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IT was supposed to be an announcement that heralded the Brumby government's transport credentials just five months out from an election, to remind voters of its plans to ease inner-city congestion on roads and trains.
A $4.3 billion regional train line that ran through the western suburbs, a $4.5bn proposal for extra city stations and a $2.8bn plan for a tunnel for truck traffic in the west.
Despite the bulk of the announcements previously mooted or awaiting the funding green light from the federal government, it should have been a good news story for Labor.
But what happened this week will no doubt go down as one of the worst examples of public relations management by a government and its team of spinners.
Instead of getting positive coverage about its updated public transport plans -- accompanied by spiffy graphics provided by the government -- the nightly television news programs were dominated by emotive images of elderly couples crying and mothers with babies on their hips saying the government had treated them appallingly.
So, what went so catastrophically wrong and caused this PR disaster?
To put it bluntly, an election-driven Brumby government wanted to control its message to the media so badly that it backfired spectacularly.
It should have told the residents in the 26 houses along the regional rail link that their homes would be compulsorily acquired long before any announcement: a month before, a week before, even the day before.
But it did not. Instead, it decided to do it "concurrently". The only logical explanation for this delay was to stop any distraught resident potentially ringing up talkback radio or going to a newspaper about their woes. This would destroy any chance the government had at a positive story on the regional rail link. Why else would it wait?
So on Monday, Premier John Brumby told a couple of hundred key stakeholders, industry leaders, transport companies and the media at a nice lunch at a Federation Square function centre.
At the same time, staff from the Department of Transport -- reputedly dressed in black -- were supposed to be knocking on doors and letting residents know of the fate of their homes.
Yet it seems everything did not go according to plan and there was a communication breakdown with ministers, department officials and the spinners.
As soon as the media found out about the exact train route, reporters dispatched colleagues to try and get reaction from affected residents. Journalists were even assisted to the exact whereabouts of the houses by media advisers happy to help (who later went into panic mode and desperately tried to convince reporters to hold off).
Unfortunately for the residents -- but much more so for the government -- some of those affected had not been formally notified before being quizzed by reporters. Hence the tears.
"I've lived here all my life. I came here from the hospital after I was born," said one distraught resident, Norma Dunn, who had lived in the same house in Buckley St, Footscray, for 65 years.
Dunn, who shares her home with her husband Graeme, told journalists hours after the announcement they did not know what was happening to their home. She had received a phone call only the night before saying Department of Transport officials were going to visit the next day. The media beat them to it.
"We haven't been told what is going to happen," Dunn said. "It's not about the money. I haven't got a lot, but that's not the main thing for me."
So a positive news story turned into bad headlines and talkback radio diatribe about Brumby schmoozing "fat cats" at an expensive lunch while not even bothering to tell the poor elderly couple in Footscray that they would be losing their house.
The next day, the politicians and their respective spin doctors went on the defensive.
Brumby repeatedly told reporters that he was told all efforts were made to contact residents. He even attacked the media, saying journalists had to consider their own role in the mess.
"Every effort was made to contact those people," he said, after being drilled on the topic. "It's not always possible to make that instantaneous contact."
It did not help the situation when his colleague, Transport Minister Martin Pakula, appeared to contradict him on the issue by declaring that some departmental officers did not make it to households because they got scared by the waiting media.
"I think if we were going to have our time over, the regional rail link team would have been there [in Buckley St, Footscray] slightly earlier in the day," he said. "It was certainly not the intention that anyone would find out from the media. It is not the way I wanted it. It is a matter of some regret."
Both ministers refused to apologise to distressed and confused residents.
But 48 hours on, Brumby finally relented.
"I'm sorry that those people weren't contacted, they should have been," he said.
"Obviously it could have been done better."
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