The Guardian August 22, 2001


Hands off ambulance services

by Anna Pha

The union covering Ambulance Officers in NSW has expressed grave concerns 
about plans to sell off and lease back ambulance stations in metropolitan 
Sydney. In a leaked briefing to senior management and the Board claims are 
made that the Service ran over budget in each of the last six years and 
that the sale of the properties would assist in redressing the financial 
situation.

Michael Williamson, State Secretary of the Health and Research Employees' 
Association of NSW (HREA) said, "it seems to me to be totally false 
economics to suggest that you sell off ambulance stations for the short 
term benefit of being able to pay bills and creditors, and then being stuck 
with the permanent situation of having to constantly outlay money to lease 
the property back. It's a nonsense!

"The truth of the matter is that the Service has invested significant 
amounts in recent years into new technology and into increased staffing 
levels, and both of these investments require increases in funding on a 
recurrent basis.

"If the Ambulance Service has overrun its budget every year for the past 
six years, then clearly something is wrong. Either the funding is being 
mismanaged or the funding is insufficient", said Mr Williamson.

A recent Auditor General's report revealed a number of problems in the 
service. These included lack of improvement in response times, a shortage 
of staff which has resulted in spiralling overtime payments, and problems 
with the accountability and management of the Service.

In particular, there were problems with the performance of the Service's 
new $30 million Computer Aided Dispatch system.

The Service remains 200 short of its optimal staffing level, says the HREA. 
It has also failed to improve the skills of officers to keep pace with 
changes in clinical practice and technology.

As the union points out, selling properties and then leasing them back will 
not improve the financial situation. It will cost more in the long run. Nor 
will it solve the other problems facing the service at present.

The only way to do this is to bring about substantial changes in the 
management of the Service and to adequately fund it.

The NSW Carr Labor Government is hell-bent on a program of sell-offs and 
privatisation.

The NSW Transport Minister is talking about selling off transport property. 
The Education Minister is trying to close and sell off schools on prime 
real estate in Sydney. In the health area the struggle continues against 
hospital closures and sale of property.

Recently The Guardian reported on the findings of the Commonwealth 
Auditor General and the sale and lease back of Commonwealth property which 
will also result in considerable loss of public money.

These sales are part of a broader strategy of Australian governments to 
sell off all public assets bit by bit.

An excuse is found for each sale. We are told that money is needed to repay 
debts or balance the budget, that the property is no longer needed, that 
the property is not economically efficient, etc.

The sales are not as spontaneous or ad hoc as they appear. They are part of 
a commitment made by state and federal governments in an agreement reached 
by the Council of Australian Governments in 1995 under National Competition 
Policy.

What is called "Competitive Neutrality" is a central principle of 
Competition Policy. Its aim is claimed to be the promotion of "effective 
competition between public and private businesses".

"The aim is to ensure that government businesses do not enjoy competitive 
advantages over private competitors simply by virtue of their public 
ownership."

Previously, government enterprises and services offered considerable 
advantages over the private sector.

They did not have to borrow money for property, they did not have to pay 
rent for use of government property, they did not pay many of the taxes 
that businesses pay, they did not have to make a profit, and loans usually 
carried lower interest rates.

It is because of these advantages that the public sector is far more 
efficient, provides cheaper services on a universal basis, even where some 
are not profitable such as in some rural areas. Public ownership is also 
publicly accountability whereas private ownership is only accountable to 
shareholders.

These benefits are all being removed in the name of "Competitive 
Neutrality" and competition.

Universal and publicly owned services are being destroyed through 
privatisation. Privatised services that are profit-driven  often with 
several layers of profits  are less efficient, cost more and only provide 
services where it is profitable to do so.

The contracting out (privatisation) of the dispatch system for Victorian 
ambulances, is a good example. It proved to be disastrous. The computerised 
system and its private management put lives at risk and raised questions of 
corruption.

Governments have committed themselves to charging prices that reflect costs 
in the commercial world. They must now pay all government taxes, commercial 
interest rates on loans and pay rent on publicly owned property or to 
private landlords at market rates as their property is sold off and leased 
back.

They are also expected to make "commercially acceptable returns (meaning 
large profits) on their assets".

But these arguments and obligations imposed on public enterprises are 
merely the cover for privatisation  handing everything over to the 
private sector.

The proposed sale of the Sydney ambulance stations is part of this broader 
policy. It is the forerunner to the complete privatisation of ambulance 
services and will go hand in hand with "reforms" to put the Ambulance 
Service onto a profitable footing by closing stations, raising fees charged 
for services to "full cost recovery" and by cutting services.

The union is fully justified in its fears that ambulance stations may be 
closed down.

The union is calling for appropriate levels of funding for the Service 
rather than selling off the farm for so-called short-term financial relief.

The economic rationalists should not be allowed to put this important and 
vital community service at risk.

The State Government must adequately fund and staff the service, ensuring 
officers are properly trained in the latest skills and technology and that 
fees are kept at an affordable level for those needing ambulance services.

Most important of all the State's Ambulance Service should remain publicly 
owned, publicly managed and run to provide an essential service to the 
community and not for private profit.

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