Annual Reports are issued as late as possible, and contain a level of information that would prompt a `please explain – you haven’t told us anything’ from the regulatory authorities for a listed company.  Responses to scrutiny committee questions are vague, or taken on notice.  Even a small army of minders often can’t provide a response to seemingly straightforward questions.


Any probing question is invariably met by a response involving terms like `commercial-in-confidence’, `we expect an improvement next year’, or `you can’t compare us to businesses in the private sector.’

The most obvious impression is that the senior management club is some sort of sheltered workshop for failed, or in some cases hopeful Labor Party candidates.

In short, for many years, our Government Businesses Enterprises have not only performed badly, but they’ve treated their ultimate owners with contempt.

This year is different.

Forestry Tasmania, arguably the most controversial of the State-owned companies, took the unprecedented step of releasing some of its 2009 numbers early.  Bob Gordon said he hadn’t waited until November to announce some rubbery figures, in order `to destroy some of the myths surrounding the business.’

Jarvis isn’t quite sure what myths Bob is referring to or whether they’ve been even slightly destroyed, but that’s another story.

Hours later, Hydro Tasmania issued a press release seemingly issued from the same school of economic thought: Mercury: Hydro back in the black

So I got to thinking, why?  Is this the dawn of new era of transparent disclosure by our State-owned assets?  Or has someone in Government looked back fondly at their TAFE days, and decided to give the old `feedback sandwich’ theory a run?

Most readers will be familiar with, and may even have victims of the `feedback sandwich.’

It goes something like this:

`Sonia, thanks for coming to your feedback session today.  To start with, I’d like to thank you for the great work you did on the Smith project.  It was appreciated by all.  Just remember to keep an eye on your spelling, and don’t forget that office hours are 9am to 5pm, not 2pm until just before 3pm.  Finally, it’s great to see that you’ve cleaned up your workstation.  A tidy desk is the sign of a tidy mind.’

Sonia is intended to leave her feedback session with a warm, fuzzy glow;  not left with any lingering concerns about the fact she can’t spell, and the impact of her tardy work attendance on her employment prospects.  It truly is a wonderful, feel-good HR technique in some instances.

That’s why I suspect someone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.  After the Forestry Tasmania and Hydro softener, the next stage is likely to be the dumping of some really bad news on the Tasmanian taxpayer, followed by something nice, just to ensure everybody is happy again.

Labor has given us a decade of dodgy economic decisions, any one of which has the potential to derail Bartlett & Co’s re-election prospects.  But in the long run, possibly the most damaging might be the ongoing saga of the Bass Strait ferries.

True, we longer have the anchor of the Sydney boat, which at one stage looked like bankrupting TT Line.  But we still have two Melbourne ferries, which not only don’t pay their own way, but look increasingly like a disaster waiting to unfold.

The TT Line Board doesn’t have much room to move financially.  They’ve tried to lift revenue – not an easy task in the middle of a global economic crisis.  The only option left is to cut costs, again, a difficult ask.

Jarvis tries to avoid travelling across Bass Strait by boat.  The behaviour of drunken footy fans on a number of recent voyages was nearly, but not quite as unpalatable as the suite of food and beverage options on the vessel.  Even worse is being treated to the sight of dozens of grown men wearing Hawthorn Football Club apparel, sleeping off their indulgences on any available horizontal surface oblivious to the odour and appearance of the dried vomit all over their striped jerseys. 

It’s not a pleasant picture, but a fair image of the demographic currently using TT Line’s services.  Grey Nomads, budget family travellers and footy fans.  Plus anyone forced to bring their own vessel in or out of Tasmania.  Anyone else will use the cheaper, faster and vastly more efficient airlines.

As such, I expect TT Line’s result, and forward outlook if one is offered, will be a disaster.  There’s even the chance one of the boats will need to be sold.  That isn’t going to be great PR for the government, but if the business is going to have any chance of being sustainable, then having one well-patronised service is better than having two ferries, each costing the taxpayer a bundle every time they cross the Strait with just a handful of paying passengers.

The final bite of this shit sandwich remains a mystery.  Perhaps Aurora will declare a windfall profit, partly funded by struggling PAYG households.  Airdy might have found a few million in unspent reserves to fund some pre-election handouts.  But Jarvis has a sneaking suspicion an announcement about the sale of TOTE is imminent, for a price big enough to bribe a fair proportion of the 20 per cent undecided vote

Which creates one further question – who is the buyer?  One thing is likely –  if turns out to be Federal Group,  an increasingly cynical electorate will give Bartlett & Co plenty of time in opposition to contemplate the benefits of open and honest government.

JARVIS COCKER
As anyone who has looked at the Hansard record of scrutiny hearings of our Government Business Enterprises will attest, reading the annual obfuscatory bleatings from a handful of highly-paid public servants is somewhat repetitive.