Ben Hills reports

Drive along The Northern Road that skirts the outer limits of Sydney’s vast suburban sprawl and you could be almost anywhere in Australia it’s a bucolic landscape of gum trees, rolling paddocks where cattle and horses graze, and modest iron-roofed weatherboard houses.

Although the deep south-west is only an hour or so’s drive away, it’s not so much another city as a far-away country of which residents of Sydney’s posher inner suburbs know little. Even the climate is different, 10 degrees hotter than Observatory Hill this sweltering midsummer day. There are raw new estates here most have never heard of, with names like Harrington Park, Green Hills and Capitol Hill.

Something else distinguishes the district. At Bringelly, more a name on the map than a settlement of any substance, you pass a sign indicating the Leppington Pastoral Company look west towards the Blue Mountains and see if you notice anything different about the landscape.

A few black and white cows, a rather ramshackle house, some sheds off in the distance. There is nothing to indicate that you are looking at some of the most expensive agricultural land in Australia, 38 hectares that cost the Commonwealth Government you $21.5 million, or more than $500,000 a hectare.

The property is just one but far and away the most expensive of 245 that governments, Labor and Liberal, have bought since 1986 when Bob Hawke decided that Sydney needed a second major airport, and that out here, at the then remote and isolated hamlet of Badgerys Creek, some 50 kilometres from the city, was the best place to put it.

While both parties agonised for 15 years, half a dozen elections, and one change of government over the political, economic and environmental consequences, the bureaucracies, Commonwealth and State, ploughed ahead regardless like an out-of-control juggernaut, buying land, building roads, commissioning studies, appointing boards, making plans.

To date, 1,770 hectares have been acquired, more than half of it compulsorily, at a cost of $137 million. As well (see box) an environmental impact statement, the second commissioned in a decade, attracted an astounding 15,000 mainly hostile submissions and cost about $20 million. The total spent on the airport is close to $200 million and those are just the visible costs, those not buried deep in departmental accounts.

And that figure is still rising. Three acquisition cases are still being fought in the courts and 15 people are still negotiating for compensation for aircraft noise, more than a month after John Howard announced officially that the airport had been put in a holding pattern for five years and unofficially that “I’m not one of those who frankly thinks you will ever build an airport at Badgerys Creek.”

Hundreds of people, some of them from families who had lived in the area for generations, had by then been forced out of their homes, before bulldozers demolished them or new tenants trashed them. The close-knit little community had been turned into a ghost town of abandoned houses and overgrown gardens. Bodies had to be dug up from the graveyard.

The State Government’s brave promises of new industry creating 350,000 new jobs in a dynamic new growth centre remember Bob Carr’s Australia Starts Here campaign have evaporated. The Government that he heads still retains draconian planning powers, including compulsory acquisition, over more than 100 square kilometres of land spanning a dozen suburbs around the airport site but the development corporation which was supposed to govern the area has never even been appointed.

A waste of public money? “Of course it was, 100 per cent,” growls Tony Perich, a director of the Leppington Pastoral Company whose family had run dairy cows on a property decreed part of the airport since the 1960s. “I lost 20 years of my life because of them bloody fools. They grabbed the land, and now they say they don’t need it. Why didn’t they just leave me alone I don’t want to be a big shot, I’m just a poor simple farmer.”

Make that a poor, simple, rich farmer. Ignore the King Gee shorts, the workboots and the Toyota Hilux. At the age of 60 Perich son of a Croatian railway worker who had to drape a raincoat over his baby’s cot to keep out the rain which leaked through the roof is now one of the wealthiest and most influential of western Sydney’s knockabout business barons.

As well as the dairy farm (which, incidentally, runs 3,000 cows, supplies a lot of Sydney’s milk and is said to be the largest in the Southern Hemisphere) he and his family own the Oran Park raceway, a fertiliser company, a large chunk of the Narellan shopping centre, and thousands of hectares of land. And, with the money, come connections on both sides of the political divide.

