27 January 2011

Andrew Sadauskas on Australia Day

With 26 January having come and gone for 2011, I've decided to share a few of my thoughts on our national holiday. Before I go any further, I want to say that I hope that everyone reading this has had a happy and safe Australia Day.

There is a lot to celebrate about our nation, history, and culture. For starters, we have built for ourselves a strong liberal democracy. It has continuously been in operation at the national level since 1901, and since the Commission of Enquiry into the Eureka Stockade in the 1850s in Victoria. It remained strong through two world wars and the Great Depression, when many other liberal democracies fell. No violent revolutions. No bloody civil wars. No dictatorships. Such a long period of peace may seem a small thing to us, but I have no doubt that many around the globe suffering from war, uprisings, and persecution would gladly trade places with us. This, in and of itself, is something to be thankful of.

Not only have we been blessed with a peaceful nation, but a prosperous one too. Again, our wealth as a nation is something many of us take for granted. But to borrow a lyric from an old Silverchair song, "You say that money isn't everything / But I'd like to see you live without it." When you consider the dire, shanty town poverty that many around the globe experience every day, I think that those of us fortunate enough to have been born in a nation like Australia should be forever grateful.

We are also blessed, to borrow a lyric from Advance Australia Fair, with "Nature's gifts of beauty, rich and rare." When tourists come to Australia from overseas, almost inevitably one of the first things they want to see is our natural wildlife. They want to pick up a koala and gaze at a real live kangaroo. And those plants and animals that some travel the world to see call Australia home. Our landscape and wildlife is, truly, a blessing.

Sure, there are problems in Australia, or things we could do better. (It's a point anyone who has recently caught a Melbourne train will no doubt attest to). But, then again, there are also problems in all corners of the world. No nation is perfect. And even when we face problems and things are at their worst in Australia, we are still better off than most of the people living on this planet.

How bad problems and disasters get also often depends on how well its people come together. Consider the way that Australians have come together in the wake of the horrible floods across Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales. There is certainly something in our national character there worth celebrating.

Australia Day almost inevitably brings with it people who want to change our flag, national anthem, or other symbols of our nationhood. Others argue that it would show more pride in our nation to have an Australian as our head of State than to accept the inevitability of King Charles and Queen Camilla. But too often, it is forgotten that the very fact that people do feel free to make such comments, on Australia Day no less, is in itself the mark of a confident nation and a strong liberal democracy. No-one who makes such a comment fears that they risk losing an Australia Day honour, let alone their life. Can you imagine what would happen to prominent people in some other countries if they made similar comments about their flag or institutions? This, in and of itself, is something worth celebrating about Australia.

There will be others (mostly from the left) who decry Australia Day, and dub it "Invasion Day." Some will go so far as claiming that because 26 January 1788 marks the arrival of the First Fleet in Australia, and that from an Aboriginal viewpoint this marks an "invasion," we shouldn't celebrate at all. Of course, it goes without saying that most Australians who accept the view that horrible things have happened to Aboriginal people over the past two centuries, yet nonetheless still celebrate on Australia Day. The secret is to celebrate that which is good about Australia today while acknowledging that we aren't perfect, and to celebrate what we have achieved in the past while also acknowledging and learning from things which have happened in our past which we mightn't agree with by modern standards.

For it is the celebration of a nation and all the people (and that includes people like Albert Namatjira and Catherine Freeman) who have made it what it is today. You certainly don't need to accept that a nation and its people are perfect beyond fault to nonetheless celebrate the fact that there are many good things about it.

As for the date itself, I would argue that for a national holiday, the date on which it falls or the historical event that it commemorates is nowhere near as important as the nation (and the character of the nation and its people) that it celebrates.

Because the bottom line is that on Australia Day, there are indeed many things good things about Australia for us all to celebrate and to be thankful for.

So just like my parents before me, I can honestly say without hesitation that I am grateful to have been born in a country like Australia. I am proud to be an Australian. And there is no country on Earth that I would rather call home.

As per usual, feel free to send any thoughts, comments, or feedback you may have about this article to andrewsadauskas at gmail dot com

23 January 2011

Hawthorn in 2011

2011 has already flown by too quickly. It feels like mere days ago that we were all shouting "Happy New Year!" (Or indeed "Happy New Beer!" as the case may be). Now we're already in late January, and footy season is just around the corner.

