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There is a hierarchy of interest groups that governments of all stripes seek to keep happy with favourable decisions and budget support. Those advocating for public transport network and service upgrades of the type discussed here sit near the bottom of the pile for influence and success. Whether they are inside or outside government their voices are weak where it matters with few of their ideas getting budgetary support. The failure of public transport service advocacyThink I'm being harsh? Sorry but the numbers are against you. Public transport service per capita in Melbourne has been falling for the better part of a decade. This has made proximity to frequent service, and even any sort of service at all, rarer for the average homebuyer, particularly in outer areas. The same goes for access to jobs, with the current network unsuitable for anything but the increasingly rare CBD nine to five. Had service merely tracked population growth, we would today have double the number of SmartBus routes and/or vastly improved outer suburban coverage. Infrastructure is where the transport progress is here, not service. What about Sydney? Their Liberal-National coalition government is killing it on the service side. Rolling out new bus networks with 1000 (inner-west) or 2000 (northern beaches) more weekly trips is regular business for them. The result of these gains is simpler routes with service every 10 to 15 minutes seven days per week. These are part of a bigger plan to add the 14 000 extra bus services per week promised at the 2019 election. In contrast we in Melbourne rejoice if an area's bus network gets 50 more services a week and some minor tinkering to routes. And we can have a habit of frittering the few extra resources for bus services we get on quiet routes almost no one uses (like the 704 upgraded in May). The last upgrades of Sydney's scale we had were 10 years ago (under John Brumby) despite Melbourne's population growth since being faster. The issue is not how much or how little money the government has. It's more how it spends what it has and the priorities chosen. Public transport infrastructure is heavily in. Public transport service is mostly out. The success of fishing and boating advocacySomething else that's been in is fishing and boating. These are under the same department, and for a while the same minister, as public transport. The Department's strategic plan released last year gave a prominent role for fishing. It even included a participation target for fishing but not a usage target for public (or active) transport. In that spirit was devised the Fishing Useful Network which showed how we could justify improved trains and buses in bayside and coastal areas as a means of aiding fishing participation. Public transport advocates need to ask themselves how boating and fishing (both heavily recreational activities) got to become higher political priorities than bus services (key for getting to school and work). Especially under a Labor government, where expectations for any service with 'public' in them may be higher, yet a Liberal government in another state is clearly outclassing us. Part of it is politics and how Labor wishes to position itself. Another part may be to do with the effectiveness of fishing and boating advocates. Transport service advocates have limited ability to influence a party's broader strategy. But they may be able to learn from those who have won bipartisan support for their ideas. I'll discuss both. The politics of fishing and boatingFirstly the politics. Labor's electoral heartland is in Melbourne's multicultural and industrial north and west. There's two problems for Labor here. Firstly winning these seats alone is insufficient to form government. Secondly manufacturing employment has fallen with a shift to less stable and less unionised service sector work. Even though good for Labor elsewhere, the 2018 election saw it win a low primary vote in parts of Melbourne's west, especially where the member was seen to have taken the seat for granted or rorted allowances (eg Werribee and Melton areas). To narrowly win government, such as happened in 2014, Labor needs more regional city seats plus marginals in the south-east, mostly along the Frankston line. A big majority, such as achieved in 2018, requires inroads into Liberal's eastern suburbs heartland on the Ringwood and Glen Waverley lines. These areas only occasionally turn red. Inner-suburban battles are mostly with the Greens, although there are sometimes three-cornered 'anyone can win' contests such as Prahran. Greens will always preference Labor over Liberal. And there's fewer inner area seats than middle and outer seats. The middle and outer must be won to win the state. These factors determine whether state Labor positions itself leftward or rightward (or a mix involving social and economic policies).Outer and regional areas view Greens as godless urban elite jobs killing vegans soft on drugs and boat people. Greens are widely regarded as extremists. Labor is only electable if it is not seen as being too close to them. Thus we are nearer Tasmania (with significant timber and rural elements) than the generally urban and wealthier ACT, where Labor and Greens together can retain broad support.
Labor knows this. Even though some of their people are urban middle class types with backgrounds not dissimilar to many Greens, their political hard-heads take every opportunity to differentiate themselves from those they disparage as the elite GreensPOLITICALparty.
