Taking The Myki: Poor Advice Is Baillieu’s Political Millstone

Considerable baggage accompanies the ticketing system which is now the price to pay for travelling on Melbourne’s trains, trams and buses; it was a Labor Party disaster, and now embodies the central problem faced by Ted Baillieu’s conservative government.

I want to take readers back, e’er briefly, to November 2010; Victoria’s eleven year old Bracks-Brumby Labor government was defeated — narrowly — in a large 6.1% swing that returned 45 Coalition MPs in the state’s 88-member lower house, and resulted in Liberal leader Ted Baillieu becoming Premier of Victoria.

The prevailing view within the mainstream press was that this was an accidental victory, and that the Liberals and Nationals were unready to govern; yet this view ignored the methodical (if unflashy) campaign Baillieu had waged based on a systematic working-over of the litany of faults, faux pas, mistakes and misdemeanours committed over the life of the beaten Labor regime.

The government of Bracks and Brumby — despite the hype — was wasteful, arrogant, took its constituents and their money for granted, and was guilty of a long list of policy misadventures that cost the state of Victoria and its long-suffering residents very dearly indeed.

Many of the issues Baillieu campaigned on — the so-called North-South Pipeline, the desalination plant at Wonthaggi, the Police force under Christine Nixon, rocketing state taxes and a flagrant disregard for accountability with public funds, to name a few — had become emblematic of yet another discredited state Labor regime.

And none of these issues was more emblematic than myki, the smartcard-based transport ticketing “solution” designed to replace Melbourne’s Metcards.

In a way — and thinking back to the 2010 campaign — the ubiquitous blue and green logo was successfully attached by the Liberals to the ALP as a badge of dishonour, and “myki” became a four-lettered euphemism for everything wrong with the preceding 11 years of governance in Victoria.

How things change.

Today, the Baillieu government — according to The Australian‘s quarterly Newspoll survey — has given up all of the gains it has made in terms of public support since the 2006 state election, and now trails the ALP 45-55 after preferences.

Yet it is my contention that not only is Baillieu’s position retrievable, but that in fact voters in Victoria would prefer to be offered tangible reasons to re-elect him, as opposed to the alternative, when the next election rolls around in a little over 18 months’ time.

If anyone doubts this, have a look at the relevant Newspoll numbers: support for the state Coalition may have slid, but it is Baillieu’s personal approval numbers that had collapsed.

From a high of 52% job approval in September/October 2011, Baillieu most recently recorded an approval rate of 33% just over a year later; in the same time, disapproval with his performance has soared, from 29% in 2011 to 48% a couple of months ago.

And these figures — published in today’s edition of The Australian — are actually a mild improvement on the previous quarterly survey.

The point is that whilst the Coalition would easily be beaten at an election in which the Newspoll numbers reflected the result, the change in voter sentiment as measured by Newspoll is far more reflective on Baillieu personally than it is on the government as a whole.

The other, more telling, point is that Opposition leader Daniel Andrews — an affable enough fellow completely out of his depth — has failed to translate the change in voter sentiment to his own personal ratings in any way whatsoever.

His approval rating of 32% is almost identical to what it was a year earlier; his disapproval rating, at 34%, has actually increased.

And on the “preferred Premier” measure, Newspoll finds that Baillieu continues to head Andrews on the question by a 39-30 margin in an unmistakable message that whilst voters may be less than happy with Baillieu, Andrews is not perceived as a viable alternative.

And in turn, for these reasons — and taking account of the fact that the government is only two years old — even the voting intentions Newspoll records in the ALP’s favour can reasonably be assumed to be soft.

So here we are…

Looking back over the Coalition’s record in government to date, it is clear that Baillieu and his ministers have been very poorly advised.

From a purely political perspective, it is equally clear that the poor opinion poll results Baillieu is now recording are a direct result of that poor advice.

Myki — and its record over the past ten years — represents everything that is wrong with the way the Victorian government has operated, and the processes surrounding it since Baillieu’s ascension to power is proof of it.

For those unfamiliar with it, myki is a smartcard-based ticket for use on public transport whose use is predicated on a touch on/touch off action by commuters at the commencement and conclusion of a given journey.

Originally unveiled in 2003 at a project cost of $300 million, myki was finally rolled out across Melbourne’s public transport network and regional V-Line trains last year, many years late, and with the project cost having ballooned to $1.35 billion.

Following his election in 2010, Baillieu decreed that myki would be the subject of a review to determine whether it was fixed and retained, or abandoned.

And sure enough, the decision was made to retain myki on the basis that to abandon it — and write off well over $1 billion of taxpayer funds — was a waste.

It was the wrong decision; and whilst the Premier’s wish to ensure that wastage of taxpayer monies are kept to the absolute minimum possible, myki is both a political mistake of the worst type as well as a running, festering sore that will continue to soak up taxpayer money well beyond the cost of buying a train ticket.

Right from the start of myki trials some years ago — when Labor was still in power — there have been endless problems with incorrectly calculated fares, readers that failed to scan, and soaring levels of complaints to the Ombudsman about transport ticketing issues.

The system is a user’s nightmare; far from being a simple touch-on, touch-off exercise, a new phenomenon at train stations across Melbourne — especially in peak times — is great queues of travellers waiting to pass through station barriers as myki readers take a couple of seconds to reach each card.

