Anger as more liners gain access to Garden Island

THE state economy stands to benefit after the federal government gave the go-ahead for passenger ships to use Sydney Harbour's Garden Island naval base. But the decision has sacrificed long-term national interests for short-term gain, the Defence Association warns.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said yesterday three ocean liners would be guaranteed a berth each at Garden Island over the next two cruise seasons. The state government, the cruise industry and business groups were quick to welcome the move.

The Sydney Business Chamber's executive director, Patricia Forsythe, said rapid growth in the cruise industry meant it was on track to generate $1 billion a year for the NSW economy by the end of this decade.

But the executive director of the Australia Defence Association, Neil James, said military bases should not be used as a "cheap fix" for poor planning by governments and private industry.

"The decision to allow cruise ships even more access to the already overcrowded naval facilities at Garden Island is yet another disgraceful example of sacrificing long-term national interests for short-term party-political advantage," he said.

It ignores enduring strategic principles derived from the geographic, oceanographic, economic and maritime trade constraints of the Australian east coast, Mr James said.

A review by former Defence Department secretary Dr Allan Hawke released earlier this year found allowing passenger liners to berth at Garden Island was "essentially incompatible" with the future needs of the navy.

But the tourism industry is pushing for the cruise ships to have permanent access to the prime harbour location.

The Premier, Barry O'Farrell, said the cruise industry had been the strongest area of growth for tourism in the state. About 260 passenger ships are expected to visit Sydney this financial year.

"We clearly as a government have our own responsibility to improve passenger terminals in and around Sydney Harbour and we'll continue to do that but making use of Garden Island has always been a sensible approach," Mr O'Farrell said.

Cruise liners have berthed at Garden Island on a limited and ad hoc basis but the industry has been pushing for more access. It says ships are getting bigger and by the end of the decade more than half of liners visiting Sydney will be too large to sail under the Harbour Bridge.

with Josephine Tovey