Blacktown ALP NSW MP Paul Gibson has openly urged Premier Nathan Rees to make public transport free.
Gibson framed his argument mainly in terms of securing votes to win the next state election for the ALP. But the proposal is sound and should be supported.
Indeed, the Socialist Alliance has been calling for this for a long time. Free public transport would help ease traffic congestion and is an essential policy for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, the NSW ALP government has been quick to pour cold water on the suggestion. The state transport minister, David Campbell, said free public transport was not affordable. Campbell said that such a scheme would cost the state government $1 billion a year.
Yet only 26% of the $3.8 billion a year spent on running public transport in NSW is covered by fares.
Gibson said such a scheme would "win the Green vote" for the ALP; but more importantly, it would be a real move towards an environmentally responsible public transport system in the state.
Astonishingly, the NSW Greens, who most would expect to support such a proposal, have also come out against Gibson's plan for free public transport.
On April 20 NSW Greens parliamentarian Lee Rhiannon told ABC Online that although the Greens had a "vision for free public transport" they did not support making it a reality right now.
Rhiannon said current fares were needed to help expand services to regions without adequate public transport. She said the lack of flexibility and convenience in the system discouraged people from using it, rather than the cost.
Yet if now is the wrong time then when exactly will the right time for free public transport come?
Climate change is advancing fast and the need to cut carbon emissions and encourage less use of private cars could not be more urgent.
Furthermore, not only should the public transport system be made free, it should be vastly expanded.
Free public transport could be funded through a sliding scale of levies on businesses employing 20 workers or more. Electronic tolling of heavy freight used by business on major roads and motorways would also provide revenue for such a scheme.
Furthermore, the growth of public transport and cutting of private car trips would be a real stimulus for the economy. It would create more jobs, building, operating and maintaining buses, trains, trams and ferries while getting private cars off the roads.
In this time of economic crisis, this is a real way working-class people can maintain their standard of living.
So, the call must be: public transport — make it free and frequent!