Why don't they just get along?
It has been my privilege to observe, know or work with people in various parts of transport. This has exposed me to competing (and often strong) views on the merits and limitations of other people or organisations.
I might be talking to Y and they might be proposing many things that Z supports. But when I ask Y's opinions about Z they might be quite dismissive. In return Z might be similarly contemptuous of Y, even though the people concerned haven't even met. But on the substantive issues (in my possibly naive opinion) I find more similarities than differences between the protagonists.
This leads me to the following conclusions:
* Transport policy, planning and debate is a play. All the key individuals act and say things largely determined by their set role (eg operator, bureaucrat, academic, activist, media etc).
* There is consensus amongst all the above actors that a larger role for public transport is in the public interest.
* There is a somewhat lesser agreement on the projects and policies are most needed to handle increased patronage. Nevertheless there is more commonality than some would have us imagine. For example, I believe that important things like (i) reforming the way the City Loop runs, (ii) tram priority, and (iii) buses headway harmonised with trains would command broad support - probably 80% or more. And even the bigger debates (Dandenong triplication and Eddington's rail tunnel) are more about means than ends.
Having established that there is more agreement than is generally acknowledged it now remains to explain the intensity of some of the squabbling.
I attribute this to the three Ps; Politics, Position and Personality (and background).
First politics. Public transport (like roads) is largely publicly funded. The proportion that isn't (ie fares) is publicy collected through the Metcard system. Franchisees look after the operations but policy, planning and new projects rests with the government. As public transport involved politics, we need to have an idea of how the system works.
There is always more demand for public services than taxpayer dollars to fund them. The democratic political system provides a mechanism for the people to elect members (mostly from a political party) to form a parliament. Some of these members (nomally from the largest party) get to be ministers with responsibility over a portfolio such as transport. Senior ministers are also a member of cabinet which sets the general direction for the government and approves major decisions.
The department oversees contracts with the operators, develops policy, plans for future needs and provides advice to the Minister. A minister can also refer matters to her department for its advice.
Policies and proposals can be developed by departmental staff, come to the department from outside or be requested by the minister. For example, an innovative manager could introduce a revised ticketing rule, or the government might reduce fares. Overcrowding might force action such as additional train purchases.
The exit of an operator might cause a revision to franchising arrangements. Matters may get in the media or be the subject of lobbying; these might force action (eg New Years Eve) or the Minister to ask for a review (bicycles on trains). Operators themselves might press for change, for instance the 2003 campaign by BAV to improve bus services (leading to the MOTC bus improvements from 2006).
The point is that democratic politics can be adversarial. There are always more demands than resources to satisfy them. if politicians are convinced there is broad support for public transport then they might put more resources into it. Lobbyists might seek to grab media headlines to demonstrate support for their cause. Then the government commits additional resources and instructs the department to implement.
A more co-operative style of advocacy relies less on megaphones and media. It is more technocratic than political. This is the one that seeks to forge relationships with bureucrats rather than speak to their masters through media sound-bites and public rallys. Graham Currie exemplifies the first approach; Paul Mees the second.
Position is to do with acting the roles in the big play mentioned above.
Key actors, with some quick notes, include:
Operator professionals (Connex, YT, bus operators)
Work for one of the operators, often for many years. Experienced in operational matters. Respect own technical rigour and proud of what they do. Sometimes view media reports, activists and some academics with suspicion because they 'get it wrong'. Because of where they work, they might not always see 'bigger picture', the passengers' view or view transport system as a whole. Variations exist between the 'lower level', 'skilled technical' and 'managerial' strands.
Bureaucrats (eg DOT)
Good knowledge of political process, policy, contracts and regulations. Network knowledge varies greatly. Favour a co-operative method of working over 'megaphone lobbying' that speaks over the department's heads or worse. May be variations between the 'skilled technical' and 'managerial' strands.
Activists (eg PTUA)
Good overview of system as a whole (as seen by passengers). Value independence highly. Articulate and effective relationships with media. Perceived within the industry as being 'negative' with limited relations with middle levels in bureaucracy and operators of most modes. Distrust some bureaucrats and professionals as belonging to an 'entrenched culture of failure' from the PTC days.
Academics (attached to one of the universities)
See bigger transport picture well. Generally strong media profile and contributors to public debate. Not always good with technical details. Either 'collaborators' or 'crusaders' - depending on personality.
Either (i) already work in the industry, (ii) aspire to work in industry, (iii) don't work in industry or (iv) unemployable. Network knowledge is excellent, though can sometimes be single mode only. Mindset ranges from being able to see things from a passenger's perspective to 'the operator is always right'. Impatient when the media or activists get it wrong.
The above groups are not necessarily fixed; there are people who've belonged to two, three or more. Academics have become activists, gunzels have got industry jobs, and industry people have joined the Department.
However it is possible to find some differences that (mostly) hold up and might further explain why people with similar views in a similar field don't get along.
This is personality and background. Here I will make some quite sweeping generalisations that nevertheless might account for some of the irrational reasons for difference.
As a general rule, the operators are 'blue collar'. They contain large numbers of 'frontline staff' who man the stations, drive the trams and service the buses. These jobs do not need university degrees as all the specialist skills are taught in-house and on-the-job. Unionisation is high and incomes aren't bad. This is the Labor of Chifley and Calwell.
In contrast, bureaucrats are 'white collar'. Almost all have degrees. This is Whitlam or Keating Labor, though you might find some Greens in there as well. There will also be some Liberals, but 'tertiary educated', 'urban' and 'government employee' all point to a left-liberal majority.
That's the two groups of insiders. What about the two groups of outsiders?
Gunzels (who aspire to run the operators). There's exceptions, but I think most are blue-collar-ish.
Activists (who aspire to run the Department or tell it how it should be run). Well they've all got degrees, just like the bureaucrats.
See a pattern? It's almost like there's two strands, most clearly identified by formal education. I could go on about Zone 1 versus Zone 2, values intellectual vs practical, refugee rights vs border protection, art vs sport but won't for lack of evidence.
I can't help wondering if there's some sort of socio-cultural thing that pits each group against one another and makes them hate each other. Just look at many Railpage discussions if you want any doubt of how the gunzels view the activists. Higher up the tree (operators versus bureaucrats) similar differences may exist, but discussed with more decorum, always about substantive issues and generally not in public view (unless one counts subleties in media comments).
But it's not just differences that can cause conflict; commonality can lead to 'competition'; for instance between the degreed 'insiders' and 'outsiders'. Insiders might support a particular 'outsider' policy but be unable to get it through the department. Then it might make a big splash in the media, the government adopts it and the 'outsider' claims all the credit.
Similarly operator people can be (often rightly) dismissive of the more 'feral' gunzels. However the door should not be completely closed since some gunzels have made successful transport careers.
To sum up, those involved in transport, whether as operators, bureaucrats, activists, academics or enthusiasts have more in common than some arguments you hear indicate. Thus the differences must be due to other factors. I have attempted to describe some them, including the nature of the political process, the roles people have and the characteristics and backgrounds of the participants.
Labels: people, politics