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Issue # 1405      1 April 2009

Ferry privatisation not in the public interest

The Maritime Union (MUA) has warned that the latest calls for privatisation, both by the NSW opposition and a former Sydney Ferries executive are not in the public interest.

“At a time when we are all reeling from the unfettered deregulation of financial markets, and governments are having to bail out banks and private operators with the public purse, people should be more aware than ever that selling off our most valuable public assets to private operators is not in the public interest,” said MUA Sydney branch secretary Warren Smith. “We just can’t afford to hold onto these defunct beliefs. Sydney Ferries and ports are too important assets to hand over. We have to keep key public assets in public hands.”

Mr Smith was responding to reports in by a former Ferries executive and the leader of the opposition that the Ferries and the states ports should go under the hammer.

Olav Groot, the general manager of assets at Sydney Ferries Corporation, has jumped ship to one of the main bidders for the ferry service, at the same time advocating the ferry services should be delivered by the private sector. “That speaks for itself. Presumably Mr Groot means they should go to the undisclosed company he is now working for. Well that would be in Mr Groot’s best interest but not necessarily in the public interest.”

Mr Smith warned that handing over control of Sydney Ferries had been tried twice previously and twice the state government had been forced to come in and rescue the service – in 1951 and 1974.

“There’s a lesson in history,” said Mr Smith. “Let’s learn from it. Private operators have failed to operate Sydney Ferries in the past and they will fail in the future. Sydney Ferries are an essential part of this city’s public transport mix.”

He said the government would be serving the public better if it worked with Sydney Ferries to better coordinate the service with other transport services and recognise the environmental benefits of ferry patronage.

“World shipping is deregulated and privatised and that’s why we end up with the sort of disasters we had off the Queensland coast recently.

“We need more regulation not less. And as for (opposition leader) Mr O’Farrell’s announcement that he will put the state’s public assets to a fire sale, well that’s just the sort of ‘sell everything to our business mates’ that will never serve the public.”

Meanwhile, the union said that all Australian waterside workers and MUA members have been cleared by the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) with the Maritime Union and Ports Australia yesterday dismissing political allegations by the federal opposition of bikie gang or criminal infiltration of the wharves.

“You go through an extensive police backgrounding check,” MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin told ABC radio. “You go through a merit-based selection program where the employers, there are only two major employers on the waterfront, extensively do psychological analysis, background checks, referees.

“You then go from a situation where when you actually start, you’re virtually on CCTV and under scrutiny for the whole period of time that you’re there,” he said “There is absolutely no organised crime and infiltration. Maybe there are people who ride motorbikes but they ride them to work and they ride them home and they do it in a safe way and in a legal way, that’s about the end of it.”

The opposition jumped on revelations from the Australian Crime Commission to a joint federal parliamentary committee in Canberra, that outlaw motorcycle gangs have infiltrated the maritime and security industries, claiming bikie gangs where drug running on the wharves and calling for specialised police force on Australia’s waterfront.

But a more close reading of the Crime Commission statement and annual report by the MUA Canberra bureau showed the reference was to the maritime sector generally, not the wharves. Rather the ACC annual report gives a detailed reference to a major project examining small craft and domestic fishing most vulnerable to criminal exploitation.

Susan Fryda from Ports Australia told ABC Radio, “Ports are required and have implemented a very stringent maritime security regime as a result of the terrorism threats from 9/11. She said the current regime is working well.

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