Illogical obsession

Saturday’s Federal Election result might have been unexpected by many, but it underscores the Coalition’s illogical obsession with East West Link.

Well, illogical from a transport planning perspective that is. Remember, it’s got a business case that says it will lose money – unless you include Wider Economic Benefits with which the Victorian Auditor General had, and I quote: significant issues (of) plausibility.

(This was also a reminder that you can’t always believe everything in business cases.)

It’s not really free money of course. It’s money from taxpayers. It should be spent wisely.

'Lies' #EWLink

Being a money-losing project didn’t stop the Federal Coalition making a pledge of $4 billion for East West Link during the election campaign. Despite their claims, that doesn’t appear to be enough money to pay for it.

The $4b is only the government contribution – as per the 2014 business case. But the amount required is questionable given five years have passed, and there’s been some scope creep thanks to overlap with the WestGate Tunnel, and (perhaps) a proposal last year from the State Coalition to build the eastern tunnel portal further east.

Anti-freeway protest, from "Mouth To Mouth" (1978)

There’s also the question of whether there’s construction industry capacity to build a third major motorway project (at the same time as WestGate Tunnel and North East Link), alongside numerous level crossing removal projects and the Metro tunnel. Heavy demand tends to drive up prices.

Obviously the Federal Coalition backed EWL yet again because of politics, but it’s not really clear why they remain so obsessed with it, since it didn’t translate into swings to them around Melbourne – apart from in Aston.

Everywhere else in Melbourne, there were swings away from the Coalition – maybe not enough to lose seats, but enough to move a good many electorates into marginal territory.

To be fair on the Feds, they also made a pledge for the Kooyong railway crossing removal – which amazingly isn’t on the State’s list. (The Coalition pledge also included studies for two others: Tooronga Road and Madden Grove). This is good – except that they insist it has to be rail under, because they’ve taken the State Lib line on skyrail… as if an elevated rail line will somehow spoil the view of the nearby elevated tollway.

If the Feds can get over their obsession with EWL – which of course they won’t – there are plenty of other projects they could be contributing to, including other level crossing removals and rail network duplication, which would provide huge benefits.

If they were feeling particularly mischievous, they could take on public transport projects that the State isn’t interested in, such as suburban tram extensions. Some, such as the 75 to Knox and Ferntree Gully, would even reach into the eastern suburbs electorates the Coalition is courting.

Equally there’s an argument that a spirit of genuine cooperation would see the Feds funding projects on Infrastructure Victoria’s short term priority list.

Punt Road traffic during evening peak

It’s not as if Melbourne doesn’t have already enough major road projects underway. Two new tollways is two too many.

Yes, these motorways all have short term travel time benefits, but history shows those won’t last. And there are ways of boosting access and economic activity that aren’t restricted to people who drive and can afford tolls, and don’t so easily get clogged if they are “successful” and people actually use them.

It’s worth noting that every time the EWL has been taken to an election, it’s lost: Kennett in 1999, Brumby in 2010, Napthine in 2014 (despite the side letter, which is what triggered the huge bill for cancelling it), and Guy in 2018.

And now 2019. It seems the Coalition hasn’t yet learnt their lesson.

Climate, money and politics

I don’t often write about climate change, but here are a few thoughts as we go into the Federal election on Saturday.

But first I need to get these points out of the way:

  • Climate change is real.
  • If you think climate change is a hoax because you think you know more than the 97% of climate scientists who say it’s real, that’s up to you – but I’m not interested in your theories. Don’t bother leaving a comment.
  • Australia’s share of emissions isn’t that big, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have influence, that we shouldn’t set a good example, or that we shouldn’t make an effort with everybody else.

Okay then.

So often it seems the politics of climate change in Australia comes down to cold hard cash: the cost, the impact on jobs.

The Coalition’s rhetoric going into the election, and for literally 20 years now, has been to demand to know how the cost of reducing emissions.

They never seem to consider the cost of not acting.

No matter how much I might dislike the rhetoric, for some people it resonates, and it seems in Australia, real action on emissions reductions may continue to be resisted for this reason.

But what I think might (hopefully) get things happening is if it can be shown that actually, cutting emissions can save money.

Technology is getting cheaper over time, and this is changing the equation.

Some examples:

Power

Everyone knows the importance of affordable reliable power.

Coal subsidies are huge, particularly the costs of keeping the existing coal power stations going.

It’s even getting cheaper to build new renewables than to maintain existing coal power stations – let alone build new coal power.

Recent power reliability problems such as on January 25th were caused by coal failures. Coal is becoming expensive and unreliable.

No wonder coal is on the way out, with 13 coal power stations shut down in Australia since 2012.

