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Light rail poll: What do the numbers really say?

We reanalysed the numbers in the light rail poll and got a very different picture, write Will Steffen and Barbara Norman.

The results of the poll on light rail, published in the Canberra Times on June 19 certainly made for interesting reading, but there is more in the numbers than meets the eye.

An artist's impression of the proposed Canberra light rail line.
An artist's impression of the proposed Canberra light rail line. Photo: Supplied

On the surface of it, the union poll of 1446 residents showed that only 38.8 per cent of Canberrans support light rail, while 46.3 per cent oppose it and 14.9 per cent are undecided. 

Buried in the detail of that outcome is the most striking number in the poll  – only 15.8 per cent of intended Liberal voters support light rail, while for all of the other groups of intended voters (Labor, Greens, Others and Undecided) support for light rail varied between 42.0 and 63.5 per cent. That anomalously low level of support among intended Liberal voters immediately caught our attention and prompted us to do a reanalysis of the poll results.

An artist's impression of Canberra's proposed light rail.
An artist's impression of Canberra's proposed light rail. Photo: Supplied

In large complex, contentious issues (eg, climate change), support or opposition to actions of various types often varies between 40 and 60 per cent or sometimes 30 and 70 per cent in polls. These ranges normally apply across all political parties with support or opposition normally skewed somewhat along party lines, but often not excessively so.  

The very low 15.9 per cent of intending Liberal voters who support light rail are indicative of an issue that has become excessively polarising along partisan political lines. Such a strong skew also has statistical implications for the poll itself, and can easily generate a misleading impression of what the poll numbers are actually showing. In particular, the overall result of weak support for light rail could be highly skewed by the view of intended Liberal voters, who make up slightly less than one-third of the total number of residents polled.

In our reanalysis, we used all the percentages reported in the Canberra Times article in terms of level of support for light rail according to intended voting patterns. We then removed the intended Liberal voters from the analysis, giving a total of 980 remaining respondents to the poll, comprising the categories Labor, Greens, Others and Undecided in terms of intended voting pattern. We applied to the Others and Undecided categories in the reanalysis the same fraction of support for light rail (42 per cent) that was reported for Undecided in the full poll. 

The results of the reanalysis are given below. 

  • Support light rail 51.9 per cent
  • Oppose light rail 33.2 per cent
  • Undecided 14.9 per cent

This gives a very different picture. Now a majority support light rail. In fact, for the more-than-two-thirds of Canberrans who are are not intending to vote for the Liberals, there is very strong support for light rail, a nearly 20 per cent lead over those who oppose it. 

Furthermore, according to the result of the full poll, when the job creation associated with the construction of the light rail project is considered, the support for the project is likely to grow even further. This suggests that the gap between those who support light rail and those who oppose it would further widen.  

The story becomes even more interesting when this latest poll is compared with ACT Government-commissioned research in August 2014, nearly a year ago. That research found that about 55 per cent of Canberrans support light rail. These earlier results, which presumably included respondents across all political parties, are very similar to the results of this recent poll, but only if intended Liberal voters are excluded.

So what has happened over the past year? Light rail has certainly become a more prominent issue in the media and in public discourse. The Liberal leadership has been much more vocal in its opposition to light rail and has elevated the issue in the political sphere. Much of the public discourse and debate, particularly in the media, has unfortunately become strident and polarised .

The outcome of these developments appears to have been a weakening of support for light rail but only amongst intending Liberal voters. Support for light rail amongst the voters across the rest of the political spectrum, who comprise more than two-thirds of Canberrans, has remained strong despite the escalation of attacks on the project in the media.

Everyone across the political spectrum agrees that light rail is indeed a very important project in terms of its consequences for Canberra. What is required now is a more calm, considered, informed community discussion in a less partisan atmosphere. Basing the discussion on actual evidence from the experience of existing public transport systems in other cities would be a good start.

There is much evidence from many other cities that well-planned, high-quality public transit systems built around light rail can indeed trigger urban transformation, delivering major economic, employment, social and environmental benefits for their communities that far exceed the cost of the system. 

Reversing an increasingly toxic, partisan, adversarial atmosphere around a complex community issue like urban transformation is never easy, but it is time we had a go at doing just that here in Canberra.

Will Steffen is Adjunct Professor at the ANU and the University of Canberra.

Barbara Norman is foundation chairman, Urban and Regional Planning, University of Canberra

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect percentage value. The number of people who oppose light rail under the reanalysis is 33.2 per cent, not 3.2 per cent.

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