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Capital Metro takes the focus off buses and pushes jobs and health in tram poll

Far from leaving it to the experts, Capital Metro appears to have taken an active hand at writing questions for tram polling last year, rejecting questions from the polling firm and replacing them with its own.

The extent of apparent government involvement in the Piazza Research tram survey is revealed in documents obtained by the Liberals. They appear to show the government rejecting questions that compare trams to buses, and boosting questions with its message about job creation, improving Northbourne​ Avenue, and a healthier lifestyle.

When the results were released, the government welcomed them as showing majority support for the project, with 55 per cent of people polled saying they supported the project, 34 per cent opposed and 11 per cent unsure.  

The survey includes questions that appear to have been contributed by the government (or Capital Metro), including:

Would you support extra money being spent on a light rail system rather than buses if you knew there would be more long-term benefits for Canberra e.g. cleaner environment, better access and more jobs and investment? 

The question replaced Piazza Research's version, which asked whether it would be better to spend more money on buses, bus lanes, roads or light rail.

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While the government version reads like a yes/no question, respondents were given a choice of answering "buses", "light rail", "unsure". Forty-eight per cent chose light rail; 38 per cent buses.

It is not entirely clear how the final wording came about, with a series of drafts and internal working documents on the survey questions not released. The  Piazza version sent to Capital Metro for approval has been released, as has the final version send back with ministerial approval – but emails back and forth on the detail have been kept secret.

The apparent influence of Capital Metro in writing questions is most obvious in questions about the benefits of light rail and the things that make the project appealing.

Among benefits, Piazza proposed a list of six possible benefits, with which people were asked to agree or disagree. The entire list was thrown out or rewritten by the time it came back with approval from Capital Metro and the minister.

The Piazza Research list of benefits included four that compared trams with buses: "A faster public transport system than buses alone", "a more reliable public transport system than buses", "a more comfortable and spacious transport option than buses", and "light rail would be faster than buses". The comparison with buses was evidently not an angle the government wanted to pursue. All four questions were rejected, leaving just one "benefit" that mentions buses: "A more effective and reliable public transport system through integration with ACTION buses".

Among questions added to the survey was one about trees, which stressed the need to replace Northbourne trees:

The current trees along Northbourne Avenue are reducing in number due to poor health and weather impact. Building light rail along Northbourne Ave may mean replacing the current trees with new and longer lasting trees. Do you support this approach? 

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, 69 per cent said yes.

The final survey added benefits such as "upgrade and uplift Northbourne Avenue", "support a reduction in car dependency", "help the city to grow in a more compact and sustainable way" and "support a shift towards a healthier lifestyle, ie, people walking to and from the stops" – all of which are key planks of the government's sales pitch for the $800 million project.

In the wash up, the government might not have been so happy at the response to its "benefits" questions, with fewer than half believing light rail would help the city grow in a compact and sustainable way (47 per cent) or create a healthier lifestyle (38 per cent).

In its analysis, Piazza commented on this lacklustre response, saying while most people believed the benefits were real, "it is notable that there were substantial proportions who disagreed that these were real benefits", and: "Aspects less likely to be considered real benefits included; helping the city grow in a more compact and sustainable way, and that light rail will support a shift towards a healthier lifestyle." 

The email trail shows Piazza sent the survey to Capital Metro for approval at the beginning of June last year, receiving several replies from Capital Metro noting changes and indicating it was with the minister's office for approval – presumably Capital Metro Minister Simon Corbell.

Piazza charged an extra $1200 for the added questions. The survey cost $29,157, with six-monthly follow-up surveys priced at $26,682 each.

Questions look to have been finessed further in December 2014 and August 2015 surveys.