Interview with Paul Mees

Interview with Paul Mees – courtesy of the Socialist Party’s No Tunnel site

SP member Yorran Pelekenakis recently interviewed RMIT academic and public transport advocate Paul Mees. Paul spoke to Yorran about the Victorian State Government commissioned Eddington Report and public transport in Melbourne.

YP: What are your views on the Eddington Report?

PM: Both of Eddington’s tunnels are unnecessary, but the road tunnel would be actively counter productive, it would make Melbourne a worse place socially and environmentally. The rail tunnel is merely a waste of money.

YP: You argue that the rail tunnel in particular is grossly unnecessary because the current network is running under capacity. Eddington argues that you are basing your information on outdated figures. What is the true picture here?

PM: Well I don’t know what he means because he hasn’t actually provided any substantiation to his claims. He just mouths various insults directed at unnamed people, who are of course me. He never provides any response to the arguments that I’ve set out publicly as to why the rail system has about 100 % more capacity than is currently being provided.

I’ve published all of these and anyone can get them from the internet and they’re available even on the Eddington report website but he hasn’t seen fit to respond to them. I think the reason why he doesn’t respond is that neither he, nor the department, nor Connex have a valid response to my arguments.

YP: Connex Spokesman Mark Paterson said the 300 million passengers forecast in 1969 included extra capacity from up to 10 major infrastructure projects that were never undertaken. What infrastructure projects is Paterson referring to?

PM: The 1969 transport plan proposed the construction of the underground rail loop which is there because it’s been built. And that was to be built in order to then make it possible to provide new and extended rail lines in the suburbs. So, building the underground loop was to provide additional central city capacity so that the trains from those new lines would have somewhere to go.

Now, we’ve opened the underground loop and haven’t built any of the new or extended suburban lines, so logically, what we ought to do is complete the plan by building the suburban extensions. Instead what Connex say is, having completed the inner half of the plan what we now need to do is build a second underground loop, even more expensive that the last one, and not build any suburban extensions. Now, I cannot understand the logic behind that, and I don’t think there is any.

YP: So because these projects haven’t been completed there should actually be greater capacity not less.

PM: Precisely. That’s right and that is why there is so much surplus capacity because the new lines that the loop was intended to serve have never been built.

YP: Why are rail services being run at below capacity?

PM: Connex has no financial incentive. It’s in Connex’s interest to continue to do that because they can demand a bigger and bigger surplus from the government. If it becomes publicly and widely accepted that they’re not running the system to capacity then firstly they shouldn’t have their contract renewed when it expires next year. But secondly they shouldn’t be paid larger and larger subsidies in order to run the system less and less efficiently.

YP: What is the reason the government continues to give subsidies?

PM: hey seem to have an ideological bias in favour of privatisation that’s as virulent as the Kennet government. Secondly, they’re receiving poor advice from their department because the people who are advising them on privatisation are the same people who set up privatisation under the Kennet government.

For those people to admit privatisation has failed would be effectively asking for themselves to be sacked or demoted. It would be asking too much of human nature to expect those people to do that. Because the brumby government, firstly has this ideological bias in favour or privatisation and secondly has not, until recently really, cared less about public transport, they’ve been very reluctant to get alternative advice form outside the closed circle of Connex and the bureaucracy who appointed them and cover up for them.

YP: Why is there such a gaping chasm between your analysis of the needs and problems of public transport and those of Eddington?

PM: I’ve based my analysis on the best run rail systems in the world, which of course are all publicly operated. Whereas Eddington has based his analysis on what Connex and the department of transport told him.

YP: You made a very clear case for why public transport should be in public hands and argued it has cost 1.2 billion more than if it had remained in government control. Why then do you think the government is so keen to continue down the path of privatisation?

PM: Various private interests that benefit from privatised public transport spend a lot of time and money ingratiating themselves to the Brumby Government; by making campaign donations directly, or indirectly. Yarra Trams for example, their chairman is David White, who is a former Cain government cabinet minister and heads a lobbying firm called Hawker Britton.

