New South Wales transport minister Andrew Constance should note the observation by Victor Hugo, the French novelist, that the worst thing a minister can do is have policies that upset people so much that they protest publicly and loudly about them.
The 1000 people who packed the Belmont 16 Footers’ auditorium on February 18 were certainly upset with the transport minister. Also angry were the 1000 people who just days before took to the streets in Sydney under the banner of Fix NSW Transport. Some of the Sydney marchers carried lemon-shaped signs that symbolised what they thought about the minister’s tollways, timetable tinkering and total privatisation.
The Sydney protest brought together anti-tollway groups, public transport campaigners, commuters and trade unionists from across Sydney and beyond.
Significantly, the organisers of the protest, the Fix NSW Transport Coalition, asked the Hunter contingent to come to the front of the march. As rally speakers pointed out, residents of Inner West Sydney (scheduled to have their buses privatised) and people living along the Sydenham-Bankstown corridor (who can expect to see their transport corridor rezoned), only need look to the Hunter to see what happens when public transport is privatised and cut.
The need to fix NSW Transport is not an issue that will go away in a hurry.
Speaking at the Belmont meeting, NSW Labor leader Luke Foley drew applause when he said he was not a fan of privatisation. He rightly described the new bus service as a rip-off and called for the restoration of routes such as the 349, 350, 310 and 352 and those down Beaumont Street, Hamilton. However, Foley restricted himself to saying that Keolis Downer needs to fix the Newcastle buses or they’ll get no more contracts if he becomes premier.
Contracts to do what exactly?
Considering that it was Labor that got the ball rolling on closing the Newcastle rail line and Labor Newcastle councillors recently voted to rezone the rail corridor, the premier-in-waiting’s exact view on public transport privatisation needs to be clarified.
Notwithstanding Foley’s ambiguity, the Hunter MPs who initiated the Belmont public meeting were clear on the need for follow-up action. They have called for a street march on March 18 starting at 10.30am at Gregson Park, proceeding to the Hamilton Bus depot.
The alliance between grassroots transport groups upset with the government and the union movement being fostered by this coalition is a potential game-changer.
The funds to fix NSW transport are there. Cancelling the 33 kilometre Westconnex tunnel would be a good start, releasing up to $45 billion. At more than $1 billion a kilometre, Westconnex makes Newcastle’s $220 million a kilometre light rail look cheap.
This freed-up money could be used to upgrade existing rail and transport systems and to build and maintain rail stock and trains.
By redirecting investment towards public transport, we could aim to have reliable, cheap and frequent services within five minutes’ walk of most homes and businesses, thus making public transport a real option for all.
The public mood is changing, and any leader who rises to this challenge and articulates a sound plan for fixing and strengthening public transport in NSW, would poll well in the 2019 elections.
[Steve O’Brien is a Socialist Alliance activist in Newcastle and a regular Newcastle-to-Sydney commuter. This article was first published in the Newcastle Herald. The protest on March 18 starts at 10.30am at Gregson Park and will proceed to the Hamilton Bus depot.]