The Liberals made him a Member of the Order of Australia two years ago for “services to the community through charitable organisations”. Labor dignitaries have visited his marble-floored mansion which features a busty pony-tailed mermaid on the bottom of the indoor swimming-pool in January 1999, for instance, he hosted no fewer than four State Cabinet ministers (Carl Scully, Craig Knowles, Pam Allen and Bob Debus) at a $200-a-head cocktail party to launch the campaign for Labor’s candidate for the seat of Camden, Alex Sanchez. His lawyers are the equally well-connected Marsdens.

But Perich scoffs at gossip in the district that he received special treatment and a very special price for his land because of his political associations. “That’s a load of garbage. We had to fight them in the courts for seven years the court made the decision, not politics, you can guarantee it. I spent over $2 million in legal fees fighting the case.”

And that is what the record shows. According to the Transport Minister, John Anderson, the Commonwealth compulsorily acquired part of Perich’s farm for the airport approaches in 1991, and then fought him with QCs drawn in a series of Federal Court cases to determine the basis on which compensation was to be paid. As well as payment for the land, Perich was demanding compensation for relocating his dairy and other facilities to another part of his 579-hectare property, a claim that led one judge to comment that he wanted “… both the money and the box both a payment for the lost land, and an asset as valuable as before”.

It was not until December 1999 that a final figure of $21.5 million was negotiated a price Perich says included only $1 million for the actual land, but $2 million for his legal costs, $4 million in interest and the rest to cover relocation. The ultimate irony is that, although he has had to build a new dairy, houses and offices, his cattle still graze on the land and will do for the foreseeable future.

Local real estate agents were astonished at the $500,000-a-hectare price when the word got around. Ray Brown, from Elders in Camden, for instance, has sold two farms in the area in the past three years for $15,000 and $20,000 a hectare one, Glen Amigus, a “magnificent property” of about 200 hectares in Wallacia which included two houses, went for $3 million in 1998.

Even more remarkable, the price the Commonwealth paid is 50 times as much as it received some two years earlier when the CSIRO sold a 344-hectare experimental farm five kilometres up the road for $3.5 million $10,000 a hectare. More of that later.Drive through the district, and you will hear the same bittersweet stories of people who didn’t really want to move, who are angry about the needless destruction of their little community but who nevertheless find themselves better off, financially at any rate, as a result of the fiasco of the airport that never was.

Stop at the Hubertus Country Club, the only club in the area, and talk to David Weir who is stepping down soon after many years as its president and chief executive. The club was founded by German immigrants in 1969 and is named after St Hubert, the patron saint of hunters it has ranges for shooting air rifles and pistols, which became a German Olympic forte after World War II when real guns were banned.

In the mid-1980s, the 300 members were informed by the Commonwealth that their clubhouse and its two hectares of land were smack in the middle of the airport site, and they had to move. But the compensation offered, $990,000, was nowhere enough for them to buy an alternative site, so the club took the Government to court.

After another exhausting series of battles in the Federal Court, the club won $2.1 million, plus interest and its legal costs enough to buy 10 hectares of land up the road at Luddenham, and build a splendid new clubhouse, complete with shooting range and restaurant. Membership, however, has declined as people were forced out of the district, and the promised new airport workforce never arrived. Weir says the club is now in “dire straits”.

“I’ve lost 10 years out of my social life, and millions of dollars have been wasted, millions,” says Weir. “If the airport is not going to be built, why buy us out in the first place? Why buy anyone out?

“The houses the Government bought, they moved the worst riff-raff in Sydney into them and they just wrecked them. There were some beautiful houses that had to be demolished.”

