The Victorian election result

By Legal Eagle

Or: Why Distance Doesn’t Make the Heart Grow Fonder

In my home State of Victoria, we have just voted for a new government. The incumbent Labor premier, John Brumby, conceded defeat the other afternoon. Many eastern outer suburban electorates which had previously voted Labor in the last few elections swung massively to the Liberals. To me, this election was all about Melbourne’s sprawling urban geography as much as anything else.

It seems to have taken a great many pundits by surprise. On one level, I understand their surprise. In the recent Australian Federal election, the strong Labor vote in Victoria kept Federal Labor in power by the skin of their teeth. I’ve got friends from Sydney down, and they are simply gobsmacked. “But Victoria’s prosperous, and your State government is in far better shape than ours,” they said. I feel pretty sorry for Brumby. However, there’s an important distinction between Federal Labor and State Labor. Federal Labor isn’t responsible for public transport, schools, hospitals, planning, bushfire responses, or any of those basic things. I wonder how many of those pundits live in the eastern outer suburbs of Melbourne? My guess is that not many do. If they did, they might have predicted the result. I could sense that a backlash was growing.

I think Robert Merkel’s analysis at LP was pretty spot on – it was all about infrastructure, or lack thereof:

The broader view, from most media coverage – is that the result is a reaction for an inability for infrastructure – public transport, roads, hospitals, schools, and so on – to keep up with the population stresses throughout Melbourne’s middle and outer suburbs. While there have been a couple of very high-profile cost blowouts over the years – Myki and the Regional fast rail projects – in large part it’s not a failure of implementation. It’s been a long-term and deliberate policy decision to moderate Victoria’s state debt levels.

In this, you have to look back to the last Victorian Labor government, that of John Cain and then Joan Kirner, through the 1980s and early 1990s. The Cain-Kirner government ended in disaster; while the economic travails of the era may not have been the Labor government’s fault, the inability to deal with the economic hand they had been dealt – a recession and cuts to state payments – was. Steve Bracks was an adviser to Cain and Kirner. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that, as Premier, Bracks wasn’t exactly keen on running up government debt, even when it made sense. The experience of the Regional Fast Rail project – which modernized the passenger rail between Melbourne and the regional cities of Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong and Traralgon, but ended up blowing out greatly in costs – would have reinforced Bracks’ and Treaturer John Brumby’s aversion to this sort of thing.

This aversion took two forms – the reluctance to commit to capital expenditure projects in the first place was obviously one. However, many capital projects that did occur were funded through public-private partnerships; as Nick Gruen notes, the net result is that we end up paying more for the infrastructure.

Labor recognized this, eventually. By the 2006 election, the government was already promising a variety of pieces of infrastructure, from roads, to trains, and ultimately urban water projects. Unfortunately, as the Brumby government has discovered, you can’t turn two decades’ worth of underspending on this stuff around in one parliamentary term.

There were other factors – including remarkably little scrutiny of the conservative claim to be able to simultaneously fund large amounts of infrastructure, without increasnig borrowing and while reducing taxes. But at least part of the fault lies with a party that governed like it was facing a static population and recession, through the start of the biggest population boom in decades.

Part of Melbourne’s problem is that it’s an enormously sprawling city with a radial public transport system, and the train lines do not extend to various areas, some of which desperately need public transport, particularly in the outer east. Where the train lines do extend out to the outer suburbs, some stations have become quite dangerous. Think of all those poor Indian students who got bashed (sometimes fatally). Invariably, they were coming home on public transport alone and late at night, then walking through areas that were less salubrious. 15 years ago, I used to travel on public transport at night, but I don’t know that I’d dare these days. I’d certainly not dare if I were on my own.

If you want to get into the city at peak hour, and you live reasonably close to the city, then our public transport is adequate (I would give it about 4 out of 10). If you want to get somewhere other than the city, it’s utterly pathetic. As I’ve described in a rant about the Transit Lane on the Eastern freeway, once my husband broke his shoulder and had to catch public transport from where we lived then to his work place (about two suburbs northwards). It took 15 minutes drive (30 minutes at most), but on public transport, it took one and a half hours. Sometimes more. This was because you either had to go into the city and go out again on the train, or you had to catch multiple buses which didn’t link up. Public transport is no good for getting across the city rather than into it.

