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Tasmania: Private ferry service shambles

November 19, 2011
Saturday, October 31, 2009 – 11:00
By Tim Dobson, Hobart

The Tasmanian ALP government is facing another political crisis stemming from its pro-business politics. This time it is over the contract it signed with shipping operator Southern Shipping to provide a 50 kilometre ferry service between the Bass Strait islands and Bridport, on the Tasmanian mainland.

The government pays the company $234,396 a year to provide a once-a-week service to the Flinders Island port-town Lady Barron and a monthly service to nearby Cape Barren Island.

The ferry service transports people, but is also crucial for the export and import of goods to and from the islands. The October 18 Hobart Mercury said the ferry service “carries between 50,000 and 60,000 tonnes of pine logs, livestock and perishable goods each year”.

Over the past few weeks, the folly of contracting out such an essential service to a private company has become clear.

On October 2, TasPorts, the state government-owned company that manages ports in Tasmania, locked one of the Southern Shipping ferries, the Matthew Flinders, out of the Lady Barron port.

It suspended the ship’s licence due to the company’s failure to pay its monthly fees.

TasPorts chief operations officer David Phillips told the Mercury non-payment had been a consistent problem. “There has been a pattern of non-payment over the past three years, and Southern Shipping often only makes a payment after TasPorts suspends its licence to use our port facilities”, he said.

ABC Online reported on October 2 that the company was listed in the Tasmanian Collection Services Gazette for debts of more than $75,000 owed to five companies.

After the monthly fees were paid, the Matthew Flinders was allowed to moor. But on October 9, its crew went on strike over underpaid wages and safety concerns. The non-unionised workers said they were owed wages totalling $30,000.

The strike continued until October 14, when the government ordered police to serve the Matthew Flinders captain an interim restraining order to force him to leave the ship.

The strike ended after Southern Shipping managing director Geoffrey Gabriel promised to pay the wages owed. A new crew was later hired and the Fair Work Ombudsman announced it would investigate the company.

After more than a week without a ferry delivery, the island’s 800 people were in danger of running out of fresh food. The government eventually employed another shipping company to bring emergency supplies to the island.

There have been questions over the company’s solvency, many complaints about Southern Shipping’s service from Flinders Island residents, safety concerns with the company’s ferries raised by Marine and Safety Tasmania, and even an October 15 admission from infrastructure minister Graham Sturges that Southern Shipping may have broken its contractual obligations. Yet it is likely to remain the ferry operator until the contract expires in 18 months. This puts the livelihoods of the island’s residents under a cloud.

Tasmanian Greens MP Kim Booth told Green Left Weekly the state government and Sturges were to blame for the crisis.

“They have failed to ensure there was an adequate service and haven’t monitored the contract properly”, he said. “They have failed to listen to what the community is saying and have ignored the problem until it has become a crisis.”

He said the “absolute overwhelming view” of the people on the island is “they want nothing at all to do with Southern Shipping”.

Flinders Island mayor Carol Cox told the October 3 Mercury: “We have been speaking to the government for months because we don’t think the service is meeting our needs.”

Booth said an alternative would be “island community control of the service … There should be a meeting of minds to decide what level of service is appropriate and the best way of delivering it.

“That will probably mean there will need to be some form of co-operative or some form of enterprise set up, that has got representatives from the island council and other stakeholders … as well as the government to be able to form an appropriate business model for it to be run under. But it seems it needs to be under local control, at the very least.”

Community control over the ferry service by Flinders Island residents would be a welcome and necessary change. A first step to achieve this must be for the government to cancel the Southern Shipping contract and commit to running a publicly owned Bass Strait ferry service.

From GLW issue 816

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