Friday, January 31, 2020

Testing times for Minister Horne

Building Melbourne's Useful Network is on strike this week. Just like many others in transport. So today instead we'll cover the recent industrial unrest and other matters affecting the network. We'll also look at the history, record and challenges for Public Transport Minister Melissa Horne, who has been the network's public face during these times.

There's so much going on that it's hard to keep track. It's not just one dispute but several. We've had the trammies out on Tuesday and Thursday. V/Line's Geelong line didn't run on Wednesday. And Metro has had problems with drivers accepting its training on rebuilt/reopened track. All involve  various divisions of the RTBU (discussed here). Here's a summary. 

Yarra Trams (28 and 30 January)

Late January in Melbourne involves scorching temperatures, Australian Open Tennis, and, this year, choking smoke from bushfires that restricted many peoples outdoor activities. With lives and homes lost, forests razed, wildlife perished and people evacuated it's been a subdued start to the year. 

Strikes stopped interpeak trams on Tuesday and yesterday. A limited replacement bus service ran but passengers were warned of delays if using it.  

RTBU's Tram and Bus Division has been regularly putting advice to members on its website. The union gave notice of its intention to strike on January 16. The key issue appears to be Yarra Trams' proposal to implement part-time rosters as part of Operations EBA negotiations. Eventually part-timers could amount to 15% of the workforce, up from the current 4%. Also there will be the ability to roster shorter (3 hour) shifts.  The union claims this would reduce access to overtime and penalty pay of drivers who work extra hours as part-timers not subject to overtime payments would be doing more of this work.  RTBU also wants an 18% pay rise over three years. You can read everything here. Yarra's EBA negotiations has been a year-long saga with a previous stoppage back in August and court action before that. There is also news on their Facebook page

There hasn't been much from Yarra Tram's side.  This dispute has been a baptism of fire for new CEO Julien Dehornoy who took over two weeks ago.  Being an ex-SNCF Frenchman he should know a thing or two about strikes and unions. One hopes he's aware of international differences; modern Australian attitudes to strikes are harsher than those in his strike-prone home country. We just want things to work – like the Germans – and rarely care about ideological struggles. Also, with our higher car ownership, more of us have alternatives. This means a greater chance of prolonged unrest affecting patronage longer term (just as it did during Melbourne’s 1960s-90s era of public transport decline).

Industrial action associated with the 2015 enterprise agreement threatened Yarra Trams but was averted.

V/Line (29 January and 7 February)

Advice of stoppages came out a while ago. The strike stopped trains on the busy Geelong line on Wednesday. If the dispute is not resolved Bendigo, Echuca and Swan Hill lines will be out on Friday February 7. 

It's the second strike in six weeks for Geelong line commuters. Overtime bans on Monday and Friday are also threatened. V/Line staff are seeking a six percent pay rise

Metro Trains (ongoing)

Buses replaced trains between South Yarra and Caulfield due to the construction of new track as part of the Melbourne Metro project. The work was done in less time than expected and the rebuilt track section between Hawksburn and South Yarra opened early.

An important part of train driver training is 'route knowledge'. Drivers need to know every section of network they travel on. This includes track layout, point and signal locations, speed limits, gradients and more.

The dispute arose when some drivers queried the adequacy of the video training they received. On Monday The Age reported that 13 drivers who refused to drive the new section were stood down. On Tuesday it was 'nearly 50' drivers. This is affecting service delivery with mass cancellations yesterday morning.

Relations between the RTBU and Metro have been smouldering for some time, with the union portraying the train operator as a greedy multinational during EBA negotiations and court cases late last year. You may have also seen the banner up at Trades Hall.  December 2019's Loco Lines (from RTBU's Locomotive Division) has some commentary on this. Also see their Facebook page.

Government reaction

The normal ministerial response in the early days of an industrial dispute is to urge the parties to reach agreement. Industrial relations is considered a matter for operators to internally manage with their staff. Devolving workforce matters is one claimed benefits of private operation, whether it be the bolder franchising or the milder contracting out variants.

Pressure mounts when disputes drag on. Substantial inconvenience occurs when service stops. Calls for the minister to intervene get louder. Not only from those affected by the strike but also the opposition and sometimes one of the parties (if they consider their opponent stalling).

The government might also be feeling the heat. Whatever the technicalities the public does not like politicians blaming others. And as the 2010 state election result showed privatising operations does not mean privatising political risk when service fails. Australians see government as an 'insurer, ensurer or fixer of last resort' over a whole range of areas where markets fail or people suffer high losses. That expectation extends to transport services.

The most dramatic examples of government intervention are when they step in to directly run services the private operators can't. A famous example was the federal government calling in the Air Force during the 1989 pilots dispute. Victorian rail franchises resort to government operation if the private operator pulls out, as happened with National Express.