I work in the inner city, but I live in the suburbs, and I drive into work. It’s interesting. Most of my colleagues live in the inner city. There’s a real contrast to my getting-to-work experience and theirs. They walk to work, or cycle, or take public transport on rainy days. For me, however, it can take ages to get into work, and I am often snarled in traffic even outside peak hour. Around my house they have recently put bus lanes in all the three lane roads, reducing them to two lane roads. I presume the motive was twofold: to make buses more efficient and speedy, and to provide a disincentive to car drivers. But it has made traffic appalling, and it hasn’t made the buses any more attractive to people. If you create difficulties for car drivers, you have to give people in the suburbs a workable alternative.

Which brings me to another point: for some of us, getting rid of a car altogether is not really an option. As a working mother, my life sometimes seems to consist of driving around dropping kids off and picking them up. To do this, I depend on a car. I am not within walking distance of a supermarket. My daughter’s kindergarten is a hour round trip if one goes by foot. Her school next year will be a two hour round trip walk at least. I simply can’t do my job and drop the kids off on foot. My hours are not regular peak hour times, and all the places I have to go are in different directions. As it is, I’m really pressed for time. If owning a car became too expensive, either myself or my husband would have to give up working, because I don’t think it would be possible for us both to work any more. The crazy juggle of work/kids is really not possible unless you either (a) have a car or (b) live very close to various amenities (shops, kindergartens, schools, work) or (c) have childcare, school and work in the same place in an area where the public transport is good. Why has no one considered the feminist implications of banning cars?

Why don’t I move closer in? Well, I’m afraid I just can’t afford it! Living close in to the city has become prohibitively expensive. (And there’s another issue).

Of course, there were other factors too. I suspect people were grumpy about the following issues: 

  • increases in cost of living, and raises in electricity prices with the introduction of the SmartMeter;
  • the desalination plant and the disastrous myki ticketing system (millions wasted on a system which doesn’t work, while the public transport infrastructure falls to bits around us);
  • the way in which the Black Saturday fires had been managed (think of how the Brumby government defended Christine Nixon despite the evidence of her egregious lack of leadership on the day of the fires);
  • the proliferation of spin doctors and a ‘focus group’ approach to politics. Rather than talking to focus groups, it would be great if politicians actually had some understanding of how the other half live.
  • related to the above, bad faith behaviour of the sort which was exposed when someone from Justin Madden’s planning department accidentally leaked an e-mail revealing a plan to pretend to consult the community, but to proceed with the development of the Windsor Hotel anyway over community concerns;
  • a perception that the government uses speed cameras and the like as revenue raisers, and doesn’t actually care whether the cameras are accurate or not. (I rather doubt a new government will change this – vertical fiscal imbalance means that it’s hard for State governments to raise money); and
  • a very negative campaign on Labor’s part based on personal snarking about distant history and muck raking (including the muck raking about Brian Walter, which I didn’t much like at the time).

Finally, I think Labor just kind of forgot the far eastern suburbs. As I drove into work, I’d hit Collingwood and suddenly I’d see a plethora of ads for Labor. I guess that this was meant to appeal to inner-city voters who might otherwise be tempted to vote Green, from the general tenor of the ads. By contrast, there were no ads out where I live. It was seriously like our area just didn’t feature on Labor’s radar. People vote for politicians because they want someone to represent them, and to convey their local concerns. I don’t think people out in the ‘burbs felt like their concerns were important. They were being ignored while Labor tried to swing inner-city Greens voters back, and to keep the regional centres of Ballarat and Bendigo by massive spending there.