YP: You made your case against privatisation so clear in fact that you were forced to leave Melbourne University. What kind of external pressure was Melbourne University under to do this? Or were they keen to do it themselves?

PM: It’s hard to say because they told me I can’t see my own file. When I applied for it under freedom of information they said it wouldn’t be in the public interest for me to see my own file. This is currently under appeal to VCAT.

But as far as I can tell it was a pre-emptive buckle. In the sense all the Department of Transport wanted was for the university to remove a pod cast of the criticisms I had made on the Department and privatisation from a university website. The department didn’t want the university to prosecute me. My belief is that they didn’t want that because they didn’t want to draw attention to the claims that I’ve made.

The university prosecuting me resulted in it being reported on the front page of The Age. The university was asked to remove the pod cast from the website, but because it proved to be a more spineless organisation than the Department of Transport anticipated, they actually went further than the department asked them to by prosecuting me as well.

YP: What does this say about Melbourne University’s respect for academic freedom?

PM: Well it says the Melbourne uni doesn’t have any respect for academic freedom when it conflicts with their desire to gain funding from and ingratiate themselves with powerful people.

YP: Recently your former college at Melbourne University, Nick Low, wrote into the paper critiquing your view of the tunnel and arguing it should go ahead as it would be needed in the long term. You have since argued that his calculations ignore the kind of travel the tunnel was designed to serve. Why are Low and others like him so keen to defend the tunnel?

PM: The fact is Nick Low is a planning theorist who has no expertise or research recorded whatsoever in the area of rail planning. It’s bizarre that he should be roaming around in public presenting himself as someone that does have expertise in that area.

If somebody asked me to comment on the particle accelerator that was opened in Switzerland recently I’d refer it to a physicist – I think Professor Low should have done the same. The fact that he is critiquing my work in a way that is congenial to the department suggests that he appears to be trying to curry favour with them for some reason or another.

YP: Do you think Low will come under pressure from the university to be less critical of Connex?

PM: No, because the point is he understands that the department currently intends to replace Connex with another private operator next year in order to assuage public anger. Now, simply having another private operator with the same system won’t make the slightest difference, but the department is hoping that they will be able to fool the public into thinking that that makes some difference. The department doesn’t mind Professor Low criticising Connex. So he won’t get into trouble for doing so.

YP: If the government is so keen to cut costs and under fund public transport, why is it so keen on such a monumentally expensive project such as the rail tunnel?

PM: Well they’re not, you see. They’re not keen to cut costs in public transport at all because they’ve ballooned since it was privatised, that’s the irony here. If the extra subsidies had been spent improving public transport, we’d already be on the path towards having a rail system as good as those of European cities.

If the Eddington tunnel budget was also diverted to projects like building new and extended lines in the suburbs then we’d be doing very well. So, the government is spending a fortune on public transport but its all being wasted by either being used to prop up a failed privatisation regime or alternatively being used to fund unnecessary projects that are only being suggested because the privatised regime can’t run the existing city loop effectively.

To do anything else would be an admission of great failure and incompetence. The Department of Transport would rather spend billions of dollars of our money unnecessarily than face up to the fact that the privatisation they introduced has failed. Because if they accepted that, then the logical consequence is that they should lose their jobs.

YP: With all your criticisms of the government why do you argue that PT should be run by it? Wouldn’t they do just as bad a job?

PM: Well I don’t believe public transport should be run by the ministry. Ministries in the current culture of spin are deeply politicised entities. The model that seems to work is to have an independent public corporation. A statutory corporation as we used to call them in Victoria, with names like the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board.

You need a public authority so that its there to serve the public interest rather than private profit. It needs to be separated from the day to day political spin cycle however, to keep it free of rent seeking behaviour by people like private contractors.

But finally it needs also to be made accountable and responsible to the public and partly the way to do that is by having open and participatory decision making processes. I think we can also learn from past Melbourne experiences and experiences in other places as well that having user and worker representees on the governing board of a body like that can help make it more responsive as well.

YP: Many people argue that the rail tunnel is designed to make the road tunnel more palatable, would you agree with this assessment?

