Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Making coal protest "acceptable"

Tomorrow (Wed. 1 Feb) an important coal protest will take place at 12.30pm on the steps of the Victorian Parliament to call for the end of a brown-coal gasification power station proposed by HRL in the Latrobe Valley.

Such protest should be a commonplace - as acceptable as protest about job security and conditions, the availability of affordable child care, or safer level crossings - but coal protest has been blackened in the eyes of ordinary people.

That's due in part to the governments and coal interests ranged against it. It's probably also due to the remoteness for many of coal-fired power generation - in Victoria, primarily in the Latrobe Valley.

Perhaps its arrival through long overhead lines seems for some to have cleansed coal-fired power of its carbon emissions, airborne pollutants, and other environmental impacts. By the time it reaches our lights and fridges, where it is undeniably needed, what could seem cleaner? How could anyone protest that?

Yet, before we dismiss as "radical" or extreme the growing and peaceful protests against the generation of electricity from coal, before we allow to pass unchallenged the documented surveillance of coal protesters, we should imagine this.

What if the burning of coal to meet our domestic energy requirements could only be undertaken house-by-house?

In some cases we might even imagine "fortunate" households sitting atop their own coal reserves. To the choking airborne particulates - implicated by medicine in cancer, heart attack and stroke - to the carbon emissions driving climate disruption, those "resource-rich" individuals could then add the ground-water pollution and environmental damage of mining itself - coal or coal seam gas, take your pick.

That at a trivial level these problems are seemingly concentrated elsewhere fails to negate the health and environmental impacts of coal-fired power in the Latrobe Valley, or the pumping of emissions into a global atmosphere we all share, an atmosphere that does not care about the geographic location of an emissions source.

When they protest, it is coal's dark and central role in this process that campaigners oppose.

Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal, and is set on the headlong expansion of coal exports. Despite a wealth of renewable energy sources that could slash Australia's total and per capita emissions, we also persist in our heavy reliance on coal for domestic power generation.

Yet scientists consider the end of coal essential if we are to seize the fading opportunity for a safe climate future.

Some may be tempted to reply that we now have a carbon price, a modest 2020 emissions reduction target and a seemingly substantial but very distant 2050 target. They may argue that Australia is doing what it can to take "economically responsible" climate action.

Unfortunately, our efforts are more show than substance, with the Australian Government entered in two contradictory races - one the public relations race to persuade us it is doing its bit to "save" the climate; the other, the coal-driven race to destroy it.

In this race, the climate is losing, with the coal barons racing off 50 metres and the protesters heavily handicapped.

To make matters worse, a recent report in The Guardian suggests that not only are fossil fuel interests starting a long way ahead, but they are also being boosted by "performance-enhancing" subsidies.

The report considered modelling by the International Energy Agency on the effect of ending global fossil fuel subsidies - currently some 500 per cent greater than those available to renewables.

By 2035, the modelling projects a saving of 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or around half the estimated emissions cuts needed to keep global average temperature rise within two degrees Celsius.

While this "guardrail" temperature limit is now considered unsafe by leading climate scientists, the modelling gives some indication of the impact of ending subsidies alone - not to mention the potential benefits of redirecting them to renewable energy technologies.

In Australia, fossil fuel subsidies have been estimated by the Australian Conservation Foundation at around $12 billion annually. It's also not hard to scratch beneath the surface to find large nuggets of support for coal from public funding.

In Victoria, HRL's Latrobe Valley "dual gas" power station project - combining brown coal gasification and natural gas - has $50 million in State funding and $100 million in Federal funding, the latter now under review.

The review follows the Environment Protection Authority's qualified 2011 project approval (subject to appeal at VCAT), which cut the output of the power station from the proposed 600 megawatts to 300. Unmet funding conditions for the Federal support have also played a role.

It is this review that Quit Coal and other climate groups will be highlighting tomorrow at 12.30pm on the steps of Victorian Parliament as a vital opportunity to end the project and the unacceptable growth in emissions it would otherwise threaten for decades to come.

Protesters will not be arguing for mass power black-outs - just that we finally begin as we must continue, by choosing proven renewable energy sources and technologies that offer not only energy security, but climate and job security as well.

