Are these contenders for ‘spin doctor’ of the year?

Public transport fares effective 1 January 2012 (Metlink)

There’s never any shortage of creativity when politicians, business and the media want to put a particular ‘spin’ – meaning an interpretation that furthers their own agenda, sometimes irrespective of logic, truth or salience – on an issue.

I saw a couple of interesting ‘spins’ this week when the Victorian Government announced the public transport fare increase that takes effect from January 1 2012. Three in particular caught my attention. I don’t know if they’re “best in show” but I think they might be leading contenders for The Melbourne Urbanist’s (proposed) annual SPIN Award to honour excellence in deceptiveness, bias, self-serving behaviour and a related string of detestable (and yet to be defined) offences.

The first is the on-line survey The Age ran this week to accompany its story breaking* the news about the fare increase. The Age blatantly sought the sympathy of outraged readers, posing the following question in its on-line survey:

Will you use less public transport as a result of the increase in fares in 2012?

    • Yes, I can’t afford to pay any more so will look at other options
    • No, I’ve got no choice but to fork out the extra cash in fares

For what it’s worth, 52% answered no. But it’s not worth much because almost everything imaginable is wrong with this survey. For a start it’s a leading question, connecting the increase directly to “less” use. That might be tolerated in a newspaper survey, given a more neutral alternative could be a bit clumsy. But where it goes seriously bad is with response options that don’t settle for a straightforward “Yes” or “No”.

Instead, The Age assumes it knows the reasons for the reader’s answer and and there’re only two possibilities – either “I can’t afford to pay” or “I’ve got no choice”. Other possibilities aren’t considered. What, for example, do respondents do if they want to say “No, I’m happy to pay to improve public transport”, or “Yes, it’s a matter of principle”?

The response options should’ve been a straightforward and unambiguous “Yes” or “No” (and a “don’t know”, or similar, is always a good idea). But this is not a survey designed to get an objective answer. It’s simply and unabashedly part of the main news story. It might as well be a photo or a breakout box. It’s not there to add objectivity; it’s there to add a bit of “colour”. Even the single “No” answer on offer is heavily biased to a begrudging acceptance – “I’ve got no choice”.

At first I wondered why journalism schools don’t give their students a basic grounding in survey design. After all, on-line surveys are ubiquitous. But then I realised that would be pointless – on-line surveys by media organisations are a tool of drama, not research.

The second comes from Metlink, which evidently will go to any lengths to present the fare increase in a favourable light. Counter-intuitively, Metlink tells travellers they “can beat the price rise” by switching from Metcard to myki. Here’s how Metlink says it can be done:

For example, a 2 hour Zone 1 Metcard will increase by 20 cents to $4 while a 2 hour myki cap will increase by 26 cents to $3.28. A Daily Zone 1 Metcard will increase by 60 cents to $7.60 and the daily myki cap will increase 52 cents to $6.56. A Daily Zone 1 + 2 Metcard will increase 90 cents to $11.90, while the equivalent myki fare will increase 88 cents to $11.08.

On this evidence Metlink won’t pass Communication 101, but the bottom line is myki really is cheaper under the new structure than Metcard is at present for the exact comparisons Metlink has specified. Trouble is, Metlink has very carefully cherry-picked its examples. It’s only true if the traveller shifts from a single use Metcard this year to a multi-use ticket next year (and not just to myki – works for multi use Metcards too).

However all those travellers who already have a myki won’t be able to “beat the price rise”. Nor will regular travellers who currently use multi-trip Metcards like a 10x2hr or a 5xDaily be able to “beat the price rise” – Zone 1 versions of both those tickets cost $30.20 at present, or $6.04 per day for a two-way commute. Under the new fare structure, a daily myki cap will cost more – $6.56.

The comparison Metlink is making is dubious – it’s not comparing apples with apples. Myki isn’t an “occasional” system like a 2 hour Metcard. Travellers don’t top-up $3.28 each time they want to make the occasional trip within Zone 1. Myki is more like a multi-trip Metcard – users who top-up via the web or the call centre must put in $10 minimum. I expect most people put in considerably more because it’s bothersome to top-up frequently. This after all is one of the advantages of myki.

Myki should be compared against multi-trip Metcards. As noted above, that comparison reveals myki doesn’t enable travellers to come even close to “beating the price rise”.

The final example is the Minister for Transport’s press release announcing the fare increase. He runs essentially the same dubious argument as Metlink – he compares the price of a single use ticket in 2011 against the price of a multi-use ticket in 2012.