Meanwhile effective large-scale battery systems have emerged that are
overcoming store and dispatch issues with renewables, contributing to stabilisation of the grid, which in turn demonstrably cuts power costs.

This means I’m not convinced anymore that clean means unaffordable and unreliable.

(People like to talk about baseload power, but what’s really important is dispatchable power – in other words, available when and where it’s needed.)

Britain recently went a week without coal power. Okay, so it included 46% gas and 21% nuclear, but they still think they can regularly get by without coal and gas by 2025.

The cost of PV panels is dropping, making both large-scale solar farms and household solar a good investment.

Given labour is becoming the biggest cost in many industries, it makes sense that over time, the once-off installation and maintenance of renewable energy generation will end up being cheaper that paying people to continually dig stuff out of the ground and burn it.

In fact the economics of it means that even people who don’t believe in climate change are jumping on this bandwagon.

Tony Pecora, the now disendorsed Clive Palmer/UAP candidate for Melbourne, who believes that the IMF and the World Bank “are pushing the idea of climate change so strongly … because having a global-based carbon taxation system is one of the most effective ways of centralising financial power” (his actual words) and yet his day job is installing solar panels!

Solar panels on a roof in Bentleigh

Cars

Meanwhile the cost of electric vehicles is dropping, with some models set to drop to the same price as their petrol counterparts by next year. That’s high-end vehicles initially, but even for models such as Toyota Camry it’s likely to be between 2022 and 2024.

The Coalition’s bleating against electric vehicles is utterly ridiculous. They’ve gone in hard against them just because Labor has decided to support them – a reminder that politicians will say almost anything to get themselves elected.

The key claim that electric vehicles are under-powered is just simply wrong. Here’s a video of a Tesla pulling a Boeing 787.

With other countries moving on this, vehicle manufacturers are also moving off petrol. Mercedes just announced half of their new vehicles will be electric by 2030, with all switched by 2039.

Electric vehicles won’t fix traffic problems, but do reduce pollution in cities, and if combined with renewable energy, will help cut overall pollution and emissions.

Transport choice

Transport investment has outcomes in emissions.

Because transport is supply-led, funding more road infrastructure results in higher emissions (especially while the bulk of the car fleet is petrol) whereas providing better public transport (particularly when powered by renewables) gives people options to leave the car at home more often, helping to cut emissions.

Victorians who consider transport infrastructure important have a stark choice in Saturday’s election. The Coalition says they’ll fund the East West Link. Labor says it’ll fund the Suburban Rail Loop.

SRL isn’t perfect. Most would agree it isn’t as important as Metro 2. And the whole concept still needs fleshing out. But I’d rather have it than EWL any day.

Follow the money

Lots of people want action on climate change, but the way the economics are going, even those who don’t particularly care will soon be choosing to buy electric vehicles and rooftop solar – because it’ll be cheaper.

And power industry investors will be building renewables, not coal, because it’ll be cheaper. The dinosaurs will be left behind.

Climate Summit cartoon
by Joel Pett, December 2009

So I suspect climate change action will come, with of course plenty of other benefits from cutting pollution.

But this is not an excuse for our political leaders to do nothing. On the contrary – they should be pushing harder for change, to help us ride the wave, not swim against it.

It’s not just good for humanity, it can also ensure that Australia doesn’t miss out on opportunities to be at the forefront of a huge technological shift as the world decarbonises.

More action needed

So the good news is that money will force progress.

The bad news it it won’t be enough.

The science says CO2 needs to get down to a level of 350 parts per million to stabilise the climate. It’s just gone above 415, the highest in human history.

Something has to happen, and quickly.

It’s all very well for us to just follow the money to cleaner energy and reduced emissions, but stopping dangerous climate change should be a higher priority for our political leaders and policymakers.

Vote well, Australia.

Election wrapup

Many people have written about the state election result. I thought I’d add my two-cents worth… noting that as of Wednesday night, some seats are still in doubt.

The Coalition crime fear campaign didn’t resonate. The stats don’t match the rhetoric, and while the accounts from actual victims could be harrowing, Melbourne is not a crime-infested cesspit. That’s no comfort to those who have been victims of of course, and more can be done to combat crime, but this is not an unsafe city.

Anecdata is only convincing (eg reflective of reality) if enough people are directly affected. How many people do you know who have been the victim of a violent crime? I thought the rhetoric, especially when the Coalition got to the point of declaring that anybody who committed any offence while on bail would be locked up, over-the-top.

(Amazingly, the Federal Libs are still pursuing this rhetoric in some parts of Melbourne this week.)