Remember even a decade or two back when people complained that March was far too early for the footy season to start? Well, this year it kicks off on February 11th. But somehow I suspect, in light of Australia's abysmal performance in the Ashes, few will be complaining come February.

A point people who may be reading this interstate or overseas need to realise is that in Melbourne, footy is a religion. In Melbourne, most people don't care about what your religion is, or whether you voted for Brumby or Baillieu. But, almost inevitably, they will ask you (upon meeting you for the first time) "What footy club do you barrack for?" and "Who do you think will win the Premiership this year?"

For me, the answer to the first question has always been "Hawthorn!" Some of my fondest memories growing up were sitting in the wind-swept stands at Waverley Park, even through the lean years when Ken Judge was our coach. I was at the "merger meeting" in 1996 when Ross Oakley tried to force Hawthorn to merge with Melbourne. (If you look very closely at a photo of the crowd for that meeting at Camberwell Town Hall, I'm the grade 6 kid standing in one of the isles a few rows back from the stage.) And during High School I joined the Hawthorn Supporters Group (they didn't call themselves a "Cheer Squad") and helped carry the banner out at both Football Park (now known as AAMI Stadium) and the SCG.

As for the second question, my answer (at this point) is the same: "Hawthorn!" Sure, I might be slightly biased in my answer. But I honestly think, assuming we don't have any major problems with injuries and suspensions, that the Hawks can deliver the goods in 2011 if they play at their best throughout the season. And there's a number of reasons why I think this is the case.

The Hawks have a streak to keep up. We've won at least one Premiership in five consecutive decades. Phrased differently, in every decade starting 1960, we've won a Premiership. In fact, we've won 10 Premierships since entering the VFL / AFL in 1925 and, to save you some maths, that means that on average Hawthorn has won more than one Premiership every decade since we've been in the VFL / AFL (although to be fair, our seven consecutive Grand Final appearances in the '80s skew that number a little). Now that a new decade (the 2010's) is well and truly upon us, it's time to make that six consecutive decades of Premierships. And what better year to do it than 2011.

Certainly, the Hawks have the list to deliver the goods. Just look at some of the names. Franklin. Hodge. Roughead. Mitchell. Sewell. Bateman. Rioli. At their "unsociable" best, they're easily among the best players in the league.

In fact, we have shown that we have a list that can match it with the best in the league. Consider that in round 22 last year, Hawthorn beat the eventual Premiers, Collingwood, 15.8.98 to 13.17.95. It demonstrated that, when playing well, the Hawks have a list to knock off any team in the league, including the highly overrated Pies. As for St Kilda, they've had multiple chances to deliver a Premiership and have failed to deliver the goods time and time again. I need not mention the horrid off-season they've had. If they meet the Hawks on a good day, they're toast.

In 2007, Hawthorn's President Jeff Kennett unveiled the five-two-fifty plan. The club's goal over the five years beginning 2007 was to build the membership base to win two Premierships and build the membership up to 50,000. Thanks in part to the leadership of Jeff, the Hawks have managed to meet one of those goals (50,000 members) and get half way to achieving the other goal (winning a Premiership in 2008).

And at the start of 2011, it's clear that five-two-fifty is still a very achievable goal. Carn the Hawks!

Feel free to send any thoughts, comments, or feedback you may have about this article to andrewsadauskas at gmail dot com

22 January 2011

Mulder on the Right Track

So much for this not being a political blog! Anyway, there were a couple of articles over the past couple of days which grabbed my attention on the state of Victoria's public transport network. Since, as I explained in my last post, public transport is one of the three key reasons Ted Baillieu was elected as Premier in my opinion, and one of the key issues his first term will be judged on, this continues nicely from my last post.

The first of these articles was given the title "Funds Doubt on Brumby's Tunnels," and is basically an interview with the new Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder.

It is very easy to be cynical about politicians, and given the amount of hollow spin from Federal Labor (and the NSW Right faction in particular) over the past year, it is often well deserved. But by the same token, when a politician "gets it" they also deserve credit. And if Mulder manages to deliver even half of what he has promised in this interview, with increased reliability on our trains (and across public transport in general), he will be quite rightly regarded as the best Public Transport minister in over a decade.

