If Labor is to be the Party of the people, then it should also be the Party of public transport. After all, it makes sense that the Party which champions the rights of people to bargain collectively should also be the party which enables people to travel collectively. The relationship between Labor and public transport, however, has too often been characterised by mutual indifference. For its part, the public transport sector as a whole has failed to engage with either side of politics. So it’s hardly surprising that for the past 50 years investment in rail infrastructure has been dwarfed by investment in roads.
THE BATTLE OF THE LOBBYISTS
A number of factors have combined to make road travel the most important mode of transport in Australia, and in most countries.
The size of the discrepancy, however, should not be so wide.
The failure of governments at both national and state level to invest in rail over several generations now leaves us overly reliant on a single mode. We are exposed to fluctuations in oil prices, and our cities are choked.
The public transport industry likes to complain about the unfairness of this situation, but the industry should really be taking a long hard look at itself and its failure to compete with the road builders.
While the “roads lobby” has organised itself into a powerful, well-drilled advocacy machine, the public transport sector remains fragmented. Its industry organisations are ineffectual, if not completely anonymous. It has failed to enlist the support of its customer base.
A perfect example of the public transport industry’s chronic advocacy failure is the development of the Federal Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).
Public transport should be an important part of the solution to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
A full bus is far more energy efficient than a fleet of private cars. And a full train is more energy efficient again.
By shifting more passengers to public transport we can reduce the number of cars on our roads, and therefore reduce greenhouse pollution.
It’s a simple logic.
But under the CPRS, public transport users will have to pay more, while private motorists will be shielded from any price increases.
Under the CPRS motorists will receive immunity from having to pay for their carbon emissions indefinitely.
Where were the public transport industry lobbyists? We know where the roads lobby were. They were out arguing about the outrageous cost of petrol and the injustice of slugging poor struggling motorists with more taxes.
They were stalking decision-makers in the corridors of power, and mobilising an army of motorist-voters.
The public transport sector has to do better.
TRANSPORT WORKERS TAKING THE LEAD
Public transport workers have tried to fill the void in industry leadership.
The Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) started this process last year by organising a series of Better Transport Forums around NSW to put a spotlight on local transport issues.
We invited speakers from all parts of the community to participate – from local government, business, agriculture, the community sector and environment groups.
The forums were expertly chaired by television personality and rail buff, Scott McGregor.
In Dubbo we had a meat industry magnate sharing a stage with the President of the local chamber of commerce, a bike riding local Councillor and a Greens Senator.
This unlikely scenario was repeated in Tamworth, Byron Bay, Newcastle, Wollongong and Sydney.
Rarely has a union agenda attracted such widespread support. The desire for better public transport, and better rail freight services, is an issue that cuts across the entire community.
As the NSW State election drew nearer, the RTBU continued to lead the public debate around public transport and rail through the development of the Better Transport Charter.
This charter was presented to the transport spokespeople from all parties at our final Better Transport Forum in Sydney prior to the State election.
THE ROLE FOR LABOR
In the end, it was disappointing that transport became a positive for the Coalition and a negative for Labor during the State election campaign.
Despite the best efforts of the Keneally Government in the lead up to the election, the diversion to the Metro – then its cancelling – proved to be an impossible burden for the Party to carry.
The Coalition Government is now taking the credit for Labor projects, like the North West and South West Rail Links.
This situation should never happen again.
Now is the time to rebuild Labor’s credibility on public transport. Through its community engagement and policy process, the RTBU has laid a foundation that the party can build on.
Stronger partnerships with local communities are also fundamental, as our Better Transport Forums showed.
By reaching out, Labor can also encourage the public transport sector to get organised and to start lobbying as a collective.
The development of a commuters’ union, for example, to balance the political power of the automobile clubs, would provide a platform for stronger political advocacy, and potentially would be a major ally for a Labor Party with a renewed commitment to public transport.
And finally, Labor must simply start taking good policy seriously.
There are positive signs at the State level. Opposition Leader John Robertson and Transport Spokesperson Penny Sharpe have shown a willingness to engage and to start afresh.
But there is a long road ahead. Labor, too, must do better.