|Issue No 79||24 November 2000|
Back on Track
Interview with Peter Lewis
After blowing the whistle on rail privatization, NSW Transport Minister Carl Scully is rebuilding bridges with the trade union movement.
About 12 months ago you were the unions' most wanted man - now, after a successful Olympics things seem to be sweet and light again. What's happened?
Well, the last 12 months certainly showed the vital importance of the unions and consultation. The Olympics I think have rightly been called "the Union Games", and this is certainly true of public transport. But I have to mention I did learn a lot from my brush with the unions in the last year and I have appreciated that a lot can be achieved by consultation. Unions represent the people who know the most about the rail system. They have got to be listened to and while we won't always agree, I do think the relationship now is much, much better than it might have been say, 12 or 18 months ago.
So what happened back there? Were you just taking advice from the experts? What was it that took things off the track?
Well, I think maybe I didn't listen to the unions as much as I should have in terms of what was going on at the ground level; listening to their organizers and some of the staff. I have learned from that brush. I think part of maturing in the political process is that you learn from your experiences, and if I had my time over again I would have approached the unions; their leadership; their organizers; and the staff in a different way. That is what I learned from that brush and I think what is important is the unions have responded. They have seen a change in the way that I deal with them and I consult with them far more heavily now than I might have some time ago.
Do you now accept that rail reform, particularly competitive tendering of track maintenance got out of control for a while there?
I think there are some good things we got out of rail reform and I know the rail unions have acknowledged this. We have learned from the process. But that doesn't mean that it didn't need some attention and in some places fine tuning, and in some places some reversals.
In respect of competitive tendering of track maintenance I was very concerned about it. The unions said as much to me about that. I listened to them, and the Cabinet accepted my recommendation that we should not proceed with the competitive tendering of track maintenance. I did that to make sure we protected jobs and we also ensured that the job was being done better - rather than necessarily having it put out to the private sector.
The legislation currently before Parliament joins together the Rail Access Corporation and RSA maintenance under public control. What is the thinking behind this?
Once you have made the decision that contracting out of track maintenance is not going to be proceeded with, then it doesn't make a lot of sense to have the owner of the track separated from the maintainer of the track. That's the first thing. The second thing is, I found it is much less effective in having the person deciding where the work is going to be done, separate from the person doing the work. You really need them together, to make sure all the people who have got the knowledge of how the track should work and actually does work, are together in the one organisation. Primarily of course, it doesn't really make a great deal of sense if you are not going to continue to competitively tender the work, there is no point in having a separate body.
And how does that wrap up into your idea of what the appropriate private/public split in public transport in general should be?
We are very, very committed to the public ownership of public transport, and certainly where it is currently publicly owned, it will continue to be publicly owned, and where the track is currently publicly maintained, it will continue to be publicly maintained. I have a very, very strong commitment philosophically and politically to the public ownership of our railways and of our STA buses and ferries. And I will continue that commitment. I have made some very strong commitments to the rail unions about that.
The rail industry has more than halved its workforce in the last decade - have we gone as far as we are going to go down this track?
I think the Olympic legacy showed that the Games were successful in part because we had very well staffed railway stations and a very well staffed rail system. And I think the public really appreciated that. What I am concerned about is front line staff really ought not to have any more reductions. That is certainly a message that I have got from the public and I have had a number of discussions with the unions and with the Coordinator General about the need to recognize that front line staff are vital and you really can't keep taking pieces out of them in terms of the number that you need to do the job.
So are you prepared to make some commitment that you are not going to be knocking down that front line?
That's not to say that here or there there may not be a need to review appropriate levels of particular parts of the system, but over all I think we need to make sure that you don't hack into front line staff numbers. That's something that I have learned over the last two or three years and certainly what I learned as a legacy from the Olympics. You really have to protect those numbers but the question as to where they might be best located, I think are legitimate issues that we need to consult and work with the unions over.
It's tough call isn't it? How do you put a productivity line on someone who is basically customer service?
I value highly, as the Coordinator General does, customer service. I think that is worth valuing properly, and I think in the past sometimes senior management hasn't put the value on that that perhaps they should have. So, it is not to say it is not a legitimate question about how many staff members you may need at any particular location at a point in time, but the general question of needing to have adequate staff levels for front line services is very important and valuable to me, and to the travelling public.
Given recent uproar over the rising tolls on private roads and the problems facing the airport link - do you think we are seeing a shift from the philosophy that the private sector necessarily does transport best?
I think there is always a good case for assessing and considering the private financing of public infrastructure and often there is an opportunity for building a road or a rail line or an airport or a busway possibly, with private finance that otherwise might not be available from the public sector because our resources are fully committed. Now the way that you pay for that private finance obviously is with user charges - either with tolls or some other form of user charge. What we have to make sure of is that the deal is good for the taxpayer. It can't be just good for the shareholders of the company that provides the finance - it has got to be good for taxpayers. And the deal with the airport line for example, I think probably is not a great deal for taxpayers - certainly it potentially exposes taxpayers to great financial risk, and appears to be overly favourable to those who provided the finance. So on that particular one the balance wasn't as good as it could have been.
Is that because the government of the day didn't argue the terms tough enough?
It put itself in a poor negotiating position because it made it plain that it was desperate to get a big piece of infrastructure proposal up for the '95 election, and I think perhaps traded away protections that might otherwise have been put in there if they weren't time constrained to an election commitment.