I don’t think the result reflects a lurch to the right or anything of the sort. I think Baillieu just made the right promises at the right time for those in the eastern suburbs, so that he looked like a more attractive option to those who were generally centrist and small ‘l’ liberal, and who didn’t wish to register a protest vote with the Greens. Unlike Jeremy Sear, I don’t think there is buyers’ regret on the part of those who swung…not yet, anyway…it’s too early. (Incidentally, I’m not surprised that no one responded to Jeremy’s query. Really, would one go to a Collingwood football supporters’ party and announce to everyone there loudly that you were a Carlton turncoat? Great way to get yourself creamed. It’s not so much that the “swingers” were regretful of their choices, but rather that they didn’t want to offer themselves up to be abused.)

My final observation is this: Baillieu will have to deliver on his promises. If he doesn’t, those that giveth can very easily taketh away at the next election.

15 Comments

  1. Jeremy Gans
    Posted December 4, 2010 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    The city should serve the people in it, really it should. Not the people the city.

    Yes, but which people? The people who bought ‘cheap’ housing and didn’t realise that it was really expensive? The people who want to stop developments in their neighbourhood simply because they hurt their housing price or because the wrong people will attend their supposedly ‘public’ local schools or because there’ll be more cars in competition with their own on the freeways? Whatever benighted people happen to be trapped in shitty locations right now? Whatever subsets of any of these people who happen to live in marginal electorates, just before and after close elections?

    LE, sure government should be in the public transport business. But, like all infrastructure, it should only be built if its existence will change planning and personal decisions for the better and if those benefits are better than the benefits that could be achieved by spending the same money somewhere else or on something else (and outweigh the costs, like entrenching bad planning or choices.) I’m pretty sure that those conditions aren’t satisfied by plonking train lines or even super-duper buses into every poorly planned transport black hole in Melbourne, especially in the absence of a sensible road tax to discourage poor personal planning and a strong planning system that can prevent NIMBYs stopping people moving to areas where there is or can be good infrastructure. (The same applies to building roads, including Lorenzo’s mega-freeway Texas in Victoria plan, which sounds pretty similar to the California in Victoria plan that dominated Melbourne planning from the 1950s through to the 1990s.) And I’m definitely sure that no government will make the right calls if the electorate externalises the bad choices of the past and themselves onto the incumbent government de jour, rather than deciding elections purely on the basis of the actual failings of that government

    As it happens, I think the Brumby government completely deserved to be voted out for its integrity problems and because of its lack of contrast with the Liberals. But if Labor and Liberal think Brumby was voted out for most of the reasons in your post (and those completely moronic articles in The Age), then not only will the integrity and party-political problems never be fixed, but no Victorian government will ever make good infrastructure decisions either.

  2. Posted December 4, 2010 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I agree, that is a silly justification for what is bad public policy driven entirely by electoral considerations.

    [email protected] Actually, Melbourne planning in the 1950s and 1960s, even into the 1970s, was pretty good. The failures started in a big way in the 1980s. The big failures were:
    (1) the land Commmission/land use management change, adopting the “British” system. (I.e. deciding that letting land-owners make their own decisions was BAD: officials were so much cleverer.) Much of what you are complaining about is people reacting to the incentives that that created.
    (2) Abolition of the Water Board and abandonment of its water and dam planning. Melbourne simply would not have had a water problem if its plans had been continued with. (I.e. deciding dams were evil.) As it was, effectively abandoning expenditure on water infrastructure while the population grew 30% had utterly predictable results of water shortage.
    (3) Deciding freeways were evil. There were appropriate freeways planned, they were simply abandoned.

    The real problem was moving from “what infrastructure will people need?, let’s build it in a timely fashion” to “we are so clever, we can manage this so such infrastructure is not necessary/can be put off whether we get the merest touch of NIMBYism or BANANA” (another Californian disease — Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone: it was a basic part of their power crisis where new power stations were effectively banned but power prices were capped: the utterly predictable result was power shortages. We have gone BANANA about dams and the utterly predictable result was water shortages).

    Complaining about people reacting to the incentives created by bad planning/infrastructure decisions is not very helpful. Taking a far too angsty approach to infrastructure, both in the eagerness to find reasons not to build it, while insisting on raising basic standards of provision if it could be lumped-up-front onto to development proposals (so, no more allowing people to enter at a lower level of provision and allow things to catch up), that was the problem.

