The shock announcement this week that retail developer giant GPT would abandon its plans to replace the Hunter Street Mall with a Charlestown Square-like megamall has been received with a mixture of outrage, relief, and (in all likelihood, given the nature of many Australians) apathy. Much of the outrage has been directed not at GPT, who has been threatening to pull out of its development unless the State Government demolished Newcastle's rail line, but at the local ALP member of state parliament, Jodi McKay.
There is little reason to discourage anger at Jodi McKay. McKay's top promise to voters in going into the 2007 election was improved public transport, a promise which she has addressed only with window-dressing. McKay told public transport campaigners not to focus on increased investment in buses, but rather to support yet another re-arrangement of the timetabling, which would somehow lift patronage, help the bus system make money from fares and create a stronger argument for more investment. Fares contribute only 17% of Newcastle Buses' revenue and would not help the bus system make profit, unless either patronage or fares multiplied by a factor of six. However, lifting patronage would require substantial increases in service, and multiplying fares to over $20 an hour would be grossly unfair and unrealistic. In fact, the cost of collecting fares on Newcastle buses (including machine maintenance, tickets, time delays and enforcement) is more than the revenue that fares create, and the system would actually be cheaper if fares were abolished (as well as creating savings in the health and roads budget, and creating environmental benefits). McKay demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding both of public transport, which is not a profit venture but a public service, and NSW politics, by ignoring the political forces at play.
McKay's chief contribution to public transport in Newcastle has been to pressure the Government to cut the heavy rail line to Newcastle, rather than increase accessibility across the rail line through level crossings. In doing this, she has been fully backed by the Hunter Development Corporation, the local business lobby and the big developers. In community forums attended by hundreds of residents, McKay would occasionally show up with a corporate representative from HDC and slip up by saying "we" when referring to the Hunter Development Corporation, and "you" when talking to her constituents. Tragically, the Government now seems committed to cutting the heavy rail line even without corporate pressure from GPT. How did this happen?
Several years ago, public opposition to cutting the heavy rail line was so strong that the Government was forced to back down on its stated anti-rail policy. Since then, public opinion has essentially reversed to the point that residents are getting up in arms to try to get the government to cut the rail line. Given the social and environmental benefits of rail over other forms of public transport, as well as the underinvestment in public transport in Newcastle over decades (as well as growing concerns about climate change), grassroots campaigning to cut the rail line seems hard to understand. There is in some quarters an assumption that the "Fix Our City" campaign is about more than just cutting the rail line, that it's just one essential part of a broader strategy to develop the centre of the city. The assumption is false - Fix Our City's campaign centres around just three demands, including cutting the rail line, expanding the University into the city (which is happening in any case) and creating a new justice precinct for the city centre (which is also happening in any case).
The reality is that Fix Our City is not a grassroots campaign, but a populist campaign run by elite business interests and backed by Newcastle's powerful tabloid, the Newcastle Herald. The Herald is owned by the multi-billion dollar Fairfax media empire, which shares an almost complete stranglehold of the Australian newspaper market with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Cross-media ownership laws introduced by John Howard have allowed Fairfax to acquire other media as well, such as radio.
As Newcastle's only mass-produced newspaper (apart from "free" newspapers, some of which are also owned by Fairfax), the Herald shows an astonishing lack of investigative journalism (apart from a handful of standout journalists, such as Greg Ray) and diversity of views. Fairfax uses the Newcastle Herald essentially as a manifesto, often devoting its front page to particular business-interest causes that the Herald wants to pursue, often aggressively campaigning against community organisations not just through its editorial pages, but also through its news articles (sometimes devoting four or five pages to one particular cause), and through the censorship of letters to the editor and its online blog. Comments that run contrary to the Herald's position are less likely to be published, and comments critical of the Herald are barred altogether, to an extent that Pravda would have been proud of. Former journalists from the Herald have spoken about meetings where the editor-in-chief would sit down with senior journalists and determine the Herald's line on political issues.
When government, business and media interests align against community-led campaigns, it can be extraordinarily disheartening. However, the rise of the blogosphere, including your very own Gerald, is likely to loosen to some extent the ideological control that media empires like Fairfax exert.
As far as the pull-out of GPT is concerned, Newcastle residents have options. They can either continue to whinge and complain about what the government should do, as if an anonymous piece of paper in a ballot box once every few years meant that the government worked in the interests of the people, they can continue to believe that big developers creating megamalls would create net jobs, growth and community benefits (an argument that has been debunked time and time again by decades of economic studies and social research), or it can decide to do something different.
It's time for Newcastle to come together and decide what we want to do with the centre of the city, how we want to create the space that we live in. Once we've created our vision and have engaged the community to work on the project we can get down to doing it instead of waiting for the government to act. (sort of like what Renew Newcastle is doing, but with even more public participation). Once we stop complaining about politicians and start ignoring them, anything becomes possible!