It would be naive to suggest this will be an effortless transition, but we can share that effort fairly to avoid climate impacts that will otherwise be felt where they fall - in terms of more frequent and severe bush fires, for example, particularly in south-eastern Australia.

Sir Nicholas Stern and Professor Ross Garnaut have consistently highlighted the economic benefits of early intervention. However, beyond the figures, we must acknowledge that the need for climate action is a matter of science as surely as emergency surgery is a matter of medicine. A vital part of that action is to leave coal safely in the ground - the only existing form of carbon capture and storage we know to be safe.

Governments at State or Federal level cannot defend inaction because they consider action politically difficult, because they have failed in their obligation to plan a future we can sustain, or, more damningly, because individuals such as Federal resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson are too close to powerful coal interests.

It is further reprehensible that any government should seek to veil inaction by demonising coal protest.

Protest against coal is an act of citizenship in the Australian and global interest. That's why I will be at Parliament tomorrow in my lunch break joining the call to stop HRL - it's acceptable because it's high time we Quit Coal.

For further information:

Read Environment Victoria's Eight Good reasons to cut HRL's government funding.

Updated 8.47am Wednesday 1 February 2012

Comments welcome

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Open-sourcing Martin Ferguson

I say it's time to turn the tables in the open-source stakes against Martin Ferguson. As many will know by now - including many in the energy and resources minister's own Batman electorate - Ferguson has been pushing a spy-on-the-protesters campaign to undermine public interest protest and to defend - with the help of ASIO, the AFP and others - the private interests of carbon-intensive resources companies.

Part of the campaign is the Government's hiring of a private firm, the National Open Source Intelligence Centre (NOSIC), to gather what it claims is publicly available information on green protest groups (we don't actually know which information sources NOSIC uses).

Sadly, no-one really knew about this or could subject it to any kind of public scrutiny until Fairfax journalist Philip Dorling recently reported on information he obtained through freedom of information requests.

But shouldn't the information we need to make informed decisions about the policies and decisions of our leaders be freely available, without the need to make freedom of information requests that are too often vetted by the very people who do not want to make that information available to us?

Indeed, too much information is denied, obscured or difficult to find for no public interest or valid privacy reason, but that's where protesters themselves and civil society organisations like the non-partisan OpenAustralia Foundation (Bravo!) can step in to help.

Together, we can open-source Martin Ferguson in a collaborative project that we might like to call the Ferguson Open Source Information Links (FOSsIL) project. #FOSsIL might even be quite a nice Twitter hashtag to let everyone follow what's going on.

To start the ball rolling, here are some easy ways to keep track of Martin Ferguson. They're all open source, there's nothing in the least bit sneaky about them, we can all own up in good conscience to using them, and we'll be doing it not for profit, but in pursuit of the public interest goal of informing ourselves to campaign more effectively for a safer climate.
Some of these sources also allow you to subscribe to email alerts, or to RSS feeds for those who use them (RSS in Plain English explains very clearly how news feeds work).

Of course, this is only a handful of genuinely open sources, but it's a useful start. It's important to read widely, because some of Martin's most climate-unfriendly announcements are made - indeed proudly touted by Martin himself - in Australian and international business media, for example.

Got any good sources of public information about Martin Ferguson? Why not tweet them using the #FOSsIL hashtag!

By the way, I should mention that the pictures in this post are from the Say No to NOSIC protest organised by Occupy Melbourne at Ferguson's Preston electorate office last Thursday.

Comments welcome.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

That's a pretty clear "No" to Ferguson's NOSIC

Lots more photos and video will be available shortly, but Say No to NOSIC, today's Occupy Melbourne event at Martin Ferguson's electoral office, was a very positive coming together of disparate groups - all there to defend public interest protest against private interest spying.

I travelled by 86 tram with a group from the City Square, and it seemed an appropriate beginning that Melbourne City Council officials were there to request the removal of Occupy signage - please do not despair, minions, life can be more meaningful, as we were all about to demonstrate.

When we arrived at Martin Ferguson's Preston electorate office, an advance protest party was already there in force, as was a contingent of Victorian and Australian Federal Police with enough vehicles to give the strange impression of an outdoor law enforcement vehicle showroom.

