The Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) in Victoria has launched a new campaign calling for public transport services to be brought back into public hands. The contracts for the running of the rail and tram networks, first sold off under Jeff Kennett’s Liberal government in 1999, end this year and are up for renewal.
This move by the RTBU is to be welcomed. It has been years since a major union has even talked about the need for public ownership of vital services. While at this stage, the campaign is mostly confined to social media, there is scope for the call to get a big echo if the campaign was to become active in the workplaces and in the community.
The past two decades of privately run transport have revealed the colossal disaster that privatisation has been. Rather than saving money, public money handed over to the private sector for these services has ballooned to over a billion dollars a year in the last decade, while users have endured overcrowding, delays and cancellations.
Cost-cutting has impacted safety; this month sees Metro Trains charged with breaching its rail safety obligations in relation to the tragic death of an 18-year-old who fell between a train and the station platform in February 2014. All of this is contrary to Kennett’s 1999 promises of a safer, cheaper and more efficient transport network in private hands.
A similar trend of higher prices and poor quality services occurs throughout all industries that have been privatised. Rod Sims, chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and a former privatisation advocate, admitted that privatising public services raised consumer prices. He went so far as to say that it is “severely damaging our economy”.
The Andrews Labor state government is fully committed to helping private businesses profiteer from public needs and assets. At the moment, closed-door negotiations are taking place to renew the seven-year agreement with the existing operators, Metro Trains and Yarra Trams.
This follows the privatisation of the Port of Melbourne. The sell-off of the port will deprive the state of a significant revenue stream. It also comes after Labor rolled out the privatisation of disability services – breaking an election promise of Andrews not to further privatise the system – under the veil of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
However, it is possible to force the government to bring services back into public hands. A mass campaign drawing together public transport workers, commuters and community groups could force the government to retreat. Tactics to put the government under pressure could include protests as well as industrial action.
Mobilisation of the wider community is what forced Labor to change their position and oppose the disastrous East-West Link. With the weight of the union movement much more could be achieved.
While taking public transport out of the hands of profiteers would be a great first step, the community also needs to have control over how the system is run if it is to be operated in the interests of ordinary people.
In the past many state-run services have been run like businesses, with government bureaucrats calling the shots without concern for the on-the-ground needs of people who use or work for the service.
Instead of merely replacing the existing management with unelected bureaucrats, it would be much better if an elected board was set up that included workers and commuter representatives. Such a board could enforce operational standards and make plans for the network to be expanded so that it was accessible to everyone.
By removing the subsidies that are paid out to the private operators, and the profit motive, it would be possible to make public transport entirely free.
The entire state of Victoria would be transformed on the basis of a free, publicly owned and community controlled transport system. Much more however could be achieved if a similar approach was taken to all of the major sectors of the economy. If all the key economic levers were in public hands it would be possible to plan the economy in such a way that put people’s needs first.
This type of approach would free up vast quantities of wealth which could be used to create jobs and revitalise not only the transport sector, but also education, healthcare, housing and more.
By Socialist Party reporters