Public transport and a tale of two cities

Pam Blakeley has launched our new Blog, focusing on the upcoming ACT election in October 2024

9 April 2024

The public transport issue, particularly the extension to light rail, is again shaping up as a controversial ACT election issue. The discussion this time is more strident and desperate, and linked to other critical issues. The need to finance more public housing and better health provisions in the context of the ACT budget deficit are being raised as reasons to scrap light rail.

Canberra and Wellington, New Zealand, sister cities since 2016, tie as the most remote capital cities in the world. They both have populations of just under half a million and are growing. Many workers in each city are employed in politics, government, education, and services. Young people come for education and jobs. The standard of living in each city is high relative to the national standard, and New Zealand is facing many of the same social problems as Australia.

Visiting Wellington for a 12-day holiday in December 2022, we were struck by the physical beauty of Wellington, spread around, and rising in green volcanic mountains above a harbour the size of Sydney Harbour. Wellington has water.

The other striking thing was how well Wellington works as a city. We stayed in an Airbnb in the suburb of Karori, 4 km from the city centre. We used public transport the whole time (the Snapper card covers everything), and travelled on buses, trains, and ferries. We went out at night to stand-up comedy shows, restaurants and music venues. No need to hire a car, get a taxi or an uber. We went by bus/train outside the city to the boutique wine region of Martinborough, we caught the ferry across the harbour to Eastbourne where we ate seafood chowder and cheesy scones and we visited Petone, the original site of Wellington, by train.

We walked a lot too. We caught a bus up Mt Victoria, the highest point of Wellington, on a hair-raising steep and narrow road. We saw native tui birds, walked down to Oriental Beach, and then along the wide boardwalk with its crab shacks and oyster fritter stalls, past the Te Papa Museum and back to Courtenay Place to catch the bus back to Karori. None of us had ever spent more than a day in Wellington before and yet it was as comfortable as being at home. No, a lot more comfortable. We loved the way bus passengers always thanked the driver when getting off the bus. ‘Thank you, driver!’ Fair enough too, as the driver had just safely negotiated narrow and steep roads and hairpin bends unlike any in Canberra, with a good-natured muscularity and can-do attitude.

Wellington does not have light rail, but it has an urban train system which services outlying suburbs and goes to other cities. These trains are estimated to carry 12 million passengers a year. Buses service almost every part of Wellington and most run through Courtenay Place in the CBD, a bus hub, and take in Wellington Railway Station.

We wondered why Canberra does not have such an efficient, well connected and well patronised public transport system as Wellington. What is the best system for Canberra with its own special qualities and requirements and its own unique natural beauty. In this election year, who do we vote for to provide it? Indeed, what do most Canberrans want?

We cannot copy Wellington. Canberra has four town centres and potentially five. We have evolved as a city for cars. I have not seen the number or size of car parks we have here, in any other city in the world. It feels anachronistic. The car parks are ugly and take up a lot of land. Imagine the gardens and public and social housing that could be accommodated if some of the prime sites in central Civic, Woden and Belconnen in particular, were used differently. Looking ahead, how many more roads and carparks are going to be needed if we continue this way?

As Canberra has traditionally been a car city, we have neglected other aspects of transport infrastructure in a way that other small cities have not. The cost now to remediate this situation is phenomenal even if it is shared with the federal government. It is an unenviable task for any ACT government to implement infrastructure that would have been better started decades ago. We are almost starting from scratch and with no clear idea of what we want. But we do need to think ahead. Canberra is growing and becoming denser. The reliance on cars and ‘ghost buses’ is not sustainable in the long run. The existing bus service does a good job conveying workers short distances in peak hours. But the city is not connected properly. It is a difficult city to move around in and not welcoming to visitors or those without a car.

Canberra has voted twice now to go ahead with light rail. The existing line from Gungahlin to the City is popular with those who have access to it. It is a comfortable form of transport, easier for the elderly, those with a mobility issue or parents dealing with strollers. You don’t need a timetable, they come every few minutes. They carry hundreds of passengers at one time. It is an effective form of mass transport and doesn’t clog up the roads. At night, the rail stops are well lit and highly visible, and they feel safer than bus interchanges or suburban bus stops. We can already see greater density along the light rail route in north Canberra, although this is controversial.

The choice is not between light rail and buses. The challenge is to work out a hybrid system of public transport that allows us to move easily around our widely dispersed city and to enjoy it. We need a system which will work well into the future even if modifications are needed at times, as they will be. We need to think about how our city could be warmer and more hospitable. As individuals it is vital for us all to think about how much reliance and money, we and our children and grandchildren want to put into car and road transport in the future.

Our best solution for now might be to continue building light rail to provide effective and rapid mass transit between the town centres, with buses, cycleways and walking paths radiating out into the suburbs beyond. Ideally, the airport and Canberra Railway Station would be integrated into the system one day. There would still be a need for cars.

It seems fallacious to think that we would be better off by scrapping plans for light rail to Woden and just getting more buses. The public has lost faith in the existing bus system and needs to see a big change in the role of buses in Canberra’s public transport system.

Nor does a priority of building and maintaining more roads for buses and cars into the future feel like the way to make Canberra a better connected, more appealing city. It’s expensive too. A quick example is Majura Parkway. Completed in 2016 and half funded by the federal government, it cost $288 million for 11.5 kilometres. It would cost far more today.