Governments have also intervened in industrial disputes affecting transport. A major 2018 election year bus strike, affecting Transdev and CDC services, was called off in August following the government stepping in to negotiate with the TWU. It basically delivered the desired pay rise and chucked in extra money so bus operators weren't out of pocket. The deal followed smaller strikes the previous month.

The video below was what the minister had to say on Tuesday.

The possibility of funded government intervention as a backstop may give rise to a sort of moral hazard where both parties behave irresponsibly in the hope that government will eventually buckle, to the detriment of the taxpayer.  Hence the hope is almost always for parties to resolve disputes themselves.

Will (or can) this minister intervene if these disputes continue? Will the government toss in some money to get agreements to avoid a repeat of long-running disputes like the paramedics that dogged the previous government? It's hard to say. There is no election just around the corner. And they're in a tougher budgetary position, preaching restraint for public sector workers. On the other hand it wants a fast resolution so its reputation for service delivery does not cop a beating. These are some of the issues that confront the minister who'll we'll discuss next.    

The rapid rise of Melissa Horne

Victorian Labor had a modest win (regaining office after four year gap) in 2014 and a large victory in 2018. In the normal course of events an able backbencher from the 'class of 2014' could reasonably get a parliamentary secretary role after the 2018 win. As indeed some did. If they impress they might become a minister after a mid-to-late term reshuffle (especially if there are retirements) or a possible 2022 victory. 

It would not be normal for a member of the 2018 cohort to get a parliamentary secretary role, let alone a minister job. Instead they would be expected to build their local profile. Then they can exploit the incumbency bonus and fortify the government against inevitable future swings against it.  

This makes the rise of the Melissa Horne, the current transport minister, remarkable. As a member of the large 2018 intake she had no apprenticeship as purely a local MP. Instead she zoomed straight into Cabinet, surpassing some 2014 entrants who remain backbenchers or parliamentary secretaries. Her fellow ministers in the transport portfolio are Jacinta Allan (elected 1999) and Jaala Pulford (elected 2006). She sits above parliamentary secretaries Ros Spence (elected 2014) and Vicki Ward (elected 2014). 

Her safe Williamstown constituency had been held since 1904 by long-serving Labor plodders who rarely saw government. In the 1990s it gained a reputation for breeding Labor royalty including Joan Kirner and Steve Bracks. Ms Horne gained the seat after the retirement of Wade Noonan. She was born into the party, her father Bob Horne having held a NSW federal seat in the 1990s. 

Horne's Level Crossing Removal Authority gig appeared to make transport a logical role. However her promotion so early and so high would have raised eyebrows within the parliamentary party. There would be ambitious and more experienced backbenchers and parliamentary secretaries wondering why they didn't get precedence.

Intra-party and movement relationships

Colleagues (and potential rivals) would be watching the minister's every word. Especially now with public transport back in the headlines and mass disruption affecting peoples commutes and travel to major events our city prides itself in holding. Any perceived weakness might be seen as a justification for a mid-term reshuffle, with gains for some and losses for others. Yes, they're playing for sheep stations. Tempers in Labor can run hot, with physical violence not unknown

Union membership, though a shrinking proportion of the overall workforce, is still formidable. Especially in the transport sector where the RTBU and TWU remain powerful. Both are affiliated with the Labor Party. 

Then there are more direct relationships. With the decline and ageing of political party membership, Labor owes much to the union movement as a source of campaign volunteers. This was particularly in the 2014 election that brought Daniel Andrews to power. Among other factors the defeated Liberal Party attributes its 2014 loss to Labor's superior field organising. 

Just like there is a revolving door of personnel between the coalition parties, employer organisations, think tanks and certain industries (notably finance, farming and mining) a similar thing happens in Labor. There's a bit of an interchange between community advocacy, media, academia, student organisations, knowledge industries, the union movement and Labor. A not atypical career path might be union organiser, research officer, MP's staffer or party official then Labor parliamentarian. 

Political parties are means to power and attract people with ambition. Any party with more than two members will probably have factions. They may cluster around ideologies, people or a mixture. You may have more centrist, pragmatic types versus those who seek to be 'more true to their ideology'. Some might be 'bread and butter' labourists worried mainly about pay and job issues versus cultural, environmental, post-materialist and identity politics types. You'd think that The Greens might appeal more to the latter. However Labor has always had these strands dating from before The Greens started. And those who wish to win office to implement policy may see a major party (despite its problems) a better bet than a minor party. 

Labor's  factions seem particularly notable, with strong faction leaders and negotiations between them to divide up spoils like party positions and safe seats. In the case of safe lower house seats like Williamstown (and all Legislative Council positions) how you get on within the party (including affiliated unions) is key to continued support and success.

