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The Guardian 28 January, 2009

Business tries to catch the ferry

Peter Mac

The NSW government has begun to privatise Sydney Ferries. Having experienced a humiliating defeat over its attempted sell-off of the state’s electricity services, the government decided to test the water (as it were) with a trial privatisation of the fast Manly ferry (JetCat) service.

Before Christmas the government announced that the JetCats would be withdrawn from service, and that it would let a twelve-month fast ferry service contract. The big Freshwater class ferries are to remain publicly-owned — for the moment.

In an extraordinary move the government limited the tender period to eight days. The successful tenderer was Bass and Flinders Cruises.

When approached some years ago by the government to take over the fast ferry service, Captain Cook Cruises (the only other local potential tenderer) had indicated that they would only take on the most profitable daytime Manly trips. The State Treasurer Michael Costa declared bitterly that the government would have sold off the service long ago but no buyer could be found.

The "lemon" excuse

The Premier, Nathan Rees, attempted to justify the tender decision by stating that the JetCats were constantly breaking down, and were, in short, "lemons".

It is certainly true that they experienced mechanical problems, but not to the extent that would justify their immediate replacement. The JetCats are twice as fast as the Freshwater ferries, and their speed alone leads to a heavier demand for maintenance.

At the time of their withdrawal from service the JetCats were providing a fully adequate service. With proper maintenance they could easily have served for many more years.

Phoney arguments for privatisation

In the past, government ministers have declared that taxpayers should not have to pay for the Manly ferry service, because (they claimed) it was really only used by rich residents and wealthy tourists.

This is phoney. Firstly, Manly ferry passengers include ordinary working people and tourists who either live in or travel to and from Manly and the adjacent suburbs.

It’s true that the JetCats were used more by wealthier passengers, but only because the fares were much higher than ordinary ferry fares, so only the wealthier passengers could afford the tickets!

The exception was for the first JetCat service of the day, which preceded the first Freshwater ferry service, and for which a normal ferry fare was charged. The passengers on this JetCat service were normal ferry passengers, not just wealthier ones.

Secondly, public transport is not a gift from taxpayers to poorer citizens who can’t afford private transport, but rather a means of making the city work, by facilitating mass movement of the public. This cannot happen under a "safety net" approach, or if the public transport network is sold off in whole or in part to the profit-hungry private sector.

The real "lemon"

Sydney travellers will certainly not receive a better deal from a privatised fast ferry service. When it commences next month the public will have had no fast ferry service at all for several weeks — and the new service will not operate at all on the weekends!

Moreover, the Bass and Flinders craft will be used much more intensively than the JetCats. As a company spokesman stated last week, "We run whale watching during the day so the usage is higher, whereas the JetCat is tied up for eight hours." Therefore, maintenance requirements for the company’s vessels will probably be much higher, and mechanical problems more frequent.

A struggle for public ownership

Privatisation of the Manly fast ferry service and the Parramatta ferry service is frustrating attempts to streamline transport timetables and fares.

Olivia Wirth, Director of Sydney’s Tourism and Transport Forum, commented: "The siphoning off of particular routes one by one on disparate contracts will lead to nothing but confusion at a time when the transport network is in desperate need of integration."

Bass and Flinders has only ever operated whale-watching tours. Paddy Crumlin, National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, commented: "We don’t know who they are…. They’ve got no reputation and no credibility in public transport."

Moreover, the private sector has never successfully operated a Sydney ferry service. As Paddy Crumlin noted: "Twice the private sector has been engaged to provide public services, and twice Sydney Ferries has been taken back into government hands because of the failure of the private sector to become a commercial operation".

In its attempts to privatise the Sydney ferries the Rees government won’t just be facing the inexperience and incompetence of the private operators, they will also be facing vigorous union opposition.

As MUA official Warren Smith declared last week: "We will not stand by and allow public enterprises to be sold off to private owners and we are prepared to fight to maintain public ownership."

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