Even (especially?) on sporting and cultural matters. Hence the populism over the Grand Final Friday public holiday, John Eren's legalisation of cage fighing and refusing to ban duck shooting. Along with targeting tradies with free TAFE and big infrastructure builds. Their MPs may also take the populist line on parking policies if local councils dare to recognise reality that restrictions are needed for everyone to get a fair go. Then there's fishing and boating. Rod fishing is pretty much classless (though better off often live nearer water) while boating has a skew towards middle and higher earners. Supporting these tick several boxes for state Labor. For example marginal seats like along the bay, with yacht clubs every few kilometres, and a higher representation of boat owners would likely react favourably. As would the outdoor-oriented bush bashing and shooters crowd. Retaining (but saying as little as possible on) duck hunting and strong pro-fishing policies is a way of reaching these people without opening the season on divisive gun debates (which could lose votes elsewhere). Fishing is wholesome, respectable and broadly accessible. Boats have supplanted the now unremarkable second car as a status symbol in many suburban neighbourhoods. Labor supporting them is basically a way to acknowledge that "We know you've worked hard for your large suburban home and boat. Unlike the sneering Greens (who go on about McMansions, stolen land and identity stuff) we recognise the legitimacy of who you are, what you have and what you enjoy". That position moves Labor nearer the Coalition parties than the Greensparty. Then political debate can shift to areas where Labor sees as its strengths, eg TAFE education, infrastructure, jobs and health. This is how I think Labor seeks to position itself in areas it needs to win. Explicit policies appealing to fishers and boaters are part of this appeal. These neither cost much money nor puts off inner city voters. Meanwhile the Coalition parties needed something to counter Labor's popular infrastructure projects since their single recent term appears a forgettable interregnum to many. And they needed to rebuild public trust, especially amongst parts of the electorate concerned about health, jobs and education. Both Labor and the Coalition had political problems going into the 2018 election. An interest group was successfully able to offer both parties politically acceptable solutions that could appeal to nearly two hundred thousand people, by no means all politically engaged, with some in key seats. That's what I'll discuss next. The Ramp Ragers successWhen a pressure group wants a better deal they typically set up website and get on social media to generate awareness and hopefully policy change. Activity typically starts several months before the election. After the election the page either becomes a zombie website or is closed down. Ramp Rage can happen when lots of boaties jostle over the few launching ramps available with some taking more time than they should. It can sour an otherwise nice day. It's most likely around our major metropolitan and country waterways on warm weekends or public holidays. The boating industry had a simple message: The government was collecting $27 million in recreational boat licence fees but returning just $3m on public boat ramps. And the service they got from existing infrastructure was substandard. Like every other interest group they wanted more give and less take from government. Before the 2018 election they set up a website, a Facebook page and YouTube. The Boating Industry Association got on board and there was favourable media coverage. Assisted by support from high profile TV celebrities like Rex Hunt. The audience was 193 000 registered boat owners, their family and friends. That could swing things in marginal seats. The website was very simple. It had the above video, a two-sentence message, details of the worst ramps and instructions on who to contact. It also collected peoples names and email addresses for updates. Unlike a website, which all can see, email updates are only seen by recipients, so can 'fly under the radar'. Ramp Ragers sent a questionnaire/wish list to major political parties. Responses were as good as any interest group could hope for. That is strong bipartisan support for what was requested. Buses, in contrast, did not feature significantly in the 2018 campaign. Labor slowed bus reform to a trickle during its first term and offered nothing new post-election. The Coalition promised $70 million bus funding but the election eve announcement was too vague and too late to have an impact (eg it missed the transport policy scorecards that interest groups and others often compile). The picture was brighter for boating. Both major parties had supportive policies that they promoted heavily. When a leader promised something positive it would go onto the Ramp Rage Facebook page.
Then when something was done it and Minister Pulford (the first ever minister for boating) would be promoted and praised.
Plus the effusive farewell to Minister Pulford and the warm welcome to the incoming Minister Horne after June's reshuffle. The strength of the above campaign is possibly why fishing and boating have continued to be such high priorities for the Department of Transport post-election. Not everything has been done however the campaign, simple as it appears to have been, can be considered a success. What can transport advocates learn? Buses and boat ramps are clearly different things. But there are parallels. The 193 000 registered boat owners is possibly not a dissimilar number to those who would take a bus at least once a month. Better boating makes peoples leisure better. Whereas better buses make their regular days better. And they are the unsung enablers in our transport network. The presence of a useful service can affect whether people take up and remain in a job or educational opportunity, for example. More frequent buses can save people as much if not more time than cutting waits at boat ramps. This time-saving can extend to not only those who catch buses but also those who would otherwise be the parental taxi. Once frequencies improve from every 40 - 60 min to every 15 - 20 min then parents are more likely to insist kids make their own way home from the station. Plus bus services are a massive creator of stable but not expensive to provide permanent jobs, with a high proportion of spending going straight to households through wages and trickling up to benefit the broader economy.As for the campaign, success elements include a very simple request, involvement of well-known people, industry backing and supportive media articles. Both main political groupings took up the message with little prodding. There is a relationship between boating/fishing and tourism (as there also is, to some extent, with buses). Transport operators may be more limited in what they can publicly advocate than boat shop proprietors due to their franchises or contracts with the government. On the other hand there are industry associations, such as BusVic, that can perform this advocacy and lobbying role (which they were particularly active in about 10 or 15 years ago). Like with fishing and boating, better bus services are the sorts of things any side of politics can do without upsetting their opponents. It's not like tricky social policies that bring out extremists from all sides. Nor does the comparatively modest scale of spending require that parties give up on their pet capital projects. Much like appears to be the general view in NSW, buses are non-ideological basic services (like water and sewage) that people expect governments to do. Melbourne on Transit bookshopFavourably reviewed books about transport and cities. Purchases via these links support this blog and its independent reporting (at no extra cost to you). This item was written by Peter Parker http://www.melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
This article first appeared on melbourneontransit.blogspot.com
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