Let's take a look at a few highlights from the article:

''When you have a look at the billions of dollars from around Australia - and have a look at what has just happened in Queensland - the feeling that I am getting is that over the next few years it is most likely smaller projects that are going to get federal government funding.''

He said the proposed $5 billion WestLink freeway under Footscray had already been turned down for funding by Canberra. And his government had no plan to build the second stage of the road, from the Eastern Freeway in Clifton Hill to CityLink in Flemington.

 Brumby was a big fan of pushing through large projects which would create large number of (unionised) construction jobs. Such projects (for example, rebuilding Spencer Street Station, now dubbed "Southern Cross Station") often cost billions of dollars and came at the expense of more mundane network maintainance. Worse still, many of these projects were pushed through without paying any regard to local residents and businesses.

If the new Government sticks to long overdue network extensions, network upgrades, and puts off some of these Brumby pet projects like the Footscray Tunnel, the State will end up in better shape than it was under Brumby.

The biggest promise Mr Mulder must fulfil is to establish a public transport authority, which Premier Ted Baillieu has promised will plan, co-ordinate and manage Victoria's public transport system. Quizzed about the authority, Mr Mulder could answer few questions about how it would work, its powers or which existing bodies it would replace.

Another big step in the right direction if it goes ahead. While there is little benefit to the State Government nationising (or re-nationalising) the day to day operations of the public transport operators (private operators under contract can do the job as well), there can be a lot of benefit in having a single body bringing together stakeholders such as the transport operators, consumers (perhaps represented by groups such as the PTUA), and the State Government in order to make sure our public transport system is run, planned, and timetabled as a network rather than as a Balkanised spaghetti mess of bodies where everyone is at fault but no-one is to blame (as was the case under Brumby).

On a related note, it's good to see the new Minister taking ownership of the DOT and standing up to some of the bureaucrats there:

The Department of Transport will be restructured under Mr Mulder, who conceded the government's promise to slash consultants was proving difficult... ''It is very hard to get a handle on how many external consultants are working for the department and what they are doing,'' he said.

Mr Mulder said previous transport ministers had been too easily ''captured'' by their department. ''I raise as many questions as possible.''

Recently he made a point of touring the 11 floors his department occupies. Mr Mulder said some had been surprised at his presence. ''One [person] said to me it was the first time they had seen a minister down there in 37 years.''

Why is the D.O.T. bureacracy such a problem? It's a point I'll get to in a moment.

Anyway, instead of the wasteful white elephants Brumby loved so much, it's good to see the new Government paying attention to well overdue extensions to the train network:

The government has also promised a rail line to Avalon airport, plans for rail lines to Melbourne Airport and Doncaster, and a feasibility study on rail to Rowville. The Avalon project would begin by 2014, Mr Mulder said, and be built before a Melbourne Airport rail line because it was ''a very, very small amount of money compared to … Tullamarine''.

Planning for Doncaster and Melbourne Airport, and consideration of Rowville, would all proceed.
If Mulder and Baillieu can deliver any of these, it would mark the first significant extension to our rail network since the opening of the Glen Waverley line in the 1950s. And anyone who has tried catching public transport through Rowville or Doncaster will no doubt agree that these lines really should have been built 30 or 40 years ago. So a very big step in the right direction here.

Mr Mulder said a $40 million federal grant for planning on the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel, the centrepiece of the former government's Victorian Transport Plan, would proceed.
But the project's $5 billion-plus price tag also made it unlikely to go further, he said. ''I believe into the future the tunnel will be built, but it's a matter of when and how it lines up with other priorities.''

Really, the tunnel was another Brumby white elephant at this point, and the new timetables with through running trains is a much better idea at this point. This isn't to say that there won't be a point in the future where extra lines through the city will be needed, but (as Paul Mees and others have repeatedly pointed out), there are other steps we can take in the interim.