Winning and retaining government

Winning a coveted position within the party is one thing. Earning enough public acceptance to win elections is another. Don Dunstan and Gough Whitlam taught a generation of Laborites how to win. Dunstan lasted a fair while but Whitlam didn't. Wran, Cain and Hawke's contributions were to teach pragmatic post-Whitlam Labor how to keep as well as win power.

This is where performance in government comes in. People expect state governments (in particular) to be competent deliverers of services. That includes transport.

John Cain came a cropper over plans to scrap tram conductors opposed by sections of his own side. While unemployment and economic management were the top issues, the images of stuck trams in the streets proved enduring for many. Jeff Kennett's advertisements basically wrote themselves. The 1992 election led to a massive loss for Cain's successor Joan Kirner. While controversial at the time Kennett's 'shock therapy' transport reforms had reduced industrial disputation and improved reliability (until the mid-noughties). So much so that Premier Bracks and his transport minister Peter Batchelor accepted rail franchising as here to stay. They would rather not deal with the unions if they didn't have to.

Early 2000s era hands-off franchising then started to falter. And not only because a major operator quit. Train punctuality fell as patronage grew from 2003. Performance kept falling. Unreliable trains got more and more headlines. Some things were done during the Brumby era but they were too late to save Labor from losing the 2010 election in which reliable rail service was a critical issue.

To summarise, service delivery is important to the government's survival. A 2022 victory still seems likely but is not assured with some of 2018's gloss wearing off.

The transport portfolio

With Jacinta Allan looking after transport infrastructure and Jaala Pulford for roads, the transport service burden falls squarely on Melissa Horne. She would know public transport is somewhat of a poisoned chalice within Labor; handling of it played a part in the demise of three of the last four state Labor premiers (only Bracks escaped as he voluntarily retired). And the stress of the portfolio might not necessarily have helped the health of everyone who occupied it. 

Some governments had just one minister responsible for transport. This one has three plus two parliamentary secretaries. 

The Andrews government's strong infrastructure program has given Minister Allan plenty of good things to say and ribbons to cut (though budget and project management present a substantial and growing risk). Minister Horne lacks that luxury, not least because there have been so few bus network reforms and train frequency upgrades to announce. 

This is not necessarily all her fault since large upgrades require additional recurrent funding that Cabinet and/or Treasury would need to approve. A rookie minister might not have much sway, particularly in a non-election year when blowouts elsewhere have tightened access to money.  

While small (but still worthwhile) bus upgrades could be paid for by pruning overservicing elsewhere on the network, the political risk that this carries seems to be considered worse than maintaining the current stasis. And this presentation earlier in her career didn't reveal much interest in network reform. 

There's still (just) time to turn that around and get things happening by the 2022 election. But at the moment there doesn't seem much that Minister Horne could look back on and say "I did that". Unlike Peter Batchelor and his bus upgrades, Lynne Kosky and Regional Rail Link or Jacinta Allan and Metro Tunnel. While ordinarily considered a minor portfolio, even something like boating and fishing would have given its holder more satisfaction.  

A definer or defined by?

While eager ministers may like to see their job as implementing policies developed in opposition, they eventually find that they are also there to administer competently and respond wisely to circumstances not of their making. Their reaction to the challenges their portfolio throws up can be so important that it defines their public record and career progress. It's like surfing; the good ones can ride the waves while the bad ones get dumped. Consider the widely praised Daniel Andrews versus the generally panned Scott Morrison during the bushfires. Andrews' authority was confirmed while Morrison's was diminished.  

A festering sore in transport has been Metro Trains' slowly declining reliability, with below par service for about the last year. Even the performance data on this has increasingly come out late.  Then there is the current industrial disputation. All this is about service delivery. Good performance here doesn't win many plaudits but the brickbats come flying when it's poor.    

A junior minister lacks the authority to control some wider things that affect their portfolio. For example they may more often be told what the budget will be than have input into it. Neither might they be party to all back-room machinations that  may see industrial disagreements resolved or prolonged. Both factors would make their job harder. 

However it seems essential to this minister's standing, which I suspect is weaker than that of some less high-flying colleagues, that the current disputes are quickly settled, preferably without hurt to the government's budget. Otherwise the risk is that this is a minister who becomes, at least in the public eye, defined by events rather than being the engine behind them.  

As for normal programming, apparently the parties are negotiating, points of difference are few and a deal is imminent. Expect Building Melbourne's Useful Network to return next week.

You might enjoy these well-regarded books on transport topics

Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit Steven Higashide NEW!

Breaking Point: The Future of Australian Cities Peter Seamer

The Public City: Essays in honour of Paul Mees Gleeson & Beza

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, Institutions (Access Quintet Book 4) David Levinson

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives Jarrett Walker

Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age Paul Mees

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