the Federal Government not to pull its $40 million share. "I am sure that the Commonwealth – and the state, for that matter – will want to see all the benefits flow through to this city, which is one where things haven’t been too good for the last few years," Cr Manning said.

But his confidence in the Federal Government’s goodwill may be overblown, with Mr Swan yesterday blasting the new Cairns Regional Council for scrapping the waterfront precinct. "It is a project that would have supported hundreds of jobs during construction and 50 ongoing positions once operational," Mr Swan said. "For a region with a high unemployment rate, the new Mayor and all who have contributed to the circus around this project should hang their heads in shame."

The Commonwealth has confirmed its $40 million pledge to the precinct is still in the Budget. But it is understood the Treasurer won’t tolerate many more setbacks, considering the funding was originally committed in 2010 to stimulate construction jobs. The council’s decision to suspend the project means contracts remain frozen with companies in fields such as engineering and construction. About 160 workers – many of them local – face an uncertain future.

Cr Manning said he had sympathy for those workers, but the council had "to make the right decisions for this region". In an open letter sent to councillors before yesterday’s vote, one of the local building companies working on the site pleaded for the project to go on.

Richard Field Construction, which won the $351,000 contract for early works at White’s Shed, already has one worker facing retrenchment and others who are under-employed. "The construction industry activity in Cairns at present is at frighteningly low levels," site manager Tony Cawte said in his letter. "RFC does not understand why almost $100 million of external funding, available now, faces the possibility of being refused."

His sentiment was reflected by a minority of councillors who voted to carry on with the project, including Unity member Richie Bates who broke ranks with his teammates. Cr Linda Cooper said she was "extremely fearful" that scrapping the precinct would jeopardise the state and federal cash. "The construction industry is on its knees, so to take away or to knock back $100 million of funding for a project that we ultimately need, is something I cannot support," she said.

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