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Issue #1464      21 July 2010

The struggle for Brisbane’s urban transport

Part 4

In the previous parts of this occasional series we ended at the point where the struggle was about to get very difficult for Brisbane’s urban public transport workers, in particular bus drivers. We had painted the picture of developments in the industry that had placed privatisation high on the agenda of most governments.

Brisbane tram crossing the Fiveways at Woolloongabba during the early 1960's. The hut to the right houses the controller.

What was happening in urban transport was not isolated to that industry but was part of an overall development that was connected to the whole.

The 1980s had seen the most fundamental change in the nature and form of the trade union movement, the Communist Parties were divided and in the trade union movement there was in part a decline in militancy brought on by the adherence to the class collaboration theory of the Accord with the Labor government of Hawke and Keating. (The Accord was a social contract based on wage restraint and co-operation with employers in return for some social reforms.)

Significant figures who had been legendary communist leaders of the Australian working class now lent their support to the tri-partite arrangements of the unions, government and employers. Leaders from the old Communist Party such as Laurie Carmichael, John Halfpenny and Julius Rowe and renegades Tom McDonald, Pat Clancy and Stan Sharkey, former members of the Socialist Party, added their ideological interpretation of “modern unionism”.

Public ownership was getting a battering from the federal government as the Hawke-Keating government set about privatising the airlines, telecommunications, ports and shipping. Some state governments, such as in South Australia, also began privatising electricity, water and other utilities and services.

The Keating government introduced its National Competition Policy. The policy had been developed from an Industry Commission report commissioned by the Prime Minister’s office. The inquiry had been tasked with tackling “monopolies” (public assets and services) and finding ways to introduce “competition” (private sector handed the profitable parts of public assets and services).

So the inquiry came up with the outcome that the monopoly that had to be combated was government monopoly and that competition had to be introduced in all areas of government services. National Competition was built around the notion that governments should not provide services but purchase them.

It led to the absurd notion that cross subsidies should be declared illegal. Cross subsidies are where one part of a government service actually makes a profit and the profit is used to provide for a less profitable service. An example was the coal carrying business of Queensland Rail which subsidised the freight and passenger operations. Australia Post is another example, where cross-subsidisation meant the highly profitable urban services subsidised the more costly deliveries to regional and rural addresses.

Under National Competition and later the state equivalents, all government businesses had to be separated from the government body, corporatised and new departments created to purchase the same services. In Brisbane City Council this became known as “Purchaser Provider Split”. Council departments were then split into these arrangements. It was thus that the trading entity Brisbane Transport came into being as a Brisbane City Council-owned business. More on this later.

The common misconception in this period was that the different levels of government operated on completely different agendas. The reality of National Competition policy is that it was an agenda driven by the finance section of capital, in particular Macquarie Bank, as a way of securing a return on finance capital. The dark suits were making their move and no sector of industry was safe.

The most significant change to capitalism in the late 20th century was the growth of parasitic capital, that is money seeking a return, huge amounts of fictitious capital created to keep the capitalist system afloat and this capital seeking out real actual assets to strip and turn into real profits. The stock markets and capital growth funds are the place where this exchange occurs.

In Australia, this has led to the most massive privatisation of government assets. Like a Biblical plague of locusts the capitalist system is devouring its own institutions. In a country like Australia with such a vast continent, transport and communications are highly problematic and need to be under government control to ensure even development of industry.

The privatisation of the telecommunications industry has seen that capital converted to stock on a the share market driven by short-term profit generating with the result, an advanced communications system has now lagged behind. Not one of the new providers or the former government telecommunications provider Telstra is prepared to fund the digital broadband network needed to keep Australia developing. They insist that the capital has to come from the government.

These are the results of privatisation in telecommunications; in public transport the experience similar. The Melbourne transport system is a shadow of itself and the government has to provide the capital to update the infrastructure and ensure private operators turn a profit.

As previously stated the Graham Review was carried out in all states and this resulted in a further drive for privatisations (Roger Graham was the representative of the Bus and Coach Association in NSW. He was commissioned to do reviews by all state governments into public bus services).

In Brisbane this meant that the reform of the bus system was high on the agenda of the Treasury and we had under the Labor governments at State level been resisting the change to private ownership with some success. The agenda was about to get worse with the election of the Federal Liberal government under Howard. This meant a further increase in pressure towards privatisation and a change in industrial laws to push down the rights of workers even further. Less money was forthcoming for urban renewal and the refrm agenda intensified.

Next week: Resistance against privatisation

* David has been secretary of the Bus Division of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union and before that Bus Union in Brisbane for over 20 years.  

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