    Provision and pricing, it is sort of basic.

    In the end, you are not going to get voters to not judge State governments on what services do or do not get delivered at what cost.

  3. Posted December 4, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Just to add to the similarity between Californian power problems and Victorian water problems, Victoria also had a cap on water prices.

    If you like, the defeat of the Brumby Government was another defeat of the Cain/Kirner Government.

  4. Mel
    Posted December 4, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    The Liberal Bolte Government had a much larger debt than Cain/Kirner. What changed between times was the dominant ideology pertaining to debt and that has seen Cain/Kirner unfairly demonised.

    More dams don’t produce more water but they do steal water from somewhere else, including the environment. It would be better to recycle the cities waste water, something we don’t do now because of the yuck factor.

    Building more freeways never unclogs the roads because every time you build one more people are forced to buy cars and travel longer. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do freeways (see Prof Peter Newman for example).

    Cities need to be planned. Curitiba in Brazil, which has been mostly governed by democratically elected architects and planners for several decades now stands head and shoulders above the more laissez faire , developer controlled cities favoured by Lorenzo and the white shoe brigade.

    “Curitiba is a city where 99% of inhabitants want to live. In comparison, 70% of Sao Paolo’s residents want to live in Curitiba.”

    http://www.citiesforpeople.net/cities/curitiba.html

  5. Posted December 4, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: Part of the problem is that Vicroads is very very good at garnering political support, money and land to create surface transport infrastructure – pity that mandate doesn’t include planning and laying down rails for trams and trains as well.

    Sigh! When will they retire their 1988 system for proposals and contracts so I don’t have to have twinges of guilt every second time I read The Age articles on transport policy?

    Either that, or let the pollies give VicRoads a rebadge and let their engineers loose on rail as well… I know they’d love the chance. Politically it’s a trivial sell to the green voters, to the righties it is rationalizing VicTrack out of the way.

    And you can bet all the freeways and major arterials would have light rail running down the middle before you could blink an eye.

  6. Posted December 4, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: Hell, a decent bit of shelter at the top of swanston would make public transport practical to melb uni. On a wet windy day you can probably keep one person dry behind each of the pillars. There’s probably more shelter at my boring little stop on queensberry a couple of blocks away. It’s plain no-one actually considers the basics about what it means to be a public transport user.

  7. Mel
    Posted December 4, 2010 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    “The thing that gets me is that there isn’t a train station at either of the main universities. ”

    Or much, much cheaper, triple articulated buses with dedicated lanes, each bus capable of carrying 270 passengers as per Curitiba.

  8. Posted December 5, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    The objection is not to planning, it is to arrogant planning. Planning that serves the people, the residents of the city is fine. Planning that demands the resident mould themselves to the whims of the planners is a disaster.

    Melbourne had the former type of planning — which incorporated dams, and freeways, and extra railway lines (including a circle line) — until the 1980s, coping well with huge population increase.

    Then it was decided officials could “manage” land use, with the result that land prices started soaring leading to (1) NIMBY and BANANA (since people had invested so much in their houses), (3) State Governments flogging off land reserved for railway lines and freeways because they could get so much $$$$ for it and (3) making it far more expensive to acquire land for infrastructure. Coupled with the “infrastructure is evil” nonsense — dams are evil, freeways are evil, etc.

    [email protected]

    The Liberal Bolte Government had a much larger debt than Cain/Kirner.

    The Bolte Goverment invested in infrastructure that attracted population, industry and tax revenue. The Cain-Kirner Government pissed it up against the wall. What you use the debt for makes a big difference,

    Building more freeways never unclogs the roads because every time you build one more people are forced to buy cars and travel longer.

    A city of 4 million needs more freeways than a city of 1 million. The issue is whether freeway construction is keeping up with population increase. Anyway, the plans junked by the Cain-Kirner Government included more freeways AND more rail lines.