I asked one besuited young officer if she was from ASIO. "Of course," she replied - rather wittily, I thought - before amending her answer: "No, Federal Police". Unfortunately, not all the officers present had so admirable a sense of humour, with reports of officers swearing at protesters who strayed onto the road to connect with the sympathetic passing traffic. Unfortunately, the AFP's own traffic-stopping antics created far more risk, and they were urged to move on by the crowd.

It was a cause of some amusement to the gathering that Ferguson's office had been closed in response to the protest on "occupational health and safety" grounds. It occurred to me then that if Ferguson is allowed to continue with his lust for burning and exporting fossil fuels, we might just have to close the planet. Fortunately, many worthy campaigners stand in the way.

Occupy Melbourne's Nick Carson did a great job on the microphone, speaking himself but also facilitating a series of speakers in a truly participatory spirit.

Among these was Quit Coal's Shaun Murray, recent author of a powerful opinion piece making the case for democratic protest against coal, and giving the lie to Ferguson's spin regarding the imaginary "risks" posed by protest groups.

Murray had earlier participated in a very funny Tuesday protest filmed to the accompaniment of music from Get Smart.

The addresses continued with Friends of the Earth's Dr Jim Green on Ferguson's complementary delusion that we should not only burn or sell all our coal, we should sell uranium too in a dangerous pretence of action on climate change.
Historian and ALP member Wil Wallace voiced his own disappointment at the party he has followed, a disappointment he has channelled into participatory democracy and protest.

Sadly, we also heard testimony of spying on lawful and peaceful coal protests, including on children, in Queensland and elsewhere - spying that simply isn't justified on any public interest basis - whether or not, as one speaker rightly pointed out, that spying is undertaken by government, or by private agencies directed by government, such as the National Open Source Intelligence Centre (NOSIC).

In accordance with the participatory nature of Occupy, everyone was afforded an opportunity to take a turn with the microphone, so I decided I would also say a few words, transcribed here from my notebook scrawls:
We are here today to Say No to NOSIC, the private firm engaged to spy on lawful and peaceful protesters under the direction of resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson, our local Batman MP.

The Australian Federal Police are here not to repel any real threat from us - we are lawful and peaceful protesters.

They are, however, here to defend a threat - to protect and perpetuate the threat of Martin Ferguson to our climate.

We are here today thanks to Occupy Melbourne, to Say No to NOSIC, to say no to spying on behalf of private interests against public interest campaigners seeking a safer climate. We are here to oppose those who work for the benefit of the 1% against the common good.

We are here to say no to that, and to send a message to Martin Ferguson and the Gillard Labor Government, that the 99% will be heard, that they will be heard on the globally urgent question of climate.
The protest wrapped up with a group photo and chalked messages on the footpath in front of Ferguson's office (my own, "Regards, DL-H"). This was a positive protest organised to communicate a very serious message, and I commend Occupy Melbourne for their democratic achievement.

P.S. Don't forget Friday is National Check in with Martin Ferguson Day. Please ensure your heart is in the right place, and report on yourself to help the government save money on spies!

Comments welcome.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ferguson spy skit has point of serious protest

If you haven't seen Quit Coal's very amusing short video about Tuesday's action against Martin Ferguson's spy-on-the protesters campaign, it's a must-see, with a very funny punchline about a certain fictional cat.

Unfortunately, the video is also a perfect illustration of the misuse of public resources not to fend off a threat, but to defend and perpetuate one - the Member for Batman himself, resources and energy minister, Martin Ferguson.

That's right - Ferguson is the threat we need to worry about as he works to expand exploitation of the fossil fuels that - burnt here, or exported then burnt - threaten to wipe out any carbon emissions savings from a carbon tax and clean energy development.

In the terms the Batman MP might use, there was no threat from the protesters, who dressed as spies to deliver a "secret" dossier about the coal barons. Ferguson knew there would be no violence or unlawful activity, just an inconvenient point to be made about his contribution to disastrous climate change. Unfortunately, he's the real face of the Gillard Labor Government on climate.

The assembled Australian Federal Police must also have known of the lack of any non-imaginary threat, and yet there they were, perhaps as genuine but unrelated threats elsewhere went unaddressed - witness the parallels between this action and Robert Doyle's nonsense with police attendance at various Occupy sites around the city while real crimes elsewhere just had to go unprosecuted.

