This week’s decision by the ACT Government to call tenders for the operation of Canberra’s buses was as opportunistic as it was predictable. A full-on industrial dispute at election time, albeit a federal election, never did the liberal party any harm. But to take on “the bullies” of the Transport Workers Union must also be seen as a sound political strategy by the ACT Liberals, who have their own immediate pressures.

So much for the opportunism. If you will pardon the expression, blind Freddy could have seen something like this coming. With no claim to the status of prophet, I wrote in this newspaper on Sunday 6 September “to continue as it (ACTION) is, threatens not only any semblance of an effective public transport service for Canberra, but the future jobs of many of the people who will meet on Tuesday”. Those who met on Tuesday voted not to accept a new enterprise bargaining agreement, apparently against the best advice of their union secretary Trevor Santi.

He assured us that he had counseled that rejection of the EBA was likely to force the Government’s hand to tender Canberra’s bus services. He was correct. Advertisements are appearing in newspapers around Australia today, seeking expressions of interest in running Canberra’s buses.

Other Australian cities are already well down this track and began the journey without their bus drivers being paid as well as the current ACTION crew.

At nearly $20 an hour, Canberra’s drivers are arguably the best paid and among the least productive public bus drivers in Australia. That position has been achieved not only because of their arduous working conditions, or because of Canberra’s heavy dependence on public transport. ACTION drivers’ relatively high wages and other benefits owe more to the fact that until the introduction of ACT self government, their periodic wage claims were approved by federal cabinet.

With its far loftier considerations, and with the relatively small dent on the national budget, resolving Canberra bus drivers’ pay claims did not merit significant consideration from cabinet. Therefore, with few exceptions, claims were met without major debate so cabinet could move to more important business. It has also been suggested that some Commonwealth car drivers proved to be good lobbyists when transporting their political masters.

Wages, it seems, are not at the heart of the present dispute. Rather it is the requirement that the new drivers accept that they can be asked to work split shifts. That is, several hours during the morning and afternoon peaks, with time off during the day.

There are good reasons why drivers would not want to work under such conditions, but transport operators respond that there is little point having idle staff when they are not required. The work needs to be done by combination of casual, full time and split shift drivers.

The practice has been generally, if reluctantly, accepted in other major Australian cities and indeed ACTION drivers agreed to the introduction of limited split shifts last December.

Most people with experience of public transport in other cities acknowledge that Canberra’s bus drivers are among the best. With few exceptions, they are courteous and often make considerable efforts to assist passengers. In general, one does not assume them to be naive, and the result of the looming industrial skirmish might show they are not. But if the Government is serious about calling tenders, and is not simply using that as a means of gaining acceptance of this week’s EBA, Canberra’s bus drivers are in a weak negotiating position. Their wages and demonstrable low productivity can easily be undercut by operators experienced in meeting tight budgets.

While the TWU can threaten, and indeed use, considerable industrial muscle, the $1 million per week subsidy for a poorly patronised service will ultimately erode public support for drivers.

Even if the immediate crisis passes, perhaps with a successful approach to the Industrial Relations Commission by the union, the need for major reform in ACTION will not.

Story by: Graham Downie
Source: The Canberra Times, Saturday 12 September 1998 Page C5

This page was last updated on 12 September 1998

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