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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