The anti-Skyrail campaign didn’t resonate. People living underneath it might dislike it (though not all do) – but ultimately the broader community didn’t hate it. All the seats with skyrail in them now (Caulfield, Oakleigh, Mulgrave, Keysborough) and getting skyrail (Bass, Carrum) swung towards the government, not away from it.

Perhaps that was helped by the fact that skyrail exists now. It’s real. Perhaps it’s not pretty, but it’s not covered in graffiti or filled with drug dealers as some claimed it would be.

Skyrail at Carnegie, November 2018

From where I was sitting, the Coalition had few prominent, positive policies. They took a back seat to the negative campaigning.

Their best (in my book) policy was announced and then quietly dropped: trains every 10 minutes. What a shame.

Their decentralisation policies seemed a good idea at a high level, though the fast rail pledges looked undercooked, and some of the detail around the rest of it either wasn’t thought out in detail, or wasn’t communicated well.

The ridiculous intersection grade separation plan didn’t resonate. Plenty of people drive absolutely everywhere, but I don’t think many of them thought this was a good idea.

Former Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu said it well:

The campaign didn’t work. The policies didn’t work. The organisation, the administration didn’t work, the leadership didn’t work. We didn’t have any cut through. Across the board it didn’t work.

Big swings to Labor, putting normally safe Liberal seats like Hawthorn and Brighton at risk showed that even though people live in wealthy suburbs, it doesn’t mean they’re dinosaurs, and they were clearly not keen on the crime narrative, nor the Liberal party being dragged to the right by the likes of Dutton and Abbott.

Meanwhile, Labor’s narrative of “a positive and optimistic agenda” (this literally became their catchcry) was perhaps clichéd, but also justified by some big achievements in just four years. Who’d have believed they’d get 29 level crossings removed? It meant many people overlooked their failings such as the redshirts affair.

Daniel Andrews claims victory, State election 24/11/2018

So now we have four more years of Labor. More level crossing removals – which is good. And thanks to the benefits of incumbency, plans for rail upgrades that are arguably more logical than the Coalition’s ambitious (perhaps impossible) pledges for high speed rail.

Labor will borrow more money to pay for infrastructure. I remember being at a transport breakfast thing years ago with some bigwigs who were saying it was ridiculous that governments have such a fear of borrowing. You borrow to buy your house, and it costs money, but it’s good. Why not borrow to invest in infrastructure that grows the economy?

I don’t have a major problem with this, though the question is: are the specific big projects they’re borrowing for actually worth the money? North East Link, for example – Infrastructure Victoria gave it the thumbs up in 2016 based on a cost of $5-10 billion, but a Business Case released early in 2018 appeared to inflate the benefits.

Speaking of business cases and infrastructure, the Suburban Rail Loop doesn’t yet have a business case. If the project happens, it may be decades away. But it caught the imagination of the populace, and I’m told the ALP reckon they saw bigger swings in the electorates nearby.

In the meantime, what about Metro 2, which by any logic is a higher priority to ensure Fishermans Bend is a success and the Werribee and Mernda rail lines cope with growth.

And right here and now, there has to be a commitment to upping all-day service levels on the existing infrastructure.

Melbourne is growing fast, and we can’t wait for the Metro tunnel to open in 2025 to see more trains running.

Let’s hope the newly re-elected government realises that it’s not just infrastructure that’s important — how you use it is vital.

Update Thursday lunchtime: The Premier has announced a reshuffle. The new Public Transport Minister is Melissa Horne. Jacinta Allan picks up Transport Infrastructure. Roads Minister is Jaala Pulford.

State election 2018

It’s state election day this Saturday, though many people have already voted:

Anyway, here are some ramblings from me.

How to vote

I’m not going to tell you how to vote, but I will tell you how to vote.

1. Think about the issues that matter to you, and look at what the candidates/parties are pledging.

2. Decide for yourself where your preferences will go.

Lower house: Fill every box according to your wishes, not the How To Vote cards. Remember, you can safely vote [1] for a minor party, and not waste your vote, because your preferences will end up with one of the majors. This cartoon explains it nicely.

Upper house: Never, ever vote above the line. You don’t want your preferences going to mystery places, and being harvested to elect some extremist micro-party. Always vote below the line. You only have to fill the first five preferences if you don’t want to do more.

Who’s who in the zoo

Some of the minor parties you might not have heard of, or might not know where they’re from, or what their key issue is. Many are centred around specific issues. Here’s my brief summary.

There’s another frank and fearless assessment of the micro-parties in this Twitter thread from André Brett, or in more detail on his blog.

This blog also has some good information. And another quicker take from former Fairfax journo Jill Stark.

