Right train, wrong platform

As we head towards this year’s state election, Alan Attwood
urges our politicians to remember that they are part of the
community; not separate to it.

Several years ago I wrote a letter to the then Victorian Premier. I’m not in the habit of doing that; I banged out this particular letter only because I’d had a little to do with the gentleman in question, John Brumby, several decades previously.

Back in the early 1980s, in Canberra’s old Parliament House, he had been an ALP federal backbencher while I was a young reporter for The Age. We’d bump into each other and chat from time to time.

On the strength of this tenuous connection I wrote my letter to Mr Brumby, who’d been Premier since mid-2007.

I wrote not as a constituent but, rather, as a commuter. I explained that I regularly caught a train in and out of the city for work. Most days of the week, I told him, there were delays, stuff-ups and congestion: it was not unusual to be unable to get on to a train just two stops into its journey.

There were a lot of angry travellers out there, I wrote, and concluded by saying this was exactly the sort of thing that could cost him government.

I kept it polite and wished him well. Then I waited. I was interested to see what sort of response, if any, I might get.

For quite some time there was nothing. Then came a form letter; a recitation of the government’s attitudes to, and achievements in, public transport.

Yes, it appeared that the Premier himself had scribbled a greeting up top and a salutation down the bottom, but the letter read like something sent to anyone talking about trams or trains or buses. Hmm, I thought… you just don’t get it.

Nor did a federal colleague of the then Premier, whom I saw on the morning of Victoria’s 2010 State Election. After saying how competent the Brumby Government had been, this senior politician expressed confidence in its electoral prospects.

In fact, he said, he couldn’t imagine why anyone would not vote for the Government. To which I responded, possibly more brusquely than intended, “I’ll give you three reasons straight away: public transport, the casino and the Grand Prix.” All three of which caused me disquiet.

This federal MP looked at me with astonishment, like a man unused to having people disagree with him. And again, I thought, you just don’t get it

As we all know now, John Brumby lost that election; a result that surprised quite a few so-called experts.

His party lost a string of seats along one of Melbourne’s creaking, over-crowded train lines. Public transport, it was then decided, had proved to be a more significant election issue than many people had thought.

Since then, not a lot has changed. The Baillieu / Napthine governments have seemed much more interested in tunnels and roads than tracks and rails.

“His party lost a string of seats along one of Melbourne’s creaking, over-crowded train lines. Public transport, it was then decided, had proved to be a more significant election issue than many people had thought.”

I’ve heard it said that, like so many things in politics, it all comes down to numbers: there are simply a lot more drivers than users of public transport. And so policies that appeal to people using private transport, especially cars, tends to be favoured by governments.

Yet there’s a crucial word here: public.

Governments should be concerned about transport that is accessible to all, that is, public transport. Just as public hospitals, public schools and public parks (one of which was subverted for that Grand Prix) should be government priorities.

They are community assets. So why does it often seem they do not get the attention they deserve?

Because, I suspect, too many politicians – especially the more senior ones – become insulated from the public. It is easy for Cabinet ministers, for example, to lose touch with the communities they serve, partly as a result of their workloads.

But the fact remains that a Premier – or, for that matter, a transport minister – should not need a letter from a voter to appreciate that problems with a basic public service are causing widespread anger in the community.

Such letters would not even be necessary if a Premier and his or her senior colleagues did away with their government cars for a week or two and actually used public transport. Not just for a hop-on, hop-off photo opportunity on a train or tram, but for all their commuting requirements. For some, I suspect, it would be a real, and perhaps startling, eye-opener.

Is it wishful thinking to imagine this might actually happen? Perhaps, although there is still time before this year’s state election for all candidates to get out into their communities and listen to the concerns of the people they nominally represent, rather than to the opinions of paid advisers or findings from carefully choreographed ‘focus groups’.

After Neville Wran died in April this year, many stories were told about the governments he led in New South Wales in the 1970s and ‘80s.

One had him reflecting on the backgrounds of the people in one of his early ministries. There was a range of trades, professions and ages represented; a far more diverse group of people than you could find in most governments these days, both state and federal.

There is too much inbreeding in politics today. Too many MPs share similar backgrounds. They come from the law, or the union movement, or have previously only worked in politicians’ offices – as advisers or researchers or electorate officers. More variety would make them better able to represent
the broader community.

