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Community debate, not announcements, key to winning light rail support

For a construction project whose first sod has yet to be turned, light rail is increasingly assuming the appearance of a fait accompli. On Monday, the Barr government released a new 25-year master plan for tram services in Canberra, including the construction of new lines to Woden, Tuggeranong, Belconnen, the Molonglo Valley via Barton and Fyshwick.

A continuation of the Civic-Russell line (which the government hopes will be the inaugural Gungahlin-Civic line's first extension) to the airport is also on the cards. And on Tuesday, Labor announced that ACTION will be be merged with Capital Metro to ensure optimal integration of bus and rail services and ticketing.

Commendable though this forward-thinking might otherwise seem, light rail is so politically charged now that new announcements are frequently met with suspicion, even outright cynicism in some quarters.

The first announcement will be seen by some as an attempt to deflect criticism that Canberrans are being made to pay for (and subsidise) new public transport infrastructure that will benefit less than a quarter of the population. The announcement of ACTION's merger with Capital Metro will, likewise, be regarded by some as another instance of Labor scrambling to ensure light rail is so far progressed by election day on October 15, 2016, that a new Liberal government will be able to unpick it only at great cost and inconvenience.

Labor maintains its public mandate for light rail construction is clear and indisputable, and that it's the most efficient and flexible public transport alternative for a city whose population will soon pass half a million people. It also maintains that light rail will help contain costly urban sprawl and broaden the territory's prosperity and economic base.

Supporting evidence for the last proposition is less than overwhelming, however, and indeed several well-qualified economists have exposed major shortcomings in the government's cost-benefit analyses. That inability to articulate a compelling financial case (allied with the fact that public support for light rail seems not to be particularly overwhelming) might dictate a more cautious government approach than is currently the case.

The alternative to the government's hard-sell strategy – persuasive argument – has been too little tried thus far. It's encouraging therefore that a public forum is being held this Thursday, with urban planning academic Professor Barbara Norman and economist David Hughes leading discussions. Former Labor chief minister turned activist Jon Stanhope, whose idea the forum is, will act as moderator.

In comments to this newspaper on Monday, Mr Stanhope said he would not be taking sides in the debate. He did admit however, that light rail had been an agenda item on several occasions when he was chief minister, but never exhaustively debated since the business cases "didn't encourage investment at that time". Diplomatically, he added "but certainly the situation may have changed since".

Mr Stanhope's comments reveal at a stroke how problematic this debate is, and they underline why the government should refashion a strategy that looks alarmingly like selling a pig in a poke.