The point Ferguson was really making is that he thinks he has the power to not hear directly from protesters, those among the 99% championed by Occupy Melbourne, and of course in this case from the ranks of the worthy activists of Quit Coal and Friends of the Earth.

In that sense, the video's use of the theme music from Get Smart was very appropriate. I can hear Ferguson grumpily pronouncing, "I didn't hear you", and - when the protesters ask "What part didn't you hear" - Ferguson replying, "The part after you said, 'Now listen carefully, Martin'".

If you'd like to contribute to the effort to improve Martin's hearing, please come to the second of this week's three actions, Occupy Melbourne's Say No to NOSIC* protest, at Ferguson's 159 High Street Preston electorate office (Google Map) on Thursday 12 January from 4.30pm, or meet at the City Square at 3.30pm to proceed there together by tram.

Further details are available on the Facebook page for the event.

After that, Friday is National Check In With Martin Ferguson Day, in which you let Martin know what you've been up to in the way of public interest activism to help the Government save money on spies by cutting out the middle-man (sorry, NOSIC*).

*NOSIC is the private intelligence-gathering firm spying on climate protesters for the Government.

Comments welcome.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

More bad news for spymaster Ferguson

Updated 6.54pm.

The continuing public backlash over resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson's spy-on-the protesters campaign spells more bad news for the Batman MP turned private interest campaigner and spymaster.

The wave of letters in yesterday's editions of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald continues in today's Melbourne broadsheet. Quit Coal and Friends of the Earth campaigner Shaun Murray has also today published a powerful opinion piece making a strong case that the risk to Australia is from the coal barons, not protesters.

The coverage came as protesters prepared to gather at Ferguson's 159 High Street Preston electorate office today at 12.30pm (Quit Coal) and on Thursday at 4.30pm (Occupy Melbourne).

Together, the coverage and protests send a strong message saying no to a spying campaign that pits the private interests of emissions-intensive resources companies against community campaigners working in the public interest to achieve a safer climate for everyone.

Here's my letter in today's edition of The Age ("Ferguson must be resisted").
FOLLOWING Saturday's excellent reports by Philip Dorling, it is heartening to see such a united voice opposing the Minister for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson's undemocratic ''spy-on-the-protesters'' campaign.

Accounts by protesters are emerging across Australia, but notably also in Mr Ferguson's Victorian federal electorate of Batman - a focal point for public interest campaigns to achieve a safer climate.

Mr Ferguson has shown that his local constituents don't count - it's his ''carbon constituents'' from the resources companies he really represents. Sadly, he's willing to engage the government's intelligence-gathering machinery to ensure the companies get their way. He must, and will, be resisted.
 Comments welcome.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Strange freedoms of information

With all the controversy and plans for action in response to Martin Ferguson's spy-on-the-protesters campaign, I was slightly surprised to see my letter ("Keep us informed") in today's edition of The Sunday Age responding to Farrah Tomazin's excellent report last week, Baillieu's FOI watchdog more like a toothless tiger.

Purely coincidentally, of course, the two issues are strangely linked.

While citizens face great difficulties getting their hands on public interest information to critique government and inform their participation in civil society, our politicians and governments - "influenced" by vested corporate interests - rent private firms and use their own formidable intelligence-gathering machinery to unaccountably gather all kinds of information about citizens against the public interest.

Hence "strange freedoms of information" - we're not free to get the information we need to be good citizens; politicians and government are excessively free in collecting information about us to meet ends too often at odds with the common good.

My letter doesn't appear to be online yet, but here it is as submitted:
I welcome the continuing focus by The Sunday Age on freedom of information under successive Victorian governments (Baillieu's FOI watchdog more like a toothless tiger, Opinion, 1/1).

A functioning society in which government can be held accountable for its actions demands an efficient, independent and transparent gateway to public interest information, not needless barriers to its access. Farrah Tomazin nails the claimed aspirations of the Baillieu government on the former, and paints a damning picture of the latter - a toothless system little improved by the mere appearance of reform.

