The role of a party in opposition is not just to oppose, it’s to offer the voters an alternative. Yes, there is a part to be played as a watchdog, to scrutinise the government’s actions, to keep it on it’s toes… and it’s ok to score a few points from time to time.
Why then am I getting the sense that we in Fianna Fáil are opposed to the privatisation of Dublin Bus routes for no other reason than the current government is in favour.
Fianna Fáil, when in power, has never shied away from privatising a state company when the conditions have been right to do so and there has been a benefit to Irish people.
Privatisations in the past have brought much needed investment into tired state companies, the private sector rationalisation of bloated semi states has delivered the essential modernisation that has enabled former state companies to not only compete but also to thrive.
The world is changing and the need for the government to be directly involved in certain sectors and businesses is diminishing. As our society and economy move forward there is an onus on the powers that be to take stock from time to time and to consider what areas of the economy require direct government involvement and what areas no longer do so.
Whatever the case for privatising Irish Water’s operating company, it is clear that we do not privatise the water infrastructure because this is a strategic asset and must remain under the secure control of government.
On a daily basis hundreds of thousands of people in the nation’s capital city rely on Dublin Bus to transport them about their lives. Although many other modes of transport are available, the city would suffer badly were it not for the public bus network. Does this therefore make Dublin Bus a strategic asset that must be protected in public ownership? It is strategic, that much is true, but the risk to a loss of service is minimal and the process of restoring service in an emergency is comparatively easier than replacing the water infrastructure.
On the contrary, the privatisation of Dublin Bus routes would bring clear benefits to the traveling public as well as to the tax payer.
Take an existing Dublin Bus route, the No. 17 for example, a route that for years brought me to school and back, and later to college, as it does for many many commuters today. The No. 17 is one of the routes that the government is putting up for tender in this first round of privatisation.
As it stands this service is reasonably reliable, the fleet is clean and modern, the frequency of service, while adequate, could be higher and the fare is moderate but not cheap. An outside operator hoping to win the right to run this bus route must be willing to demonstrate that either it can A) provide an equivalent service for a lower state subvention or B) provide a better (cheaper / more reliable / more frequent) service for the same state subvention. In this scenario either the tax payer, the customer or both experiences a benefit.
Metrics such as on time statistics, number of customer complaints, passenger safety, fare, and frequency can be monitored, should these deviate from pre-agreed levels then the contract lapses and the state takes back the bus route and restores the original service.
The point is that privatisation of bus routes will, on a good day, save the tax payer money and improve the experience of bus users. On a bad day however the privatisation of bus routes will leave us no worse off than before.
Fianna Fáil’s opportunity here is not to blindly oppose the government’s efforts, rather it is to admit that the time is right to once again attempt to privatise Dublin Bus routes, after all it was Fianna Fáil that originally proposed this.
Fianna Fáil can best serve the Irish people in this situation by firstly acknowledging the fact that it’s original idea to privatise bus routes had merit and value. And then, to get on with the business of questioning the government every step of the way to ensure that the tender process is fair, that the correct safe guards are built into the contracts awarded, that neither Dublin Bus or new operator employees are disadvantaged and that the government remains bona fide and transparent throughout the process.