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If you're looking for an insight into why Tony Abbott is so adamant the Commonwealth should stick to its knitting and fund road not commuter rail projects, refer to his 2009 book, Battlelines.
Abbott's suggestion – that we should deal with such problems by building ever more roads to accommodate ever more cars – belongs to another era.
This is what he says about why we need roads: "Mostly, there just aren't enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads."
This is what he says about cars: "The humblest person is king in his own car. Drivers choose the destination, the route, the time of departure, the music that's played and whether to have company. Women, especially tend to value the sense of security that a car can give."
This is what he says about the way motorists have been treated by politicians: "For too long, policy makers have ranked motorists just above heavy drinkers or smokers as social pariahs."
And this is what he says about public transport: "In Australia's big cities, public transport is generally slow, expensive, not especially reliable and still a hideous drain on the public purse. Part of the problem is inefficient, overmanned, union-dominated, government-run train and bus systems."
Abbott appears to be suggesting that public transport in Australian cities is so unaccommodating, so inefficient, so intimidating for women, it is not worth pursuing as a goal for the federal government. On the other hand, he appears to believe motorists have been mistreated and ostracised by our politicians.
Hence his April 2013 claim that the Commonwealth should "stick to our knitting" and focus on road funding. Such generalisations would be laughable were the ramifications not so serious. Since Abbott wrote Battlelines, the population of Melbourne has grown by almost 400,000, with the city swelling by an average of about 1200 people each week.
Abbott's suggestion – that we should deal with such problems by building ever more roads to accommodate ever more cars – belongs to another era. So does the notion that building roads produces bigger political gains than public transport. Roads may be part of the solution, but they are far from the only solution. Political parties that put all their eggs in the road basket do so at their own peril.
The former Napthine government learned this the hard way, and was forced to play catch-up in the lead-up to the 2014 election with a series of taxpayer-funded stunts that included handing out mock "tickets" for a rail link to the airport that may or may not have been finished in 2026.
Public transport is now a mainstream political issue. It is retail politics at its most basic. It has little to do with the ability to choose your own music, or feeling like a king behind the wheel, or (for women) a sense of security, or choosing your own route. It is simply about the most efficient way to get to work or home.
According to Public Transport Victoria, there has been an unprecedented 70 per cent jump in train patronage in the past decade. Modelling undertaken by PTV in late 2012 underscores the future challenge: annual patronage across train, tram and bus services is expected to hit 1 billion trips by 2031. The number of people boarding trains on an average weekday is expected to more than double to 1.7 million passengers per day by 2031. Scary stuff when you think about it.
If there was ever a promise that Abbott should break, it is his refusal to fund urban rail projects. If Abbott were to admit he got it wrong, that his thinking has matured in recent years, I think it might go some way towards re-engaging with the voters in the middle who Abbott has comprehensively lost.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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