I would suggest, however, that scrutiny of FOI should not prevent us calling for a significant expansion of the scant information government is obliged to release without citizens needing to request it and then being diverted to a bureaucratic process. To gauge government performance, we shouldn't need to piece together a jigsaw of information variously delayed, fragmented, mediated, obscured or denied.

Instead, government should be called on to develop with civil and public institutions - including unions, not-for-profits and universities - indicators that show how effectively outcomes are being achieved. I mean by this not evidence of bureaucratic outcomes based on economic rationalism, but of the effects policies and programs have on real people, whose voices must also be heard in this process.

At the federal level we have MySchool purporting to represent the performance of schools. At state and federal level might we not call on governments to show their own performance in real time on transparent and collaboratively developed websites that could include, for example, MyHealth, MyJobSecurity, MyCommunity and MyClimate?

We then might better hope for our collective well-being.
Comments welcome.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Occupy to send a strong message to Martin Ferguson

I had the pleasure of attending my first General Assembly at Occupy Melbourne today, and did so to urge action over revelations that Martin Ferguson has actively promoted spying on lawful green protest groups pursuing the public interest, and is urging harsher penalties for some protest activities.

The General Assembly resolved that a protest with environment groups will be held at 4.30pm next Thursday 12 January at Martin Ferguson's Batman electoral office at 159 High Street Preston (Google Map).

The spying claims, backed by freedom-of-information requests, were published in today's edition of The Age in two excellent articles by Philip Dorling - Spies eye green protesters and The watchdog's kennel in clandestine Croydon

My own thoughts as one of Ferguson's Batman constituents and as a climate campaigner were captured in my earlier post, Protest magnet Ferguson calls on the spies

It was good to see Occupy Melbourne engage so energetically on this issue, mirroring Noam Chomsky's recent view that the movement was "pretty fantastic", but needed to engage on current issues where it could actually make a difference. The revelation of spying against civil society protest groups is certainly one such issue in Australia.

What I hope we will see from next Thursday's protest is a group that stands for so much showing that it can unify and throw the spotlight on particular issues as needed.

Today I proposed that the event be the first in a series of Occupy plugs in ... events - namely, Occupy plugs in Climate. The range of serious issues with which the movement concerns itself could then revolve through the Occupy spotlight in a similar way, with an Occupy plugs in Indigenous Justice surely a looming priority.

As well as unifying and highlighting the disparate environment groups that will be called on to take part, I am also hoping that next Thursday will see Occupy specifically acknowledged and respected as a wonderful and powerful expression of participatory democracy.

Occupy around the world has put itself bodily on the line to demand equity, justice and genuine democracy for the 99 per cent, who are too often exploited by the kind of vested, wealthy corporate interests that are Martin Ferguson's true carbon constituents.

So, if you can, please come along and show your support. Visit the Occupy Melbourne website or Facebook page, follow the movement on Twitter @OccupyMELBOURNE or search for the #OMEL hashtag, where you'll see lots of updates before next Thursday's powerful and necessary message to Martin Ferguson.

Comments welcome.

Protest magnet Ferguson calls on the spies

Important update: Come to next Thursday's protest (12/1) at Martin Ferguson's Preston electorate office.


Media revelations that resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson has called on the spies to monitor environmental campaigners and urged stiffer penalties for protests should come as no surprise to anyone who has worked on those campaigns and protests in the hope of a safer climate.

What may surprise the federal Batman MP's constituents, however, is the range of peaceful democratic action Ferguson considers a threat.

The minister's rhetoric is full of dire talk about "energy security", disruption to "critical infrastructure" and the prevention and deterrence of "unlawful activity", but the overwhelming majority of the many protests Ferguson attracts are entirely lawful, peaceful, and - inconveniently for him - devastatingly coherent in their critique of his passion for uranium and emissions-intensive fossil fuels.

Ferguson may like to paint activists as potential terrorists, but where is his evidence to support that smear? How many acts of actual criminal sabotage by environment campaigners have really taken place, and how many has his wasteful, anti-democratic enthusiasm for spying prevented? Isn't it really more about winning the public relations war on behalf of the minerals and resources lobby?

The extent of his distaste for the protests of civil society may not be fully known by his local constituents, but they are increasingly connecting Ferguson with his federal role undermining our climate security and preserving business-as-usual exploitation of fossil and uranium "resources" that need to be left - safely sequestered - in the ground.

