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Remarks on Public Transport Senate Inquiry

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 20 Aug 2009

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (3.34 pm)

I want to make a couple of brief remarks. I initiated the inquiry of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee into public transport on the last sitting day of last year. I am really quite pleased to see the report come to fruition, after eight or nine months of work. It is a valuable contribution to the debate on public transport and we certainly welcome it. Australian cities, with a few notable examples,
are still getting by on the public transport investments that we made several generations ago. In Perth, for example, an extensive tram network was allowed to fall into disrepair in the immediate postwar years as Australian planners began to follow the North American model of low-density, car-dependent, land use planning. So of course that tram network was torn up.

In no Australian city has public transport funding really kept pace with our rapidly expanding communities. This did not happen by accident; it happened by
design. While states retain the responsibility for planning decisions and shoulder a lot of the cost of transport, the Commonwealth, for many decades, has made a conscious decision to vastly favour road funding over public transport. There is nothing in the Constitution that says this should be so. The report that we are tabling today notes that in the 30 years to 2004 the Commonwealth spent $58 billion on roads, $2.2 billion on rail, much of it for freight purposes, and $1.5 billion on public transport. This is finally starting to change, and it needs to change urgently, but we have five decades of catch-up ahead of us.

The report strongly warns that funding by the Commonwealth should only be allocated to states and territories with integrated, well-planned transport and land use planning systems, which should be a trigger for some states to urgently reassess their attitudes to public transport. The report is really a shot across the bows—that there will not be any blank cheques on public transport spending coming from the Commonwealth. States and territories with coherent public transport plans and proposals will benefit, and states that retain outdated planning policies favouring freeways over public transport will miss out. We had an object lesson in this approach, as flawed as it may be and as much as we have critiqued it. Infrastructure Australia assessed the proposals that were put up by the states and territories. Western Australia, my own state, put up no coherent public transport proposal, apart from sinking the Northbridge railway line, and we got nothing. Other states and territories of course did get Commonwealth contributions. 

Public transport is meaningless without land use planning that supports it so that we do not continue to strand people, many of them on very low incomes, in the far reaches of our cities. In this report, the committee agree that significant catch-up investment in public transport infrastructure is needed. Public transport competes with private transport for ridership. So instead of working out how to make it cheaper, we need to work out how to make it better. That means higher service frequencies, safe places to transfer from one
service to another and designing public transport to really appeal to a much larger number of people. It will mean working very closely with planning for pedestrians and for cyclists—an essential part of making the best use of public transport in our communities. It may mean getting bicycles on buses and trains, as has been trialled in some parts of Australia. It may mean expanding the availability for people to take their pets onto public transport vehicles, subject to sensible conditions, as already occurs in many places. 

The report recognises that building more roads does not alleviate congestion but rather encourages growth of traffic and entrenches patterns of urban development that creates dependence on cars, particularly in middle ring and outer metropolitan areas. The committee also notes that it would be wise for Australia to pay more attention to peak oil concerns and to adopt strong policies to reduce our oil dependence in the long term. The committee found that the CPRS alone would not have been nearly enough action for the federal government to take to deal with the rapidly rising carbon emissions from the transport sector. This is crucial. It will not be enough, when the CPRS bill returns to the Senate, for the government to argue that a carbon price— somewhere mixed in there, particularly with the fact that motorists would be shielded for a couple of years—would be enough to change behaviour. Clearly, it will not. 

The committee also identifies important health benefits in this report. There is a very strong connection between car dependent life styles, inactivity and incidence of obesity. These are major public health issues to which public transport infrastructure in the urban planning field can play a major role. 

The report takes a contradictory position in the executive summary at 5.4 implying that public transport remains solely the financial and planning responsibility of the states, while then going on to persuasively argue the case why this should change. The report notes that the committee ‘agrees that the demand on public transport infrastructure will continue to rise and require an expansion’. But of course it refuses to then take the next logical step to recommend that the Commonwealth allocate any funding for this task. 

In the face of the evidence, which is very well presented in this report, it borders on the bizarre that the majority report does not make a clear recommendation in this regard. The risk here is that this report will join the many others in the recent past to have made similar recommendations, while state and federal governments carry on funding and building obsolete infrastructure for an age which has passed. Public transport is an import part of the post-fossil world which the Greens are committed to building. We will be working actively in the community and in parliaments around the country to make sure that the lessons learned in the course of this inquiry will actually be heeded. 

I want to thank Senator Sterle from Western Australia who chaired the inquiry for the first few months and got us started. I also offer my thanks to Senator Nash
for carrying it through to completion. Particularly, thanks go to the committee staff who worked extremely hard to prepare a report which I think is going to make a valuable contribution. Lastly I want to thank all the people who took time to give evidence, to write submissions, to appear before the committee, people who rang talkback radio in Adelaide and Perth—which was then accepted as evidence to the committee—the academics and the community advocates who do so much work for us in this area. I thank them on behalf of the committee. I seek leave to continue my remarks. 

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