You are responsible for public transport as well as roads - and we are hearing a lot about roads on the federal scene at the moment- how do you see the road/public transport mix? When do you decide to put a road in rather than public transport?
I found that having the two portfolios is very, very effective in looking at the integration between the two and making whole-of-transport assessments of what should be supported. Now, I believe that the Department of Transport can have a stronger role in terms of bridging the gap between rail and road in particular, and buses, and the new Director General of the Department of Transport has been charged by me to actually have a very important role there. But certainly having one Minister with chief executives underneath him, I believe, is more effective than having separate Ministers dealing with those two portfolios separately.
When you find an area that needs servicing, where do you think the onus should lie? As a best option would you prefer to be building rail or roads?
I have to balance the needs of motorists with the needs of public transport commuters, and also encourage motorists to use public transport. That is why we are building motorways at the same time as building rail lines and purchasing new rolling stock and upgrading stations and building new bus-only freeways out in western Sydney. So I have got a very large constituency that includes people who do use public transport and who would like to use public transport if it was improved and made more accessible, but there is a large freight industry and a large number of people who have no option but to use their own vehicles to get to work and home again. I am endeavouring to provide the infrastructure for all of those people.
What about more basic issues like environmentally friendly transport like light rail and bicycles? What is your agenda on those?
Light rail - I've put in about $16 million to enable that extension to Lilyfield out near Leichhardt, and that I believe has worked quite well. We are examining whether or not we can extend it into the city after the cross-city tunnel is built, or further out to Leichhardt itself.
In terms of the bicycle facilities, I don't think anyone before me has made as strong a commitment to building cycleways in Sydney. And elsewhere in NSW we have introduced the Bike Plan 2010, which is a $250 million commitment for cycleways all across the State, with very strong emphasis in Sydney, and in particular, western Sydney. I'll give you an example: wherever the 90km of bus-only freeways are being built on our transitways, we'll also have off-road cycleways. When that is completed in 10 years, we will have 90km of cycleway, and I think that is pretty good.
You look around some of the big cities in Europe and they actually close the city off to private vehicles. There is just public transport, bikes and taxis. Can you ever see the day when Sydney would have that sort of policy?
I can't see that happening yet, but that may well be a possibility for a future government along way down the track to have a look at. I think at this stage we need to encourage as much as possible, the use of public transport into the CBD, bearing in mind we also have a tolling system, as in the M5 the Eastern Distributor and the M2, so that if people are accessing the city by road they have to pay for it. If they want to use the cross-city tunnel when it is opened they will have to be paying for it, and that is certainly an encouragement to use public transport. But as for any more aggressive forms of discouraging the use of cars in the city, certainly we are not actively considering those options.
Internationally at the moment there is a debate about how you encourage a reduction in greenhouse emissions and carbon trading looks like it is going to be coming around the corner fairly quickly. Has your Department, or you personally, looked into how this can play in with public transport at this stage?
Well, I believe in a much smaller role, in terms of that very large picture which the Federal Government is primarily concerned about, and to a lesser extent, State governments - my own portfolio has a role in terms of encouraging the improvement of emission standards for vehicles, which is about changing the design of vehicles so that they take cleaner fuel. Which the Federal Government has of course adopted so over the next few years we will get cleaner fuel and better emission standards - and combined with the encouragement and building of new public transport.
I guess what I am driving at is have you any thought about how you could make a buck out of building public transport through the carbon trading regime?
I'm not aware of that. That would be other parts of the government encouraging that. I believe my role is to work on those aims of improving emission standards of vehicles and encouraging the use of public transport.
Finally you are one of the names that come up when people talk of future Premiers. Is it something you actually think about on a day-to-day basis?
I have to say, I have worked for Bob Carr for ten and a half years now, and it has been an absolute pleasure and a very significant learning experience in watching how well he operates. He is completely dominant in Parliament and I believe he will be around for a very long time.
So, you don't even think about putting your hand up when the time comes?
It is just not on my agenda. I think Bob Carr is going to be around for many, many years to come and I have found it very rewarding working with him and I look forward to the privilege of working for him for many years to come.
Interview: Back on Track
After blowing the whistle on rail privatization, NSW Transport Minister Carl Scully is rebuilding bridges with the trade union movement.
Unions: The Problem with Organising
It may be the new mantra, but Brisbane Institute director Peter Botsman argues that organising may be the wrong to go for a movement attempting to attract a new breed of workers.
International: Burma: Workers Act on ILO Ruling
Energy workers' trade unions across the Asia-Pacific have urged Western oil and gas companies to "cease investment in Burma while the use of forced labour continues".
Economics: Rethinking Incomes Policy
While many have thrown incomes policy out with the Acoord bathwater, Graham White argues it still has a role to play.
History: What Goes Around Comes Around
Labor Council's Mark Lennon argues that while trade unions - and labour history - might be unfashionable, there's life left in both of them.
Education: Peas in a Pod
Both sides of politics must take blame for funding levels in our public schools, argues NSW Teachers Federation president Sue Simpson.
Satire: Hurley Rebukes Actors' Guild: I'm No Actor!
Liz Hurley has responded angrily to claims by actors that she crossed a picket line by filming an Estee Lauder ad.
Review: It's Only a Job
In a stunning new book, author Phil Thornton and photographer Paul Jones have combined to portray working life in all its diversity through the eyes of ordinary people like process worker Sharonak Shannon
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005