Up the road in their new house at Wallacia, James and Lorraine Nobbs are equally angry. They had lived on a two-hectare block part of a farm that had been in the family for three generations only to discover that the airport was to be built on their doorstep, so close that aircraft noise would make it “unlivable”, as the bureaucrats put it. The compensation they received, $425,000, helped them move to a much larger 58-hectare property five minutes’ drive away. James, in particular, is galled every time he drives past the family home, now occupied by tenants, where he lived for 20 years and raised his family. “I am just so angry about the disintegration of the little village where I was born,” he says. “Some families had lived here for four or five generations. To see people just chucked out for no reason whatsoever is disgusting as the people drove away the bulldozers went through and Badgerys Creek no longer existed. There was nothing left to live for.”

Not even the little weatherboard parish church of St Francis Xavier, which had been ministering to the spiritual needs of the district for nearly a century, was spared. The priest, Father John Evans, is pleased that the $200,000 or so compensation enabled a move to a bigger block and the addition of a school to the new church, but he says many parishioners were devastated that about 70 bodies of their relatives had to be dug up from the graveyard and reinterred at the Greendale cemetery.Roy Medich is another of the west’s self-made multimillionaires as with his friend Tony Perich, with whom he plays bocce, his father migrated from Croatia and cut sugar-cane for a living. As well as land holdings conservatively valued several years ago at $20 million, the Medich family owns industrial estates, a shopping complex, the El Toro hotel and the Macquarie function centre.

Aged 51, Medich, like Perich, is an indefatigable promoter of Sydney’s south-west, a former chairman of the South West Sydney Regional Development Organisation, and chairman of the planning and transport subcommittee of the Greater Western Sydney Economic Development Board both of which lobbied hard for the second airport. He was also honoured with a Medal in the Order of Australia by the Liberals for “service to the community through fundraising”.

Medich also shares his friend’s interest in property development, which is why, four years ago, he and Perich came to be bidding against each other for one of the most highly desirable pieces of real estate in the district, the 344-hectare McMaster Farm, a CSIRO animal research field station.

The CSIRO had decided to sell the land in 1994. Although, like Perich’s farm, the land was zoned rural, it had great potential it fronts onto Elizabeth Drive, the northern boundary of the airport site, and the Badgerys Creek environmental impact statement shows that the State Government had designated it as a “future employment area”.

It was a convoluted sale process. The property was advertised for sale in 1994-95, attracting bids from Perich, Medich and a third party. Then it was withdrawn from sale because of the “uncertainty over the future of the adjoining land” designated for the airport, says the minister now responsible for the CSIRO, Senator Nick Minchin.

It was advertised a second time in April 1996, and this time there was only one bidder, Becklon Pty Ltd, a company owned by Roy Medich and his brother Ronald. The price, when it became known, surprised local real estate agents Becklon got the land for $3.5 million, about $10,000 a hectare, which was considerably below the $15,000 to $20,000 going price for agricultural land at the time, and a tiny 2 per cent of the per hectare price the Government eventually paid Perich.

Medich concedes the land was a good buy at the price, but says the bidding process was open to “all and sundry” and “it’s still zoned rural and that’s all it was worth … Anyone who says the land is worth more is kidding themselves.”

Minchin agrees. He says the Government received two “independent valuations” on the land, of $3 million and $3.1 million, and the Becklon bid topped both.

Both Medich and Perich concede the second airport is a dead duck at least for now along with hopes they had for making a fortune by developing their extensive land-holdings in the area.

Medich has the CSIRO land leased out for farming. “I’ll hang onto it,” he says. “It’s a nice piece of land.”

As for Perich, he says he is sick of paying an “exorbitant rent” to the Commonwealth and would like to buy that piece of his farm back. But not for the $21.5 million the Commonwealth paid out for $1 million, which he says is all it’s worth.

Tax money down the drain


Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 10 February 2001
Edition: Late
Section: News And Features
Sub section: News Review
Page: 27
Word count: 2500
Classification: Transport/Aviation/Airports/Badgery S Creek Property/Land
Geographic area: NSW Sydney
Photo: Brendan Esposito
Caption: Interests in property development …
1. Tony Perich, left, and Roy Medich
2. Lorraine and James Nobbs … `As the people drove away the bulldozers went through.’
Table: Tax money down the drain