Pirates eye Sydney ferry services
by Peter Mac Hard on the heels of a report recommending steps that would lead to the privatisation of Sydney ferries, the NSW Government has decided to "corporatise" the service. Despite the denials of the NSW Minister for Transport, Michael Costa, this is clearly the first stage in a privatisation process. The recent report on Sydney public transport, in one of its most outrageous statements, described the ferry service as being largely patronised by the well-to-do and by tourists, and declared that some or all of the services would therefore be better carried out by the private sector. And last week, in response to Transport Minister Michael Costa's decision to corporatise the service, one company has given a clear idea of just what passengers would be in for in a privatised ferry service. Anthony Haworth, general manager of Captain Cook Cruises, declared enthusiastically that: "You could make money out of ferry services if you didn't have to run them 12 hours a day." In short, you'd clean up if you replaced a service whose aim is to provide good transport for the public as cheaply as possible, with a cruise service geared to profit maximisation for those who can afford its huge fares and grossly restricted timetable. Commuters who travel to work on one of Sydney's five already privately-owned railway stations know all too well the huge disparity between the costs of using privately-owned transport compared to a good public transport service. They pay between $1 and $8.80 more per trip than an equivalent trip to a publicly owned station. As for new timetable arrangements, Haworth himself declared bluntly: "Captain Cook cruises would only be interested in looking at some of the routes if the Department of Transport would (relax) the requirement within the licences to minimum service levels." Minister Costa hastened to reassure the public that no decision on the sale of vessels or reduction in services had been made. But he did admit that this option had not been ruled out, and that any decision in this regard would be a matter for the board of the new corporation. He also claimed that divorcing the management of the ferry service from that of the buses would be a big win for all concerned. "This restructure will make Sydney Ferries a more transparent and accountable agency, focused on providing reliable, safe services on Sydney Harbour and the Parramatta River. And it will allow the State Transit Authority (STA) to focus solely on bus operations", he declared proudly. The Minister fails to mention is that the present publicly run and owned ferry services is safe, efficient and far more reliable than being stuck in traffic jams on the roads. As for the STA focusing solely on buses, this would spell the end of the present co-ordination of many bus and ferry services. At present the public can rely on buses meeting ferries. Lack of such co-ordination could add hours to travel times. Corporatisation does not lead to greater accountability and transparency. Quite the contrary, "commercial in confidence" replaces public accountability. Under corporate law, the prime aim of a company is to make profits. The provision of a service is secondary, determined on the basis of profitability, not need. The Minister himself appears intent on dumping his own accountability and his very equivocal statements indicate that his own actions re the ferry service are anything but transparent. Costa said that job losses and discontinuance of services would be discussed between the government and the transport union. What about the public? Don't they have a say in Costa's "brave new world" restructuring? Will he take any notice of the union or the public who oppose corporatisation and privatisation and associated closures and cuts? The Minister's announcement was greeted with dismay and anger by commuters. Historian Christopher Shiel commented: "Why do you think the trains are all breaking down? It's because they are all running on a corporatisation model. If a private company can't get the expected rate of return they collapse or go elsewhere...." Wake up Costa! Your job as Minister is to ensure that the public gets a comfortable, reliable, widely available transport service operating for a wide range of hours. You also have to ensure that this is achieved at minimum cost. There are sound social, economic and environmental reasons for the state subsidising public transport as an essential service. The solution to current transport problems does not lie in betraying the travelling public and readying services like Sydney ferries for sale or contracting out to corporate vultures.