PM: I think it was. I think there’s no doubt about that. You only need to look back to the process whereby the road tunnel got back on the agenda, because its only 5 years ago since it was killed off by a government study that concluded that it was a bad idea.

The Melbourne city council organised to put it back on the agenda by commissioning a study back in 2006. Their consultants came up with the ingenious idea of proposing a road tunnel AND a rail tunnel together as a way of making the thing more politically palatable. So the history of the project makes it clear that that was the strategy.

YP: The rail tunnel aside, on its own merits what is your opinion of the proposed road tunnel?

PM: The road tunnel is much worse than the rail tunnel. The rail tunnel is only a waste of money, whereas the road tunnel would be incredibly damaging for Melbourne as well as being a waste of money.

YP: The main reasons it’s so damaging being more cars?

PM: It’s not just that. I think part of the problem is, and this is an illustration of inner suburban bias, I don’t think people should be referring to it as a tunnel because in the western suburbs from Footscray right through to Western Sunshine it’s intended to be on the surface or even elevated above the surface.

It’s just going to be bashed through people’s suburbs and houses according to the Eddington report. So it’s quite inaccurate to call it a tunnel because for about half its length, it’s not to be a tunnel at all. Only in the rich part of Melbourne do you get a tunnel and in the working class areas, just bulldoze it straight through people’s houses.

So, the first thing is the direct affect on all those people but then its bad for Melbourne as a whole, and it would be bad even if it was all in a tunnel, because essentially its about entrenching automobile dependence at a time when we ought to be doing the opposite.

YP: Has Eddington accepted the challenge you issued for a debate?

PM: No, well, you see these people are frightened of scrutiny. They don’t actually have a genuine argument for what they’re doing so they attempt to avoid scrutiny by spinning in front of compliant audiences and compliant media and never allowing themselves to be put in a situation where they’d actually have to justify what they’re doing.

YP: What methods do you think local councils could use to successfully campaign against the tunnel?

PM: Well we know what works, you see, because we only need to look at what the bad guys did to get the Eddington road tunnel on the agenda. Who put it on the agenda? The Melbourne City Council. What did they do? They used their vast financial resources and also the clout that comes from being a council, to commission studies, lobby, go around, build up support, run media campaigns and resource, well not community groups of course, because there weren’t any lobbying for the road tunnel, but corporate groups.

We need local councils that are prepared to do that in favour of sustainable transport, rather than merely against it.

YP: Why was Melbourne council so in favour of the road tunnel?

PM: They have a key group of bureaucrats who share the same agenda as the state government’s bureaucrats. There’s a bit of a revolving door between the council and the State Government anyway, so sometimes it’s hard to remember which ones they work for. In fact one of the key Melbourne City Council bureaucrats was actually seconded to the Eddington report to help Eddington write his study.

So that’s how road lobby gets road projects up on the agenda, they use local government. I think the sustainable transport lobby could do a lot worse than use local government as well. What happens in local government was illustrated by what happened in the City of Yarra at the start of 2005. A number of us attempted to get Yarra to vote in favour of doing that. Stephen Jolly from the Socialist Party and the three Greens to their credit, all voted in favour of it. But the Labor councillors and the independent, Jackie Fristakie, voted against it. So it was defeated.

I tell you, the road lobby observed that and that was one of the things that made them think it was time to have another go at the Eddington tunnel; the fact that even Yarra wasn’t prepared to do anything serious to fight it. We know essentially what needs to happen with local councils but we haven’t, as yet, had a local council that’s prepared to put the necessary muscles and dollars behind a community campaign.

YP: What’s your opinion of the current Yarra Campaign Against the Tunnel?

PM: I think they’re doing good work and there are lots of other local campaign groups as well. I think it would be great if we could find some way of linking up the different local groups so that their campaigns can collectively produce a stronger voice.

I think the next step has to be, and not just in Yarra, taking the campaign to the local government elections. Making sure that we have local councils elected that will fight on this issue and not just issue platitudinous statements along the lines of “wouldn’t it be nice if people rode their bikes more?” but that will actually throw there resources and their political clout as councils behind getting the transport agenda changed.