If there are 50 or so commuters alighting at the same stop, it can take minutes to get out.

And the problem is compounded by the fact that most of Melbourne’s suburban train stations only have one exit through which they can scan myki cards, with two readers at that exit; even then, it’s a frequent occurrence that at least one of them is out of service.

Often when this occurs, commuters are given assurances that they either won’t be charged for their fare, or that their fare will be calculated and deducted in line with published fare caps.

But these assurances are meaningless; there is ample evidence that the general public in Victoria has little faith in myki, and such assurances are tantamount to asking for myki to be taken on trust.

Which in turn is a joke, given the track record myki “boasts” of crediting and deducting six-figure sums of money, in extreme cases, from the accounts of its cardholders.

And failure to touch off results in the maximum published fare being debited from a commuter’s myki account: the system can have all the faults in the world — and commuters are expected to brook them — but failure to touch off for whatever reason even once will see the commuter stung.

Indeed, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence of people touching off (and being shown confirmation on the screen of the reader) and then stung for not touching off anyway.

It is no longer possible to by a tram ticket on a tram; no myki card, no tram ride.

And whilst I haven’t covered everything that is wrong with myki by any stretch, it makes it worse that most people in Melbourne have either had positive experiences with  smartcard-based ticketing in places like London and Hong Kong, or are sufficiently convinced that whilst the technology is the right idea in principle, the correct application of it was to buy an adapted version of something like London’s Oyster card rather than to reinvent the wheel and start from scratch — with the disastrous end result that myki represents.

I have used Oyster in London and I have to say that it is absolutely first-rate; it’s simple, reliable, transparent, easy to pay, and quick to use at London’s busy underground railway stations.

Myki, by contrast, is something I have used once — and hated. The reader at the train station didn’t work, I had to queue to get out, and there was uncertainty as to whether I would be charged $3.50 for my two-hour window or travel or far, far more because of a glitch.

I don’t have the need to travel often on Melbourne’s trains, but it does happen; particularly during the AFL football season, when a train to Richmond and a walk to the MCG is, on paper, the quickest and simplest way to get to games.

I’d rather drive, do laps of East Melbourne or the city end of St Kilda Road looking for street parking, and then walk 20-30 minutes to the MCG than to ever use myki.

And whilst this might just be my own experience, the hard fact is that it also represents the majority opinion among the Victorian public.

Whoever advised Baillieu and his transport minister — the highly competent Terry Mulder — to retain myki should be summarily dismissed from their positions, and replaced.

And the fact the Labor Party has successfully managed to brand the problem as “Mulder’s myki” simply illustrates the sheer political toxicity the dysfunctional smartcard represents.

But in case anyone thinks I’m indulging in a single-issue rant here, I could just as easily have used the Wonthaggi desalination plant — for which Victorians will be paying for decades in the form of usurious water bills, and from which water is unlikely to ever be required — for which Baillieu also opted to retain the contractual arrangements of the previous ALP regime.

Or the botched dealings with the Victorian Teachers’ Federation over pay issues for teachers, with Baillieu’s election promise that they would be “not the worst-paid teachers in Australia, but the best-paid” hanging over the government’s head.

Or the botched reforms to TAFE in Victoria, which were so poorly sold that the incorrect public perception is that Baillieu’s government has no credibility in the area of further education.

Or the residually-botched measure of the government’s media relations, and its effectiveness or otherwise in getting the government’s message across to the public.

On this measure at least, Baillieu has in recent months given more press conferences more regularly, and this is certainly encouraging.

Yet the fact remains that the only voices that seem capable of communicating the merits or otherwise of the Baillieu government are those of its opponents who, to understate the matter, are far less than kind.

And significantly — whilst I have used myki as a kind of “marquee balls-up” example for this article — the list of issues I have alluded to here, unfortunately, is not exhaustive.

Entire processes of policy formulation, salesmanship, mass communication and even the simple marketing of key achievements are either non-existent or so deficient as to be as good as non-existent.

And what of a social media strategy? It’s an area the ALP excels at. But go looking for a commensurate equivalent on the conservative side, and it’s found sorely wanting.

The Baillieu government — like any government, irrespective of political stripe — has its faults.

But given objective consideration, it’s actually a very good government; operating in difficult times, in an atmosphere of falling state revenues, a falling share of federally collected revenues such as GST receipts, the deteriorating national economic conditions responsible for those falls in revenue and in spite of its faults, the Coalition is making more than a reasonable fist of a difficult job.

Yet its ills are largely self-inflicted, and responsibility for an overwhelming proportion of those self-inflicted wounds rests with a coterie of advisers whose political judgement — at the very minimum — is so lacking as to be imperceptible.

Perversely, it is often Baillieu himself and the most competent of his ministers who are dumped into the political problems by poor advice that their opponents proceed to make merry hay from.

And far from being the accidental Premier who has proven clueless, Ted Baillieu is an individual of great ability and substance, whose methodical and considered approach to his role — to say nothing of his Hamer-like liberalism, which offers such obvious potential appeal to a swathe of moderate and progressive voters beyond the usual reach of the modern Liberal Party — equip him, potentially, to find his place in history as one of the greatest Premiers not just of Victoria, but of any Australian state.

But no amount of potential will be realised listening to advice from quislings who simply can’t cut the mustard, nor be found in myki-mouse initiatives and similarly lily-livered embodiments of the activity of government.