The Guardian November 5, 2003


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.

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