These connections are as often forged by small-scale protests in his electorate as they are by large-scale protests at coal-fired power stations such as Hazelwood. And, judging by his past performances, they're the ones that really spoil the minister's day.

"... I believe that the right to peacefully demonstrate is an essential part of freedom of speech in a democratic society..."

That's Ferguson in a 9 September 2009 letter-box message to Preston constituents after protesters at his opening of an environmental refurbishment of a local park pointed to the stark contrast between worthy local green initiatives and Ferguson's climate-heating exploits.

The letter-box effort followed a string of letters to local newspapers from climate campaigners pointing to this inconvenient truth. This was also the letter in which Ferguson falsely accused me of being a "Greens activist".

Sounding a more ominous note, however, was his meeting with myself and other climate campaigners in his electorate office on 9 April 2010. The result of a rare, last-minute invitation, that meeting has been recounted in Crikey and in more detail on this blog, but it was an unguarded comment by Ferguson that pointed to the kinds of activities that have landed him in hot water in today's media coverage.

It wasn't his rather grumpy remark to me that "I've read your blog. You're not worth talking to", after I began on what he deemed a "cross-examination" on the energy and climate issues we had come to discuss. Instead, it was his response to my happy claim of a substantial readership.

"We know how many hits your blog gets," Ferguson replied.

It was this statement that hinted at the pervasive monitoring that has now been revealed in today's important public interest reports by Philip Dorling in The Age.

While most activists would be used to seeing a range of government departments, including police, in the reports of server traffic to their websites, they and the public are not nearly as aware as they should be of the extent of what can only be called spying, and of the sinister mismatch between this expensive and fruitless activity and the democratic rights of citizens to protest and seek change in the public interest.

Contrast with this the modest capacity of civil society campaigners, groups and watchdogs to track and shine light on the closed-door fossil fuel and uranium lobbying that wears out the carpets in ministerial offices.

The threat of such hidden, unaccountable activity is real and it's global. That's why protesters rightly dog Ferguson - they want you and your children to be safe.

I hope this message gets through to the minister. One thing is certain - it's sure to be monitored.

Amendment: The date of my meeting with Martin Ferguson at his electorate office has been corrected from the original version. The meeting took place on Friday 9 April 2010.

Comments welcome.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Teachers among many voices stifled by job insecurity

Recent coverage in The Age (No job security for new teachers; School success depends on a secure workforce) has highlighted the impact of job insecurity in Victoria's public education system, and its implications for the State's young people.

Letters yesterday and today have offered further perspectives. Mine focused on the stifling effect of job insecurity on workers in teaching and other vital community services speaking out in the public interest on serious problems in the critical services they deliver.

Here's the unedited version ("A revealing angle" following "Disillusionment then departure" in The Age):
The recent coverage and letters about declining job security for teachers should give pause to every parent who has noticed the surprising end-of-year departure of one or more teachers they may well have had the pleasure of meeting at parent-teacher interviews earlier in the year. That was the case for me, and your focus on the issue has provided a new lens through which to view this unacceptable phenomenon.

Unfortunately, it is a lens with a panoramic view, given that the very same strategy is employed by the Victorian Government across a range of important community services.

Strangely, we are supposed to be reassured that the 3600 jobs slated to disappear from the public service by the December budget update will be found through cuts not only from voluntary redundancies, but also, tellingly, via the failure to renew existing fixed-term contracts.

As well as the barriers to sustainable lives and a high quality workforce this "flexible" job insecurity threatens, there's another side to precarious employment in areas where the government is very sensitive to media criticism. Insecure workers are fearful, their ability to mobilise is fragmented, and the voicing of concern about serious public interest matters within vital service areas is stifled - think teachers, nurses and child protection workers, to name just three examples.

As the late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, noted in 1997, job insecurity is everywhere now [1]. However, he saw its origins not only in economic rationalism, but also in political calculation. We should resist both if we wish to see the lives of workers valued, and to benefit from the stronger services they can offer with secure employment in which they are at liberty to speak out on problems in the system.

