Media: By Michael Parris November 1 2022

Chris Minns answers questions at a Business Hunter breakfast at McDonald Jones Stadium on Tuesday.

Opposition leader Chris Minns says removing the handbrake on Port of Newcastle developing a container terminal is “crucial” for the Hunter, but he wants to be assured taxpayers are not left with a massive bill.

Mr Minns told a Business Hunter breakfast on Tuesday that he was waiting to see the detail of the government’s deals with Port of Newcastle and NSW Ports before committing to scrap penalties on the port building a rival terminal to Botany and Kembla.

The deals include compensation payments to NSW Ports if Newcastle moves containers above a set cap.

“Port of Newcastle, with respect, would say the liability is about $200 million. Those on the other side of the ledger will say it’s well in advance of a billion dollars,” Mr Minns said.

“That’s a huge gap between the two sides. It would be wonderful for me to just say I’ve agreed to it immediately regardless of the liability, but I don’t believe that’s the responsible thing to do.

“At the moment I’m relying on third-party information.”

Parliament is poised to debate a bill tabled by Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper which would scrap the penalties, regardless of compensation payable to NSW Ports.

Labor has proposed amendments to the legislation which would leave the decision whether to extinguish the penalties in the hands of a future treasurer.

The amendments say the treasurer can cancel the penalties only if an independent reviewer has certified the private Newcastle port operator has “shown a genuine commitment to the construction of a container terminal”.

“We have to make sure we don’t have the worst of all worlds, which is a liability for the NSW government then no container terminal,” Mr Minns said.

Mr Minns, who sat next to port CEO Craig Carmody at the breakfast, said Labor’s “baseline” position was “the situation can’t continue”.

“We know we need to change the current situation,” he said.

“We know it’s crucial for this dynamic economy that’s … looking at diversifying sources of economic growth and opportunity, and a big part of that plan is the port.”

He suggested the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal could review the port’s commitment to the container project and advise the treasurer.

Committee for the Hunter chair Richard Anicich questioned why Labor needed a guarantee on the port building a terminal before scrapping the deeds.

“If it doesn’t develop, then, as I understand it under the port commitment deed, there would be no compensation payable to Kembla and Botany, so I’m not sure why this is an issue,” Mr Anicich said during a question-and-answer session.

The Newcastle Herald understands Labor is concerned about a scenario in which Port of Newcastle does not build a terminal yet still moves enough containers, believed to be about 50,000 a year at this point in time, to trigger compensation payments to NSW Ports.

Mr Anicich said leaving decisions on the port to the “political whim of a treasurer” had “not served this region well in the past”.