More trains or lower fares? Citizens decide in ‘poor’ engagement


The Queensland government is running an online poll to ask whether Queenslanders would prefer lower public transport fares or more frequent services. But there are concerns about the potential unreliability of any results.

Transport and Main Roads Minister Scott Emerson says the changes will be paid for with savings resulting from the abolition of the carbon tax. Emerson said in a statement:

“With the carbon tax gone, we want to re-invest the savings of about $30 million a year into improving public transport for families.”

The poll includes two choices: a “5% cut to current public transport fares that could save regular passengers hundreds of dollars each year” or “invest in more services in different parts of Queensland”.

Emerson said the results of the poll will direct the government’s actions:

“Whatever the public chose would be a win for public transport as we continue to improve affordability, frequency and the reliability of the network. If people choose a reduction in fares, a regular weekday passenger travelling from Brisbane to Chermside or Carindale could save an additional $99 a year.”

A spokesperson for the minister said  the government would enact cheaper fares if the results of the poll favoured doing so, but that if a majority supported investing the money into services, further deliberations would occur to determine where it would be spent.

If the online poll is the only piece of consultation the government are doing on this issue, says Craig Thomler, managing director of digital consultancy Delib Australia, “I think that’s very poor policy development. It’s the sort of thing we discourage government from doing.”

“With the way it’s set up, all you need to do is write a simple program with 30 or 40 lines of code that takes into account the population spread in Queensland — so it looked like real results — and tell it to give 20-30,000 responses from different IP addresses in favour of one side or the other,” he told The Mandarin today.

“It would influence the poll unfairly. The system is so simple, it doesn’t have the checks and balances to prevent that sort of thing.”

There is also concern that a solely online poll without any contextual information other than a postcode would lead to an unrepresentative result. “I would always advise using a mix of consultation methods,” said Thomler.

“The system is so simple, it doesn’t have the checks and balances to prevent that sort of thing.”

“If they’ve only got an online poll, they’re excluding anyone who doesn’t have access to the internet. It’s important to use multiple techniques to get a good spread of the population. I would do this with the appropriate demographic information, which they haven’t done. I think it’s fairly knee-jerk to issue effectively a two option poll for a complex policy area.”

Thomler also suggests the inclusion of the phrase “everyone will benefit from a fare reduction” in the options suggested the government already appeared to support the option of cheaper fares. The lack of detail for the “improving services” option does not provide enough information for citizens to make an informed choice, he added.

“It’s a good idea if you can run such processes in an effective manner, but if you run it in an ineffective manner, you end up with outcomes that can generate a political backlash that can harm the government more.”

Earlier this year the Queensland government was criticised for its use of a state budget survey called the People’s Budget, which Opposition Leader Annastacia Palaszczuk labelled “push polling”.

Matthew Crozier of digital consultancy Bang the Table welcomes the poll, but hopes it’s part of broader consultations. “I think what they’re doing is great,” he told The Mandarin. “You can’t have low fares and good public transport. They’re focusing the community’s mind on the fact that it’s one or the other.

“The next step might be to invite the community in to have a discussion about the decision, and allow people to have a bit more of an understanding of the trade-offs.

“Generally with online engagement it’s better if it’s not conducted in a ‘the answer is what we’ll do’ kind of way, but as one of the inputs in the process.”

A statement from Translink said:

“The poll was initiated by the Minister of Transport and Main Roads to canvas the public’s preference for reinvestment of funds following the decision to re-invest savings from the scrapped carbon tax towards public transport.

“It is a simple poll with two choices and a post code field. The post code request gauges whether poll results have been captured from regions across Queensland with state funded public transport.

“There are mechanisms in place to provide obstacles to people sending multiple responses. TransLink will analyse the data collected to identify any unusual trends which could indicate illegitimate votes, for further investigation. The survey records time stamps and IP addresses so we can identify large peaks in votes which would indicate automated software, or multiple votes cast from the same IP address

“The state government will listen to feedback from Queenslanders.”

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