The New South Wales transport minister, David Elliott, has warned that industrial action that has crippled Sydney’s rail network could continue for another six months under a “worst-case scenario”.
Appearing before a budget estimates hearing on Friday, Elliott also conceded there was “no way in the world” the government would meet a commitment made by his predecessor, Andrew Constance, to replace the state’s entire bus fleet with electric vehicles by 2030.
In 2020, Constance set an “aspirational target” of replacing Sydney’s fleet of 8,000 buses with electric vehicles by 2030. About 100 such vehicles have been delivered, with another 200 due next year.
On Friday transport department officials described the commitment as a “challenge” set down by the former minister, which was unlikely to be met.
A business case for the full electrification of the bus fleet is yet to be completed, and is not due until November.
“There’s no way in the world we’re going to meet that timetable, so I don’t know why he said it,” Elliott told the hearing in response to questions from Labor’s John Graham.
“I’m not committing to the timeframe my predecessor offered up because [from] where I stand right now that might not be realistic.
“Am I going to defend a song and dance, as you say, I doubt it.”
Amid months of industrial strife which has seen Sydney’s rail network beset by delays and cancelled services, Elliott also struck a hopeful tone on Friday.
He said he was due to meet with the head of the NSW Rail, Tram and Bus Union, Alex Claassens, next Wednesday and hoped a resolution could be reached.
Elliott said a “best-case scenario” would see the dispute wrapped up within days, but that depended on the union agreeing to bargain “in good faith”.
“We will be having some further intense negotiations related to [the enterprise agreement] next week and I’m hoping Alex Claassens and I can sit down and thrash out any outstanding matters,” he told the hearing.
Elliott has publicly clashed with colleagues during the union negotiations, including the treasurer, Matt Kean, and industrial relations minister, Damien Tudehope, who in May said the government would not bow to the union’s demands to make changes to the new inner-city fleet of trains. Rail workers have refused to operate those trains due to safety concerns.
“It’s very hard for me to look [the unions] in the eye and expect them to believe me after I had the rug pulled out from under my feet last time, but that’s what you get when you send a boy in to do a man’s job,” Elliott told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this month.
The government this week handed over a deed committing to changes for which the union has demanded.
The union has so far refused to cancel industrial action, saying it would consider the deed before making any commitments.
While Elliott has baulked at tearing up the industrial agreement, he said he would consider “radical options” if negotiations fail next week.
“The worst-case scenario in my mind? Six months,” he said.
Elliott was conciliatory about the dispute, saying “both sides” were to blame for the protracted negotiations.
“We’ve gone a long way from that [criticism] in a very short time. The government has to concede things haven’t gone well and haven’t gone to plan and haven’t gone in a manner you would like industrial engagement to go,” he said.
But he insisted the union had also been guilty of moving the goalposts during the negotiations.
“The government is not faultless,” he told the inquiry.
“But I’m even more frustrated [that] it appears to me that regularly the goals get moved, the try line gets put back, new claims get put on the table and of course excuses are abundant.”