But my interest here is how Mr Mulder explains the need for the fare increase. He justifies it entirely by blaming the former Government, claiming it is required “thanks to the previous Labor Government’s ‘Buy now, pay later’ transport projects and Labor’s associated large cost blowouts”.

I’m not going to discuss the merits of that claim. What worries me is the complete lack of any explanation of the necessity for the increase in terms of the benefits it will bring in better public transport (the Minister doesn’t even bother to explain how much extra revenue it will raise! (he said later it’s $30 m p.a.)).

Blaming your predecessor isn’t a sustainable strategy. Getting public support for the cost of improving public transport over the longer term will eventually require explaining why the extra income is necessary, where the expenditure is going, and the benefits it will bring. In this portfolio at least, blaming Labor is already past its use-by date. It might be a cliche, but this was an occasion when Mr Mulder should’ve shown some leadership.

*Note: in a sense, The Age really did “break” this story. When I went searching for some official news about 8.00 am on Tuesday morning after reading The Age, there was no press release by the Minister on the web and no mention of the increase on the Metlink site. That’s pretty poor given the Government must’ve briefed the media on the previous day.


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10 Comments on “Are these contenders for ‘spin doctor’ of the year?”

  1. Oz says:

    Well said!

  2. Daniel says:

    In fact, the way to beat the price rise is to ignore Myki, and buy Metcards in advance. This isn’t possible with Myki, unless using 7 day (weekly) or 28+ day Passes. For an occasional user, the best price for next year is achieved by stockpiling 10×2 hour tickets at the 2011 price.

  3. Jake Nancarrow says:

    Alan, could you please tell me roughly how much having two separate ticketing systems is costing us?? And is there anywhere else in the world that has two systems??

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’ve no idea. But I suppose the way to think about it would be to ask what it’s costing to maintain Metcard in parallel with myki (given myki is a sunk cost and is here to stay). I suspect much of that cost would manifest as inefficiencies stemming from the under-utilisation of myki.

      Maybe someone with better info on this can answer it. The other thing is it’s a temporary situation – Metcard is slated to go (at the end of 2012 IIRC).

      • Dave says:

        It’s a very long temporary, given mkyi has an (expected) life of 10 years, and has been running for two already.
        The smartcard ticket changeover in Canberra happened in a couple of months.

    • I can think of a few places that have multiple systems, or at least different types of ticketing.

      London has Oyster and Travelcard, with the later designed for occasional users.

      Perth has SmartRider and simple thermal printed tickets called ‘cash tickets’, again the later is for designed for occasional users, and interestingly enough the cash tickets are printed by the same machines people use to top up their SmartRider cards.

      Tokyo has a metcard like system that it seemed the majority of people used while I was there, and it also has Suica and PASMO which are smart cards.

      The main thing worth noting is that in all of these systems one ticketing system is designed to be convenient for occasional use, whilst the other is for more frequent use. Once Metcard is turned off here, there will be no option for occasional use. Nor will there be a chance to top-up on trams or buses. As a result, I believe there will be a big jump in fare evasion.

  4. Alan Davies says:

    I’m pleased to see not all journalists at The Age are oblivious to the weaknesses of on-line polls. This excerpt is from an op-ed in today’s issue by state political editor Josh Gordon, on violence in Melbourne. Oh, the irony.

    In one of its most egregious pieces of public policy, the state government has now completed an online survey of community attitudes about its new sentencing regime. As any pollster would tell you, the results of ”self-selecting” online polls such as this are likely to be so skewed they could be worse than useless. This survey, conducted in tandem with the Herald Sun, was so poorly designed respondents who felt strongly enough were able to complete the online poll several times. This is hardly the basis for good public policy. The effects of such populist nonsense could be felt for years.

  5. […] and development issues with a particular focus on Melbourne, Australia Are these contenders for ‘spin doctor’ of the year? […]

  6. Chris Sager says:

    Oh how I laughed at that Age poll. I’m glad to see it got the pick-up it deserved, even if only in this rarefied microcosm.

  7. Happy says:

    Daniel, I used to stockpile metcards at the end of every year to ‘beat’ the price rise. One of the things that I realised when I changed to using myki money was that I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore because any price rise would come into force immediately. However, the price rise this year is so great that it’s better for me to buy a yearly pass before the price rise rather than continuing to use myki money, even though I don’t travel every day and myki money has a better deal for me than a myki pass in the past.

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