PTUA: "Only a few days until the Federal election – with the help of Cardboard Malcolm, we’ve launched our election scorecard! Here’s how the parties compare on transport issues".
The PTUA’s federal election 2016 scorecard as 29 June (source: PTUA)

Whenever there’s an election, the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) offers its analysis of the transport policy offerings of the major parties. It’s a useful service, giving readers a handy way of comparing what the contenders are promising.

But this time around the PTUA’s election scorecard, How to vote for public transport in the Federal election, is disappointing because it’s biased towards one party. I expect the great majority of PTUA members will vote for the Greens on Saturday but that doesn’t excuse framing information in a selective way to support the claims of one party over the others.

Consider the exhibit published on the PTUA’s web site showing the election promises the three major parties have made so far. The Liberals get one tick and five crosses; Labor gets five ticks and three crosses; and the Greens get nine ticks and zero crosses.

While I think a comparison of policies would be far more useful than the stuff trotted out for the election, those ticks and crosses would be fair enough if they were the outcome of a balanced assessment; but that’s not what we’ve got here. Here’s why.

One: The first line claims to show where the three major parties stand on Federal funding for the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel. It implies the Greens will provide funding from the party’s promised $10 Billion public transport fund. However while a number of other projects are mentioned in the PR material for the fund, the Greens do not list Melbourne Metro.

That’s not the sort of thing that can be put down to an oversight. It’s potentially significant because the Greens invited the suspicion during the 2014 Victorian election campaign that they have some residual reticence about Melbourne Metro.

Two: The Greens’ promised $10 Billion public transport fund is listed, but Labor’s promised $10 Billion “concrete bank” for infrastructure doesn’t rate a mention. Why not?

Three: Other than High Speed Rail, the cited promises made by the Government and the Opposition all relate specifically to funding projects in Victoria, mostly Melbourne. Yet the dollar amounts listed for the Greens mostly relate to national expenditures e.g. $250 million for cycling; $25o million for roads; $300 million for road safety; $10 Billion for public transport.

Four: The $1 Billion promised by the Greens for building an airport rail link in Melbourne is listed as a separate sum but it’s not additional funding; it’s part of the $10 Billion public transport fund already mentioned by the PTUA in the first line.

Five: Labor’s promised High Speed Rail Planning Authority gets a mention, but the Greens’ promise is gilded with the information that it will “secure routes”. Yet Labor’s also promising “corridor acquisition”.

The Greens’ promises on public transport might well be superior to the promises of the Coalition and Labor; that’s to be expected given the party is much less constrained than the other two. But that’s not the issue here; rather, it’s the bias in the way the PTUA presents its assessment of the competing claims.

Does it matter? Yes, because it’s presented as an objective assessment. It’s likely it will be read by voters who aren’t members of the PTUA but have come to the site looking for an even-handed evaluation of each party’s program.

Sadly, we’re used to political parties undermining civil discourse by morally questionable tactics and it’s arguably getting worse (e.g. see Fact and fiction on the campaign trail). Advocacy groups aren’t under the same pressures as political parties and should do better.

There’s nothing to stop the PTUA coming out in the open and stating that it supports a particular party at the election; plenty of organisations do that. But it should always endeavour to present information fairly and even-handedly so readers can see the merits or otherwise of the competing claims.