[1] Pierre Bourdieu, "Job insecurity is everywhere now",
Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market, New Press 1998

Comments welcome.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Time to "rub out" dumb fare evasion campaigns

When contemplating the ugly side of our public transport system, it’s not vandals, loutish behaviour, or the seething “crush loads” soon to return to our overcrowded trains that come to mind.

On the day The Age ran its December editorial asking whether public transport users were being taken for a ride, the announcement of fare hikes amid the continued poor performance of the system seemed to metlink a good opportunity to run its latest fare evasion campaign prominently in the same pages.

“Fare evasion must be rubbed out”, “No excuses”, and “More checks, more fines, more often” are among the campaign messages, which on television show an anonymous black scribble morph into a young man as he passes ticketless through the barrier at a station.

The campaign is slick, and no doubt expensive, with discordantly appealing music and clever graphics. It’s also a disgrace.

Take another of the campaign’s messages: “If you fare evade, you shouldn’t be here”. It’s a question of emphasis – “If you fare evade, you shouldn’t be here” might be the ostensible message to those in ticket-only areas, but another reading is possible that shows a truly ugly dimension of the messaging reinforced by the broader campaign.

When suicide by train isn’t all that uncommon (Victorian data), the message that “If you fare evade, you shouldn’t be here” takes on an alarming cast that, even if unintended, shows an appalling lack of sensitivity.

Amplifying this reading, we are told that fare evasion must be “rubbed out”, when the fare evaders themselves are depicted as graffiti-like scribbles to be cleaned away like the scrawls on the walls of our ageing trains and stations.

The campaign is a narrative of demonisation and erasure that seeks to scapegoat a group of people who, far from comprising a single criminal enterprise “ripping off” the system for millions each year, includes those who simply can’t afford the fare hikes, or have been physically prevented from buying a ticket by the malfunctioning system itself.

Humiliation has, of course, been a consistent theme of public campaigns against fare evasion. Previous versions have invited fare evaders to mow the lawns of paying passengers who have “covered the cost” of their journey – as if the price of a ticket were somehow fair pay for physical labour.

Then there was the slightly different spin provided by the fatuous “Buy a ticket, validate a life” campaign, which suggested that the lives of cancer patients remained somehow “unvalidated” by those who failed to pay their fare, supposedly denying support to the suffering victims depicted in photographs on campaign posters and tickets.

While we might hope such campaigns have now reached their lowest point, the enforcement regime that accompanies them goes beyond the contested interpretation of words in campaign slogans.

Exiting Flinders Street through the Campbell Arcade underpass to Degraves Street, for example, commuters are routinely confronted by a dragnet of badged overcoats.

The overcoats, filled by “authorised officers” (soon to be joined by armed protective services officers). The officers stand outside the barriers, waiting for suspected offenders. But it’s not just those without tickets or with unvalidated tickets they accost. Spot-checks are made of those whose tickets have allowed them to pass safely through the gates.

Take issue with any of this, and the overcoats may surround you. If you look like you might have the wherewithal to hold them accountable, to question the unreasonableness of their actions, you’re likely to be let go. If, on the other hand, you’re marginalised, apparently weak, through the system you go.

To consider this unacceptable, we can leave aside the incidents where authorised officers exceed their official brief and themselves are subjected to disciplinary procedures. The system is wrong even when implemented exactly as intended.

Walking through those gates, I have often wondered what new arrivals might make of such a scene, especially people granted asylum in Australia having fled persecution in another country where those who resist the system are, quite literally, erased.

While it’s true that in the sad absence of free public transport, fare evasion should be reduced, should we be willing to pay such a human cost that is so clearly out of proportion to the revenue the system seeks to “protect”?

Under threat here is a notion of public as inclusive and communal – the very aspects of public transport that draw me, at least, to catch trams, trains and buses despite the challenges of the system.

While I would prefer that those who can pay do buy a ticket, I have sympathy, not outrage, for anyone who can’t afford to pay who doesn’t.

Unfortunately, the appropriation of the public by private corporations, the covetous protection of their creeping ownership, is not confined to our public transport system. The public sphere is inceasingly under threat from those who would exclude those who cannot pay the fare. When I consider the Occupy Movement, these are the issues I consider.

While the targets of such well-intentioned activism are sometimes elusive, at least this case is clear. Metlink’s behaviour is unacceptable, and it’s time for them to get off.


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