    Then there is the modern nonsense of insisting that developers pay for all local infrastructure upfront (as part of the general policy of rationing land use to drive up house values). Infrastructure is something that generally should be debt financed, since its benefits also accrue to future generations.

  9. Mel
    Posted December 5, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo:

    “Planning that serves the people, the residents of the city is fine. Planning that demands the resident mould themselves to the whims of the planners is a disaster.”

    You really are full of simplistic slogans. The residents of a city have divergent interests, just like the residents of a country. Cities that keep building freeways soon become dominated by cars, with something like 60% of all land alienated by private motor transport. Such cities have crap public transport and poor people isolated from services and often living 24/7 in a blanket of petrol fumes.

    Your idea that the role of government is to provide infrastructure post facto in totally unplanned developments is simply hilarious.

  10. Anthony`
    Posted December 6, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, I’m not sure what the evocation of “serves the people” means. It sounds totalizing, and the example you give – the building of freeways – suggests that “the people” aren’t a monolith: any new freeway will make some people’s lives more miserable while it makes other’s commuting time better. Could this not be the epitome of “arrogant planning”?

    BTW, I don’t recall any inner circle railway line being on the agenda since the late 19th- early 20th century. But those inner circle lines got us a bit of green space, and a very congested bridge over the Yarra.

  11. Anthony
    Posted December 6, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    BTW is there any way to contact you two, ie Katy and Helen? There’s no indication of this on your website that I can find (but I admit I’m a poor wayfaring stranger in this regard). But the point is I want to complain that it is impossible for someone of the celtic persuasion to comment on your site, in that your “Post A Comment” function won’t recognise an email with an apostrophe in it. Why not? Apostrophes are recognised as a valid character by the nerds that determine international standards in this regard. I’d hate for you to think I just got an alternative gmail address for the purposes of commenting on your site: it’s useful for other sites that fall into the anti-celtic trap that yours does

  12. Posted December 7, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Who said anything about totally unplanned? Ask folk such as Clem Jones, Lord Mayor of Brisbane from 1961-75 who presided over dramatic population increase. He said the trick was to work out where people were going to want to live and make sure infrastructure was provided to serve that. This was precisely the sort of planning Melbourne had from the 1950s to the early 1980s.

    Yes, of course people have divergent interests, which is why it is important to plan for a range of services. It is deciding some form of infrastructure is “wicked” or that you can stop people wanting houses-with-gardens or can “manage” land use in a fully controlled way, etc which is disastrous.

    [email protected] Not “THE people” but the people, the residents of the city. They will want certain things — power, road, transport, sewerage, water, shops, schools. You plan for that, not for how you decide they ought to want to live.

    As for the congested Westgate Bridge, I live in Seddon with an office in Hawthorn, and know all about that. But neither railway or road (including freeway) nor dam construction has kept up with population growth, due to decisions in the 1980s (particularly) and 1990s which we are now trying to play “catch up” over.

    The planners of the 1950s to 1980 did much better: it was the much more arrogant later mindsets that have created the problems.

    I am not engaged in libertarian speculation here, it is possible point to cases of doing it right. As apparently was also done in Curitiba: from the brief description it seems to have been focused on dong things that would accord with what people wanted to do, and involved them therefore.

    In Texas, for example, one gets developments with covenants which are legally enforceable. One, in effect, gets a competitive market in local rules.

    What Mel does not understand is that the planner-controlled land use he is talking about CREATES the “white shoe brigade” by maximising the value of access to planners and regulators since their decisions become all important.

    A friend of mine is the Liberal Electorate Chair: one could always guarantee a full house when there was a fundraising event for the shadow planning minister since all the developers, real estate agents, etc had to make sure they kept communication with the alternative minister. No other portfolio area is remotely like that because in no other portfolio area are officials discretions so much the be-all and end-all of the industry.

  13. Posted December 7, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    I will also make a wild guess about Curitiba and assume that pandering to, for example, transport unions did not dominate transport policy nor did regular transport strikes poison support for public transport.

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