Again, however, it may be optimistic in the extreme to believe that anything will change.

We live in the era of poll-driven policies, where so much is done, or not done, because of the 24-hour news cycle, with politicians’ and their advisors’ eyes and ears on how things will be portrayed in the media.

“There is still time before this year’s state election for all candidates to get out into their communities and listen to the concerns of the people they nominally represent, rather than to the opinions of paid advisers or findings from carefully choreographed ‘focus groups’.”

There is another problem: it is immensely difficult to change a system when it means people acceding to a reform that may disadvantage themselves.

Barack Obama has discovered this in his time as US President. He came to the White House promising change, having sold himself as someone outside the political system.

But once he became President he was at the apex of the system. And much of the change he had promised was resisted by politicians on both sides of politics, who felt threatened by any alteration to the status quo. Self-interest prevailed.

None of this would have surprised former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, who once declared: “In a two-horse race, always back self-interest because at least you know it is trying.”

His comment is usually interpreted as referring to voters – all those people who consider policies and cast their votes on the basis of what’s in it for them.

But self-interest also prevails within governments themselves. It is a rare leader who will act according to the public good if they believe this could cost them votes.

Part of the solution lies in a move away from short-term thinking and the obsession with how things will be received, in the first instance, by both media and the public.

“So here’s a challenge to all state politicians in the lead-up to this year’s election. Remember that you are part of the community; not separate to it. And while much of politics is about talking – campaign slogans, sound bites for TV cameras, zippy one-liners in Question Time – an even more vital skill is listening.”

Keating has spoken of the need for any government to have a “narrative”, which means keeping people informed of the reasons behind a policy or initiative.

In times of crisis, people understand the need for harsh measures; whether it be rationing in war-time or levies imposed in a recession. The community will go along with such things if they accept the need for them. And, importantly, if they seem fair.

But this requires effective communication. It works the other way, too: people have increasingly sensitive bulldust detectors and are weary of being fobbed off with banal slogans.

Governments, and aspiring governments, can carry people along with them if they bother to explain not only the motivation behind a policy but also its long-term effects.

It costs money, for example, to provide more public housing – something that is desperately needed all around Australia to address increasing levels of homelessness.

But a recent study of one initiative in western Sydney, which provided 74 disadvantaged men with both housing and support services, found that it helped these men out of the cycle of homelessness and unstable accommodation.

This led to a reduced need for health and justice services, which, over two years, represented a saving to taxpayers of around $8,000 per assisted person. The amount saved by government because of the project was estimated as being close to $1 million over two years.

Every day I see something similar happening in the world of The Big Issue, which I have been associated with for more than 10 years.

Most people would be familiar with our vendors, who are seen on streets around the country. I realised early on in my time as editor that the income raised from selling the magazine was only part of their job.

I asked a vendor one day how many magazines he hoped to sell. “Six,” he replied. This amounted to less than the price of a pack of cigarettes. It was pocket money, no more.

But by undertaking to sell this handful of magazines, the vendor had a sense of purpose; something to do with his time; and also – most importantly – a sense of community.

He could come and go from our office, chat to people, stop for a cup of tea and coffee and feel part of an enterprise much bigger than himself. He also had pride in what he was doing. He wasn’t begging or asking for a handout. Instead, he was trying to help himself.

While the value of that is incalculable, there are some relevant figures. Since June 1996, when the first edition of The Big Issue was sold (outside Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station) 9 million magazines have been sold by more than 4,500 people. This has put $19 million into the pockets of vendors – money that has not had to come from government or social services.

This simple enterprise, a rare example of a media product trying to do something positive, has helped make a vulnerable group of people less dependent on society and more positive
contributors to the community.

That word again: community. Which sounds so much like another crucial word: communication.

So here’s a challenge to all state politicians in the lead-up to this year’s election.

Remember that you are part of the community; not separate to it.

And while much of politics is about talking – campaign slogans, sound bites for TV cameras, zippy one-liners in Question Time – an even more vital skill is listening.

To borrow from Bob Dylan – who, like far too many Victorian MPs, never takes public transport – you shouldn’t need a weatherman (or a voter’s letter) to know which way the wind blows.

Alan Attwood is editor of The Big Issue magazine.

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