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THE Baillieu government will push ahead with plans to expand the Port of Hastings into a multibillion-dollar container port, despite Bluescope Steel closing its wharf there next month and the last of the permanent wharfies being made redundant.
Ports Minister Denis Napthine said that while stevedoring at Hastings in Western Port had ceased for the time being, work on the 10- to 15-year expansion project to turn it into a complementary container port to the Port of Melbourne had already started.
The Port of Hastings Development Authority, established this year, has started doing early assessment and planning reports for the project - which some experts say is likely to cost more than $12 billion.
''The government is proceeding as planned, exactly on track, with the plans to develop Hastings as a new container port for Melbourne and Victoria,'' he said. ''Any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.''
Bluescope has shed 300 jobs at Western Port in the past year and closed several of its local operations because of tougher economic conditions.
The Maritime Union said the latest job losses of 20 permanent and 14 casual staff working at the Hastings wharf, operated by Patrick Stevedores for Bluescope, cast more doubt on the expansion plans.
''It will be the first time that Hastings has ever operated as a port without permanent employees,'' Victorian secretary Kevin Bracken said. ''If they are confident in it becoming a spillover port for Melbourne then they have to maintain a permanent workforce there.''
The Age reported earlier this month that the Department of Transport had warned the expansion could pose environmental and logistical problems and that ''Bay West'' on the other side of Port Phillip Bay, near Werribee was an alternative option.
Opposition ports spokesman Tim Pallas said the government was so focused on its long-term vision for Hastings that it had allowed the port's core business of bulk trade to erode, including the loss of trade from Bluescope Steel.
''One thing the government and the opposition agree on is that Hastings has a future as a substantial port,'' he said. ''But to chase pie-in-the-sky ideas for a container port that is 10 or 15 years down the track really doesn't add to the material circumstances or welfare of the community in the short term.''
An editor at the the local paper, Mike Hast of Western Port News, said the latest job cuts, while unfortunate for those involved, were really just a ''bump along the way'' in the wider expansion plans.
He said the talk around Hastings was that Bluescope might restart shipping in coiled steel by as early as March next year, but with casual employees on the wharf. ''If that doesn't happen that wharf will just sit there until the port is expanded.''
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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