There are two big goes at public private partnership in the Sydney papers this morning.

“The public has become suspicious about public-private partnerships,” Anne Davies writes in the Herald. And the Telegraph devotes an editorial to the topic:

Want to buy the Sydney Harbour Bridge? The question, used to sort out gullible blow-ins, has been part of this city’s larrikin streak for generations.

But as The Daily Telegraph reveals today, a private consortium really did buy our prized Harbour Bridge with an extraordinary secret deal in 1997. And it was the State Government that was gullible.

BridgeClimb paid nothing up front in 1997 for exclusive rights to operate guided tours and it is now a business that in 2003-04 generated $40.9 million in revenue. Pre-tax profits for shareholders amounted to $16.03 million.

Taxpayers, however, got only $2.1 million, not even covering the Bridge’s maintenance bills.

The deal was so advantageous that BridgeClimb does not want anyone knowing the details. It blocked this newspaper from the detail under the Freedom of Information Act for 18 months.

At least the Tele carries an answer: “As with the Cross City Tunnel mire, the deal again reveals serious flaws in public-private partnerships. Government bureaucrats just can’t match the deal-making savvy of their private sector counterparts, and the taxpayers get done over.”

That’s the problem. So fix it. After all, voters and taxpayers want infrastructure – be it roads, schools, hospitals and police stations – and PPPs can deliver. Just look at the UK.

“Revelations that alternative routes were closed to make deals such as the Cross City Tunnel work have put these projects under the spotlight as well,” Davies writes. “Just what are the trade-offs involved?

“The NSW Government has patted itself on the back for ensuring the financial risk of the project was moved entirely to its private-sector partner. But what the Cross City Tunnel deal showed was that when the private sector shoulders the financial risk, it, quite sensibly, wants other security…

“The state Government will now find much more resistance from the public, the unions and within its own ranks to public-private partnerships.

“And that’s bad news for Costa, now Finance Minister, and Iemma, the Premier and Treasurer, as they work away at whittling down NSW’s budget deficit.”

Not necessarily. In a past life, I worked for Baulderstone Hornibrook, one of the developers of the Cross City Tunnel.

I’ve seen potential PPPs that offered benefits to governments and taxpayers – and the economy – from the public and private sector sides. And I’ve seen most of them fall over because they either trod on the territory of powerful government departments or because bureaucracies lacked the brainpower to handle them.

So does this mean that governments should forget about getting infrastructure earlier, and with someone else footing the bill? Only if you support Sir Humphrey logic.

Governments need to get smart about PPPs – in every sense.