Or for something with a bit more meat, here’s ABC’s summary.

Transport

The PTUA has a scorecard (summary: Greens better than Labor, Labor better than Coalition).

Bicycle Network also ranked the parties this way, and they have a detailed scorecard.

Energy and climate change

Environment Victoria has a scorecard. They’ve gone ballistic in distributing this in marginal seats. We’ve seen their volunteers at the railway station and in the shopping strip multiple times, and they’re pushing it out on their social media and other channels too.

My view is that neither major party is doing enough – and it’s mostly a Federal problem, not a State one.

At a State level, both sides are playing politics, as one would expect, but at least Labor’s policy of subsidised panels will clearly achieve more use of solar.

The Coalition emphasises affordable power, but given the level of subsidies to fossil fuels, and the emergence of effective large-scale battery systems that seem to be contributing to stabilisation of the grid, I’m not convinced that clean means unaffordable and unreliable.

This interview on Sky News last night is amusing:

…By the way, people that know about this stuff tell me that “baseload” is a crock. What’s important is despatchable power — that can be put into the grid when it’s actually needed.

New battery technology seems to have revolutionised this. You can now combine renewables, whose energy generation varies with the weather, with large battery installations, which together enable power to be fed into the grid to keep it stable as demand and supply elsewhere rises and falls.

This is far better than coal which is near-constant, day and night, except for when they fail. In other words, baseload is not flexible.

More reading: Baffled by baseload? Dumbfounded by dispatchables? Here’s a glossary of the energy debate

Watching the state election count, 2014

Local issues in Bentleigh

In 2010 we knew the seat was marginal when then-premier John Brumby showed up at a nearby polling booth.

In 2014 we knew the seat was still marginal when I was greeted at the polls by the Labor candidate with “Hello Daniel! Meet Bill Shorten!”

Since then, three level crossings are gone (Bentleigh/McKinnon/Ormond). Labor deserves credit for making this happen, even if it was piggybacking off Coalition planning and funding for the Ormond crossing that had already occurred.

Labor is pledging yet more crossings to remove. The Libs aren’t – they want to do road intersections instead, which is a terrible idea. But they have pledged some level crossing removals. Both sides have pledged Glen Huntly, which more than any other on the Frankston line, delays every train.

Labor’s also pledging a new bus route, from Moorabbin along Tucker Road and East Boundary Road (the connection between them seems a little unclear) to Murrumbeena and Chadstone.

Other pledges, from either side, to fix buses and trams (anywhere in Melbourne) are pretty scant.

If I had to fault Labor for anything, it’s the redshirts affair. What a stupid thing to (allegedly) do, risk everything, and jeopardise trust, for such a lousy return (which they’ve now paid back anyway).

Both sides are pledging upgrades for local parks, schools and kindergartens.

The Coalition is pledging to convert the Dingley Bypass into a freeway, and grade separate road intersections at Warrigal/South Roads and Nepean Highway/South Roads, which risks making them unusable for pedestrians and cyclists, and will inevitably make South Road traffic far worse than it already is.

I personally find the claims about out-of-control crime to be unconvincing. ABC Fact Check looked into the statistics, and that’s well worth a read.

Pledges from both sides (Labor, Liberal) to replace the scoreboard at Bentleigh Reserve. This makes no sense to me, because it’s only 8 years old. A new fully electronic scoreboard will probably have more capabilities, but the current one appears to do an okay job at showing football and cricket scores. Hopefully the old one can be handed down to another oval somewhere.

If only more seats were marginal.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. Check the parties, policies, pledges, candidates. Know who and what you’re voting for.

If you haven’t already, vote carefully, and enjoy your democracy sausage!

What’s the number one priority for politicians, more than anything else? Getting elected.

Just a quickie…

A senior politician (I won’t say who, or which side) once told me something which, at the time was somewhat surprising to hear, but in retrospect it’s obvious – and puts a lot of things into perspective:

For politicians, the number one priority is to get elected / to get re-elected / to get their side into power.

And this person specifically said that sometimes, the motivation to get elected trumps good policy.

I don’t suppose that it always goes for all politicians, but often, particularly when in opposition, you can see that on show.

You’d hope that more often than not, good policy would actually get them elected, but it’s not always the case.

Of course you can argue that for someone wanting to Do Good, there’s a limit to what they can do without being elected… so of course it could be seen as important.

And no doubt there are some idealist politicians out there who would genuinely risk their popularity or their position in the pursuit of good policy.

But remember, as you watch their actions, and hear their comments and sometimes incredibly overblown rhetoric, that for most politicians, getting elected and staying elected is their number one priority.