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Richardson: Knoll enters the No-Go Zone

Opinion

The Transport Minister may talk up “bold reforms” but, argues Tom Richardson, his failure to sell either the concept or the detail is causing his government major headaches.

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A respected Adelaide business leader sent me a text this morning, pondering why none of the local media seemed inclined to put a “different lens” on the thorny issue of public transport reform.

“How about questioning the cost of empty buses or buses with a couple of people on board?” the message pondered.

“And buses stopping and blocking roads while they stop to meet timetables.

“That’s old think. Dumb think.”

A more innovative notion, they posited, was to “give those individuals a ride share allowance and let them get to their cancer treatment appointment in a car, door to door”.

“Trials of on-demand buses in the hills [are] evidently going well – how about we use more of that and be a smart city? The political battle of removing bus stops is an easy one for an Opposition to win [but] an opposition always thinks the answer is more, instead of looking at smarter ways to do things in an age of technology.”

For example, they continued, “they say more hospital beds, [but] smart says: use technology to provide at-home care and personal monitoring devices and Telehealth”.

“We can’t afford for the answer to always [mean] More,” the message went on.

“Businesses understand that and are constantly looking at efficiency and productivity. The Government is right to do the same. It’s our money they are spending. The less they waste, the more they can spend on schools and hospitals.”

That equation is consistently, undeniably true, although it’s just as readily applied to schools and hospitals too: that’s why we’re having a standoff over the prospective closure of the little-attended but evidently much-loved Springbank Secondary College, and why we had years of controversy over the former Labor Government’s Transforming Health, which was effectively aborted amid a splash of pre-election cash.

The current Liberal Government wasn’t much in the mood to discuss the merits of doing more with less when it came to Transforming Health, of course, but it’s a noteworthy comparison – and indeed, one that’s been privately drawn within the Liberal ranks, where Transport Minister Stephan Knoll’s “bold reform” of bus services is derisively referred to in some quarters as ‘Transporting Health’.

And this is a bit of a problem.

For a while now, Knoll has been considered a rising star of the Liberal Right, a presumptive future Treasurer and prospective future leader.

And yet, he’s about as good as selling stuff as the Jack Lemmon character in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Whether it be broad-brush planning reform, “bold” infrastructure projects, Service SA cuts or public transport shakeups, he seems to think it’s a great idea to let negative assertions fester, ideally for as long as possible.

And, to add to his popularity in the Liberal party room, he usually manages to ensure it affects as many of his marginal-seat colleagues as possible.

He’s also, apparently, not really a man for minutiae.

This too has been apparent before, as when he tried to sack the former Cemeteries Authority chair, and in so doing prompted an accusation in parliament that the State Government acted unlawfully.

And this penchant is proving problematic.

Because while he may have spent the week talking up his “bold” public transport reforms – and encouraging people to have their say on them – he wasn’t particularly across the specifics of what those reforms entailed (or perhaps unwilling to reveal the specifics). Which makes it hard to imagine many of those affected negatively by the changes will be either. Which, in turn, makes it unlikely that they’ll in fact be moved to have their say at all. At least until after the changes actually take place. When the next opportunity to have their say will be at the 2022 state election.

For all the railing against “old think”, the Marshall Government adheres rigidly to the oldest sales pitch in the book – regular drops to the local paper to help frame their narrative as they’d prefer.

Thus, the bus route shake-up was duly unveiled thus in The Advertiser: “Adelaide residents can expect to see bus routes and hundreds of stops disappear from suburban streets as part of the boldest changes to the state’s public transport system in decades.”

Bold, indeed: a total of 500 bus stops would be cut, we were told, offset by a renewed focus on routes with more frequent services – so-called ‘Go Zones’.

“These proposed changes mean almost a quarter of a million more people will live within 800 metres of a Go Zone – that’s a massive boost in frequency for a lot of people,” Knoll declared in the article – in words corresponding precisely with his media release that was subsequently distributed.

The following day, when this bold new vision wasn’t received as well as it might have been, the Sunday Mail again carried the Government’s message, “revealing” that “almost half of the Adelaide bus stops to be scrapped under plans for faster and more frequent services are used by just one person each day”.

Now, it was explained, these plans were all part of a master scheme to “prevent buses idling at empty stops along major Adelaide routes”.

Because, of course, whenever I think of all the things that annoy me about Adelaide, idling buses blocking arterial roads is invariably at the top of the list.

But any detail about the specific routes affected wasn’t forthcoming: asked by Channel 9’s Rory McClaren the exact number of stops getting the chop, Knoll shrugged: “Off the top of my head I don’t have the exact figure, but it’s around 500 bus stops.”

Instead, the minister referred all comers to look at the Government’s website.

However, when the Opposition did just that, and discovered that the actual number of lopped stops was more like 1000, Knoll conceded a further 400 would be converted for use by school buses only – a fact not detailed on the initial media release he dropped to the News Corp paper.

Which means the poor old Tiser has now had to run stories effectively correcting its own exclusive from earlier this month.

And herein lies the danger of the Government ‘drop’.

With such scant information, and generally little time to test the claims therein, media risks becoming little more than a public notice-board for political advertising.

It’s a broad and long-standing problem, hardly limited to this one instance or indeed that one publication – but it does stand out all the more when so little subsequent information is forthcoming.

For instance, Knoll and Steven Marshall maintain that the impetus for this reform comes from commuters “voting with their feet” by failing to catch public transport, and from responses to surveys conducted by the minister’s Transport Department.

InDaily has repeatedly asked to see these surveys – but is yet to receive so much as a reply.

This, apparently, is not an uncommon response from Knoll’s office. Earlier this week, I heard local ABC afternoon presenter Jules Schiller lamenting that he’d asked the minister on to his Drive program to discuss the bus changes, but hadn’t received a response.

He even noted that he hadn’t received a response the previous time he’d extended such an offer, before pondering aloud what he’d done to annoy the Transport Minister.

Let’s face it, a chat on afternoon Drive is hardly the most combative media assignment a minister’s going to face: if you manage to turn an invitation for that into bad publicity, you’ve really got to question your media strategy.

Despite the Premier’s insistence that this is all some “bold reform” – and his lamentation that “reforms are tough” and that the cynical media is holding SA back from some Go Zone golden age – the impetus for this was always framed by the Government’s first budget in 2018, which revealed that “low patronage” and “duplicate” services would be cut in order to save $45 million over four years.

So much as I have sympathy with my business leader correspondent’s call to look at things through a different prism – to become a smart city, to spend well rather than spend more – the fact is that such debates require some nuanced, lengthy, persuasive conversations with the electorate.

To articulate a vision, and convince of its merits.

Not to merely drop an ill-explained media release with fudged figures.

If the Government wants to be remembered for bold reform, it must first make the case for it, and thereafter be fully forthcoming with the facts.

Otherwise, it will only ever be seen as a ridiculously convoluted way to save $45 million – and possibly lose a few seats in the process.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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