Now, earlier in this entry, I talked about clearing out the Department, and having a new authority taking control of Melbourne's public transport system. I opined that this was a step in the right direction because, as a second Age article ("Taken for a Ride") points out:

While it is early days for Metro in its eight-year contract, there is a widely held view among rail industry insiders and commentators that the company has hit a wall in Melbourne; that an entrenched inertia and old boys' network in the state bureaucracy and unions has made reform in Melbourne public transport impossible.
Expert observers such as University of Queensland urban economist Chris Hale are baffled by Metro's experience in Victoria. ''MTR are really among the leading mass transit operators worldwide. If Melbourne can't make mass transit work with MTR at the helm, then something is seriously wrong,'' he says.

Further down that article:

[The bureaucrats] ongoing influence in transport policy and management, and their ability to outlive premiers, ministers and rail franchisees, lends weight to the criticism of a Yes Minister-style old guard that never lets go in Melbourne. The relationship between the bureaucracy and rail union is a long and complex one, and was especially so under Labor.
Rail, Tram and Bus Union secretary Trevor Dobbyn is Victorian president of the ALP. Several of the most senior current and past Metro staff have told The Age that they believe Mr Dobbyn is more influential than either Metro itself or the government's transport bureaucracy.

When Metro human resources manager Bill Armstrong sought to challenge long-standing work practices including union control of rosters and who tests new trains, he found he had taken on a bigger opponent that he had realised. Armstrong was one of a string of senior figures moved out of Metro last year.


Meanwhile, at Flinders Street Station there is an enduring Melbourne mystery - the frustratingly long stop every train makes on arrival. The delays are due to an old industrial agreement that requires that drivers change trains after every trip, lest they get bored. Such a practice would be laughable in Hong Kong. 

Part of the reason Government train, tram and bus services were contracted out to private operators under the Kennett Government during the 1990s was because of a series of strikes by unionised rail workers. Unfortunately, that bureaucracy within the DOT has become all the more entrenched during the Bracks / Brumby years, at the expense of private operators, consumers, and the State Government. One of the key things a new Transport Authority will have to do (and I suspect there will be a fight over this at some point in the future) will be to bring the focus back on consumers and away from the Bureaucrats in the DOT.

Then there is the ten year backlog of basic maintainance that this cozy arrangement between the bureaucrats in the Department and the Bracks / Brumby Government:

[Metro Trains] certainly faces obstacles. Some, such as the antiquated complexity of the network and extent of maintenance neglect, were not fully apparent. ''If you look at standards, what we have got is a Third World railway in a First World country,'' says a former Metro executive and rail industry insider. ''Metro did not understand how difficult it was to operate such a complex system.''


As one senior consultant close to Metro puts it: ''The main problem was that the government was 10 years behind on infrastructure. The more they did, the more Metro missed targets because they had to stop trains running to fix things up. These things go to a lack of long-term planning and support.''

 The challenge for Mulder over the years ahead will be how well he deals with these entrenched problems in the system. But it is encouraging to at last see a Public Transport Minister who is on the right track.

Feel free to send any thoughts, comments, or feedback you may have about this article to andrewsadauskas at gmail dot com

19 January 2011

Baillieu in 2011

I want to say from the outset that I don't intend for this to be a political blog. This is not to say that I will not discuss topical issues on this blog from time to time. However, on a personal level, after the events of 2010, I'm feeling slightly 'burned out' by politics. In particular, politics which focuses on personality and six second soundbites rather than issues.

That being said, this is my first time blogging in quite a while, there are a few things that have been playing on my mind for a while that I need to get off my chest, and first and foremost of them is why I think the 2010 State election played out the way that it did, and what it means for Premier Ted Baillieu in 2011. After all, 2011 will be the year that Victorians begin getting a 'feel' for their new Government and where they stand. How that plays out will depend in part on why a new State Government was elected in the first place.

The first thing to note is that Melbourne is, in a sense, a 'liberal' town. Obviously, outside of a university essay, most people won't examine the degree to which the views put forward in On Liberty by John Stuart Mill resonate with their own personal beliefs. But ask many Melburnians what their view is on a given issue, and it will probably lie somewhere between the centre right and centre left. It is telling that Melbourne was the birthplace of 'small l liberals' such as Rupert Hamer and Malcolm Fraser.

