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Issue #1445      3 March 2010

The struggle for Brisbane’s urban transport

Gains and successes in the fight against privatisation

Part 2

No sooner had Wayne Goss been elected then we found ourselves greeting the new Transport Minister David Hamill. Our first meeting took place with him in the old office of none other than Don Lane, the former Transport Minister under the Nationals who had defected from the Liberals to Nationals to help them to form a National Party government.

David Matters (centre) with fellow unionists.

A notable feature of the office was the wallpaper: it was all leather. Seeing the extravagance of the office I remarked to David, “This place must embarrass you a bit.” It was his reply that made us realise that we were not amongst fellow workers. He said “why” then moved on to question me on the size of our union.

He then said, well you’re too small to worry about, and the interview ended very shortly after. He was obviously too important a man to talk to workers like us and we were not overawed enough by his luxurious surroundings. It recalled phrases about ministerial leather getting to the most principled of men. Obviously Don Lane was still getting value for money from that leather. David Hamill later had to leave parliament but he played a role in trying to privatise us during his term.

At one stage he announced a plan to franchise the council buses into 12 franchises and thereby break up the service for sale.

The 1989 Branch secretary’s report made the following observation: “The election of Queensland’s first Labor government for 32 years capped off what has been a very busy year for our union. The removal of the reactionary National Party government has opened the way to some serious reforms which can benefit all workers in this stage. Whilst we are still feeling many of the shackles that the National Party government has left behind, we must be confident that we can change many of the wrongs that have been done to us over the years”.

The report then went on to outline the injustice of the state wages system and its inherent lowering of wages under the Bjelke-Petersen era.

The call by the union, “It is the responsibility of our union to persuade the Labor state government to set up a publicly owned Transit Authority in South East Queensland, running its own fleet of buses incorporating the council service but significantly advanced enough to run to Bayside, Inala, Pine Rivers and Logan City.

“Consideration should also be given to the Gold Coast. We have prepared petitions; letter etc to launch a public campaign.”

So we launched and promoted our campaign for a South East Queensland Transit Authority, a struggle that continues even today over the future and present nature of public transport in our region.

As part of our campaign and in response to our efforts the state government established the South East Queensland Passenger Transport Study (SEPTS). I was the union’s enthusiastic representative but things were not alas as we would have wanted them and we were to remark to our members in 1990:

“We have been involved in the South East Queensland Passenger Transport Study and from here we have learnt of government’s plans to try to privatise our service for the limited aim of attempting to reduce the amount of money the government is putting into public transport. It has become clear that the Minister for Transport is seeking to try to reduce the subsidy he pays to the council from 60 cents to the revenue dollar down to 30 or 40 cents per dollar as a means of achieving economic revision.

“We have an important task to defend the public sector of our industry and we must convince the politicians of all parties that privatisation is not an option when it comes to public transport and (in) the interests of both the public and our members, are better served by a publicly owned transport system.”

It was at this time that the then Victorian state Labor government under the influence of the Labor Right attacked our Victorian branch with the proposal to remove tram conductors. On this occasion the Left leadership under Jim Harper were successful in defeating the proposal.

Within the industry the first contract managers in the depots arrived and the depot masters were put second in charge to three new managers each with their own budgeted cars and new flashy furniture. Air conditioning in the depots was put in place. Meanwhile, we were still arguing for ventilation in those buses that were not air-conditioned.

After successful campaigns to extend council bus services the union was able to proudly announce new services to the Inala and Bayside areas of Brisbane. Inala was a housing commission area set up in bushland with no public transport. Both it and the adjoining suburb of Acacia Ridge had no night bus services and Inala only had a private bus company running to the Oxley railway station.

Having lived in Acacia Ridge and experiencing the hardship of no transport in this area there was a sense of personal satisfaction at the result achieved by the union. It is fundamental to democracy that all citizens have the right to mobility in their cities. Bayside was also a large long standing working class area that had been served by a private operator. The owner of Bayside Buses had declared bankruptcy as a result of Sunline being the company involved in the Grafton bus smash and had upped camp and gone to Western Australia.

We thought that this departure was a benefit in that the state government had been pursuing privatisation discussions with the owner.

Privatisation was further complicated by attitudes in the socialist countries where the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was making public ownership seem a thing of the past. On top of this a private bus company was loudly proclaiming its success in winning the contract for bus services in socialist Vietnam. We certainly seemed to be out of step with developments through-out the world.

We faced down at this time; proposals to sell the buses and lease them back (a scheme that led to privatisation in Victorian public transport under Jeff Kennet Liberal government).

Also service cuts and part-time cleaning staff along with an attempt to privatise some of the recently publicly operated services in the Bayside area.

We felt we were not making the ground that we wanted to in the regional studies into public transport.

Our relationship with the Labor Party was still mixed with the local branch at Inala an enthusiastic supporter of the Inala expansion. The new Labor Lord Mayor Jim Soorley becoming a vocal supporter of expansion of public buses to Logan City, a large residential area for low income families on the southern outskirts of Brisbane between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The limitation of the public buses being council owned rather than state government defeating the expansion.

During this campaign we were able to send the transport minister back into his bunker with the release of information showing that funding of private buses was hidden in the Education Department funding.

The other Labor interference being the Deputy Premier Tom Burns who in his Bayside electorate thwarted our full acquisition of the services by introducing a reactionary bus company, AWON, into some of these services. It was on rumours that he was again assisting their expansion that we made a phone call to Burns.

After listening to the impressive list of titles I was put onto him and was able to ask him if he was, as government bureaucrats reported, behind attempts to contract out our work. He assured us he was not so we said, can we quote you, he said “yes” and thus was put a stop to work being contracted out.

* David has been secretary of the Bus Union in Brisbane for over 20 years. Part 1 appeared in The Guardian on February 17.  

Next article –  Culture & Life – Corporate defeat

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