Tasmania's first public transport election

The March 23 Tasmanian election will be unusual in many ways – not just the likelihood of a minority government reliant on the support of a disparate cross-bench.


This election is being fought on some unusual grounds, such as public transport – which has long been considered something of a niche issue in Tasmanian politics.  In fact, this campaign could be called Tasmanian’s first ever ‘public transport election’

The recent ‘A Better Deal’ report into Tasmania’s bus services, which was prepared by the McKell Institute and commissioned by the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), found the Tasmanian Government spends just $115 per head on public transport a year – the least of all Australian state and territory administrations.

Given the lack of government funding, it is hardly surprising that Tasmania’s publicly-owned bus operator, Metro Tasmania, has been in permanent crisis management for the past two years, plagued by staff shortages, poor morale, and chronic cancellations.

Couple these problems with inadequate access for people with disabilities, and Metro is simply not delivering Tasmanians the services they need and deserve.

In the past, these issues may have been ignored by politicians. But as the cost of living has risen, traffic jams have worsened, and media coverage of public transport issues has increased, Tasmanians have started to realise the importance of public transport to maintaining their quality of life.

Now the pressure is on all parties to explain what they are going to do to fix Tasmania’s broken public transport system.

How we got here

The warning bells started ringing for the RTBU back in early 2022 when a survey of over 100 Metro Tasmania bus drivers found that 70 per cent had been threatened while working, and a staggering 98 per cent of drivers had been verbally abused.  Critically, 50 per cent said they were somewhat likely or very likely to resign from Metro.

Over the course of 2022, the problems with violent and anti-social behaviour got worse, and many drivers followed through on their threat to leave.  And by the beginning of 2023, Metro was being forced to cancel hundreds of services a day due to crippling staff shortages.

The RTBU wrote to Transport and Infrastructure Michael Ferguson requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the crisis at Metro.  We told the Minister that three things needed to happen: anti-social and violent behaviour needed to be addressed, pay and conditions for Metro workers needed to improve, and the adversarial management at Metro needed to change.  As a result of that meeting, the Minister agreed to set up a Safe Public Transport Working Group with Metro Tasmania, private operators, the Department of State Growth, local councils, Tasmanian Police and the RTBU to examine potential solutions.  Soon after, the State Government agreed to a trial of Transit Officers, and Metro and the RTBU launched the joint ‘It’s Not OK’ community awareness campaign.  Metro also started researching options for safety screens to protect drivers.

This was a good start, but Metro Tasmania bus drivers were still getting paid around 35% less than drivers on the mainland, and complaints about the management culture at Metro had not been acted on. Drivers continued to leave in droves.

In late August of 2023, Metro “temporarily suspended” dozens of services from its timetable due to its chronic driver shortage.  The Government finally was forced to act on pay and conditions, announcing a temporary 10 per cent pay rise for drivers. The RTBU and Metro management then worked together to ensure the pay rise was delivered to drivers before Christmas.

While these measures have helped, the underlying problems at Metro remain unresolved, and much more work needs to be done to get Metro back on a stable footing.

The #FixMetro Pledge

That’s why, heading into this state election, the RTBU asked candidates from all parties - and independents, to endorse our #FixMetro pledge.

The pledge - which was informed by the findings of the landmark McKell Institute report - identifies the four key areas of public transport policy that require action from the next State Government

  • Addressing the bus driver shortage by making Metro an employer of choice;
  • Keeping public transport in public hands;
  • Making public transport safer and more accessible for all; and
  • Improving transparency and accountability in public transport.

What’s on offer?

As we approach the end of the election campaign period, we are now able to see how parties and candidates have responded to the #FixMetro pledge.

Initially, the Liberals and Labor focussed on cutting the price of bus fares, while The Greens promised to make buses free.

While cheaper fares will undoubtedly help Tasmanian families, cutting farebox revenue will do nothing to address the underlying problems at Metro Tasmania.  And as others have pointed out, what’s the point of a free ticket for a bus that doesn’t turn up?

Thankfully, other commitments have been made that will make a difference.  Most significantly, Labor has committed to addressing Metro’s driver and mechanic shortage by offering improved pay and conditions for bus drivers and mechanics through enterprise bargaining negotiations.

Labor has also committed to employing permanent, appropriately trained Transit Officers, and creating a new offence in the Criminal Code for intimidating, abusing or harassing public transport workers.

These measures will help restore confidence in public transport for both workers and passengers.

Labor candidates have also been keen to sign the #FixMetro pledge - including Opposition Leader Rebecca White and Shadow Transport Minister Josh Willie.

At the time of writing, other sitting Labor MPs to endorse the pledge include Dean Winter (Franklin), Janie Findlay (Bass) and Michelle O’Byrne (Bass).  We’ve also had a number of Labor candidates including Richard Goss (Lyons), Rebecca Prince (Clark), Roshin Dhingra (Bass), Will Gordon (Bass) and Casey Farrell (Lyons).

Conversely, no Liberal Party candidates have endorsed the pledge.  It must be acknowledged, however, that the Liberals have got the ball rolling on critical issues such as safety screens and transit officers.  They have also promised a further $15 million over four years to expand bus services.

The Greens have now announced a public transport policy too.  While lacking in detail, it commits $110 million over four years for more frequent bus and community transport services across rural, regional, and urban areas.  Cecily Rosol, the Greens candidate in Bass, has endorsed the #FixMetro pledge.

A growing list of independent and minor candidates have signed the #Fix Metro pledge.  Bass candidate Lara Alexander was first off the mark, followed David O’Byrne in Franklin, Kristie Johnson in Clark, Sam Campbell (The Local Network) in Clark, Ivan Davis (Animal Justice Party) in Bass, and Sue Hickey in Clark.

Jackie Lambie Network (JLN) candidates have so far been missing in action on public transport. We have not yet seen a JLN candidate make any public comment on transport issues at all.

Of course, there is still a week to go until election day, so keep an eye on our Fix Metro campaign webpage and social media pages to see who else signs up for the pledge!

Ultimately, whoever forms government after 23 March must use the election as a chance for a political reset, and an opportunity to make positive changes across a range of areas - including the way Tasmania’s public transport services are managed and delivered.

Byron Cubit is the Tasmanian Branch Secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU).

An abridged version of this article was published in the Mercury on Friday 15 March, 2024.