I’m leaving this blog with more questions than answers but that’s OK. Public transport in Canberra is important in this city which stretches for 60 kilometres from to south. There will be further public discussion on this issue in the leadup to the ACT election in October and hopefully some interesting and constructive ideas will emerge. but looking forward to the day when I hear passengers calling ‘thank you, driver!’ each time.

Pam Blakeley

Swapping policies for principles, the Independents for Canberra ask us to trust their integrity.

27 February 2024

We know how much our Vintage Reds members enjoy an election. The cut and thrust of ideas, the chance to make our world a better and fairer place! The sheer thrill of orators taking to the stump to stir our idealism! I decided to forget mowing the lawn and get along to the town hall meeting.

The inaugural meeting of the group known as Independents for Canberra, launched by Clare Carnell (Party Director) and Tom Emerson, was held on February 11. This meeting received scant attention in the media, apart from a mention of a stoush between two attendees which ironically showed the difficulties inherent in the concept of serving “the community”, as if community forms a single entity. Deeply held differences within one group in the ACT came to the fore in an exchange between two Indigenous elders.

Community was the theme and promise of the meeting, with the chance to elect politicians who listen and will act for their communities, and can vote freely and with integrity, unfettered by a party machine.

About 150 people attended this meeting, a good turnout for a Sunday morning.

After an acknowledgement of country by Auntie Violet Sheriden, chair Clare Carnell (a barrister and ANU law lecturer) outlined the vision. It was to pledge that Independents for Canberra politicians will be accountable and community focused. They will listen and reply to every contact and phone call, and will show in their actions that they are there to serve the people who voted them in. Time for an end to arrogant politicians who you can never get hold of.

Michael Moore then spoke. He quoted Mal Meninga as saying that when Meninga stood as an independent candidate, the things he hoped to achieve were integrity and access, equity, and sustainability. Moore says that Independents should remain unaligned to political parties, and that the ACT Greens have not done this. Independents should focus on increasing accountability, allowing stability and good budgeting. Moore said that while independent politicians need policies, they also must be across a vast range of topics. He noted that the Hare-Clark electoral system, which is used in ACT and Tasmania, favours teams of independents rather than individual independents.

Kate Chaney, an independent from WA, was a guest and spoke of her own experience in being elected in 2022 into a former Liberal seat. She said the major parties were no longer listening to or serving the needs of people, only of the machine. She said a positive campaign was essential, and recommended that independent candidates focus on policy, not on attack. She does not hold the balance of power but takes the democratic process very seriously and believes that it is vital to be connected to the community. She said the best question an independent need to ask of themselves is what the right thing is to do on a long-term basis.

David Pocock, also a guest speaker, gave a short speech. He stated his love of Canberra, his belief that Canberrans love Canberra and that he values being free of a party line. He believes that 95% of party politicians have no idea what they are voting for. The point for an independent politician is to find a sensible way forward, a way that looks after us and our children.

Tom Emerson, “another bald man with a big heart”, and David Pocock’s staffer, followed. He suggested that we, the audience, were probably swinging voters. He outlined his background as an ANU philosophy graduate from a political Labor family. He currently runs a movement studio called Praksis in Canberra. He said an independent should represent the community only, not a political party and that integrity was essential. Then came the pitch.

Emerson explained that Independents for Canberra are looking for more candidates who are active and accessible community members, answerable for errors and understanding of why people disagree. These will be locals who back themselves and can back others, and will give help when help is needed, for example, regarding public housing and health care. Emerson was passionate on what Canberra could be like; a capital that leads the nation by using innovative ways to solve problems, stronger communities, high value given to the natural environment and a sense of ambition for our city. More people need to be brought into the political tent. The goal is to get one independent elected in each electorate, thus bringing pressure on the government to serve the community.

Then followed a Q and A session.

Auntie Violet said she was considering standing as an independent with the independent team. She expressed concerns about small block sizes and too much traffic in Gungahlin where she lives. She does not support stage 2 of the light rail and believes high speed buses are better. She said Canberra needs representatives who understand their communities.

In reply, Tom Emerson said there were many points of view on the extension to light rail, depending in part on where people live.

Then followed a question from the audience on what exactly is ‘a party’ of independents. Emerson answered that it needs to be a group to get elected, but all representatives will be free to vote independently.

In response to a question from the floor, Emerson said he saw three key issues facing the electorate at the upcoming election: housing including public housing, health and mental health and the future of our city both physically and in its character.

Bill Stefaniak, Convenor of the Belco Party, gave a message of support for the new Independents for Canberra. Stefaniak, incidentally, wrote in his column in the Canberra Weekly magazine of 15/2/24 that ‘as we approach this year’s local election, the issue currently on most Canberrans minds is the length of the grass in our city’.

A man who identified himself as a Ngambri man put forward the view that independent candidates should reflect the needs of women and the multiculturalism of Canberra. Aunty Violet took offence at him speaking and they had a stoush, resolved finally when David Pocock suggested they continue privately, and that the meeting was about positivity.

Then, right at the end of a long meeting, a voice from the floor belonging to Gary Petherbridge raised some local issues which he felt needed to be addressed by any candidate seeking election. He felt housing was a big issue, including high rates for houseowners, exorbitant rents and strata levies, endemic building faults in new builds, maintenance problems from using substandard products. He said our public schools are in crisis and that he believed respect and values should be at the heart of change.

But town hall meeting exhaustion had set in, and it was time for a change ……

Read the 10 principles underpinning the Independents for Canberra at

Pam Blakeley