The 2010 Federal election and State elections demonstrated that many Melburnians will vote for a leader who they perceive as being a "moderate" liberal, and yet not vote for a "conservative." To many Melburnians, Tony Abbott was perceived as being "too conservative," while Baillieu was viewed as a "moderate." And while some voters were unwilling to lend support to a "too conservative" Liberal over a Government which by its own admission had "lost its way" (and lost it even further while trying to "move forwards"), they were willing to vote for a "moderate" liberal over a State Government which had lost its way.

As an aside, in my opinion, it is quite likely, had either Malcolm Turnbull or Joe Hockey (i.e. Liberals perceived as "moderates") run as the Liberal Party leader at the last Federal election, with the right campaign and policies, that there would have been a number of electorates which would have fallen, especially given the Federal ALP's performance in 2010.

So where did Victorian Labor lose its way?

Three city-wide issues which I think swung voters in the 2010 State Election were crime (especially nightclub violence), public transport, and urban planning / major projects.

Crime is pretty self explanatory as an issue. Yes, there may be a train wreck fascination in having a series of Underbelly play out in the evening news. But people also want to feel safe getting to where they work, where they shop, where they study, and to the pub on Saturday night. Kennett era cuts to the police force damaged law and order as a selling point for a State Liberal Government. Key Liberal promises, including armed guards on trains, helped to allay fears that a Liberal Government would mean further cuts to the police force.

Then there's Spending $1 Billion on the Myki ticketing system (which was still not working on a bus I caught earlier today) rather than investing that money on improving the reliability and frequency of train (and bus) services and extending rail lines was a large part of why John Brumby lost. 10% of Melburnians regularly catch public transport, are spread throughout the metro area, and can swing an electorate. I suspect that these two issues will also play a key role in how Ted Baillieu will be perceived as time goes on. Finally building a rail link to Doncaster and investigating a rail link to Rowville is a big step in the right direction here.

The third issue, even more than John Brumby himself, was (in broad terms) urban planning and housing development. Sure, Brumby was perceived as arrogant and unwilling to listen, and it's very telling that the Liberal campaign ads showed Planning Minister Justin Madden. In retrospect, just like "Jeff.com" in 2009, making John Brumby the focus of Labor's campaign was a mistake. But the reason why Madden and Brumby were such easy targets had to do with the way a number of local urban planning and major project issues were handled by the Brumby Government, and how these played out at the local level.

For example, there was a swing against Labor in Frankston and Carrum, costing the former Government these seats. And it was also through these seats that the Brumby Government forced through the Frankston Bypass through the middle of the 220 hectare Pines Flora and Fauna Reserve in Frankston North. Unlike Yarra Derran Reserve in the marginal seat of Mitcham, the Labor party took the working class voters of Frankston North for granted and did not bother investing in putting the freeway through a tunnel under the reserve, let alone improve public transport in and around Frankston (including electrification beyond Frankston Station and improved local bus services to help ease congestion). They're probably still scratching their heads wondering why people who will soon wake up living next door to a six lane freeway rather than a park decided to vote against them!

Then there was the GAIC. The GAIC was a big new tax the Brumby Government imposed on land owners on Melbourne's outer suburban fringe in order to pay for infrastructure in new development, even if it would be many years before their land was sold. Again, Labor struggled to work out why these once loyal voters turned on them!

And there were a string of other poorly thought through, and poorly consulted on, projected pushed through by the Brumby Government. Consider the way the Desal plant in Wonthaggi or the North South Pipeline were handled as examples. Another example was the rail widening in Footscray (another blue ribbon Labor seat that Labor took for granted), which local residents only found out about when asked for their reactions by journalists! In fact, the Brumby Government introduced draconian new legislation, including the Orwellian Major Transport Projects Facilitation Bill, which was enacted in order to further shut down public debate on such wasteful projects!

These local issues may not have made the evening news all that often, but they were potent at a local level. It's a point which hasn't really attracted too much notice in much of the analysis of why certain seats fell the way that they did. After all, these projects were all ultimately funded with our tax dollars!

And all this is without even mentioning "Progressive Business" or the "Brimbank City Council." Or the level fo State Government debt for that matter.

Well, Victorians had enough of it, and enough of Labor. In my humble opinion, it's why many switched to the Liberals in 2010. Now it's time for Ted to make his mark in 2011.

Feel free to send any thoughts, comments, or feedback you may have about this article to andrewsadauskas at gmail dot com