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If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. This old adage certainly applies to the free-car scheme on offer on the State Government’s Bass Strait ferries. Sadly, the Bring Your Car for Free promotion is a misnomer.

Ferry operator TT-Line, the Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania, and Tasmanian Liberal Senator Jonno Duniam recently united to declare the $6m free-car subsidy – bankrolled by the Federal Government to help boost Tasmania’s COVID-hit tourism sector – a resounding success.  Granted it’s a success for the State Government’s coffers and the tourism industry, but certainly not the consumer.

In fact, the travelling public is paying at least as much, if not more, than they were to traverse the strait on the Spirit of Tasmania than before the program began.

I raised this issue during the first sitting week of Federal Parliament after being contacted by several irate passengers, including a man who paid $50 less for Bass Strait passage before the Bring Your Car For Free promotion began.

This disgruntled passenger paid about $480 to travel on the Spirit from Melbourne to Devonport with his car on January 30, but $530 for return passage on March 19. He was comparing apples with apples because the return journey was the same passenger fare type and cabin class he booked when he came down.

Yes, the vehicle charge dropped after the March 1 subsidy came into play. But, at the same time, TT-Line jacked up the passenger and cabin fares so it cost this individual more to sail with a car than it did before the promotion. After sharing his story, my office received numerous additional complaints.

While Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack agreed to investigate if the subsidy was just a mean-spirited con, he handballed the promised probe to the Tasmanian Government – thereby asking TT-Line, a government business enterprise, to investigate itself. Really?

I won’t hold my breath for the outcome. These allegations deserve an independent review. We are, after all, talking about $6m in federal funds and the recovery of the Tasmanian tourism industry. Pleasingly the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is now looking into the matter after I alerted the watchdog. Somebody has to look out for the consumer.

TT-Line’s ludicrous explanation is the stimulus funding increased demand for tickets so it raised prices – a practice known as “yield adjustment” – even though the whole point of the $6m was surely to make crossing the Strait cheaper and therefore more attractive to locals and tourists alike.

This situation is patently ridiculous. One like-minded Mercury letter writer recently suggested other businesses might consider adopting a yield-adjustment price for their own commercial advantage. He mused that mechanics should perhaps adjust their standard car service price from $300 to $650 when things get busy. The motoring public would soon take their business elsewhere and who could blame them? There is, however, no alternative to cross the Bass Strait with a car, motorbike or campervan.

I’ll continue to agitate for cheaper and more accessible travel for Tasmanians, in particular on the Bass Strait ferries. The ferries are an essential service which should be as affordable as possible, not cash cows for a greedy government. The pricing structure needs to be much more transparent. TT-Line would do well to remember the customer is always right.  And in this case the customer has seen through this sleight of hand and witnessed the $6m subsidy that was meant to deliver cheaper travel instead end up in the pockets of the TT-Line and the State Government.