• Archive for the ‘Profile’ Category

Taking a better route

August 29th, 2013 by admin

Janet Rice

Janet Rice

Greens Senate candidate Janet Rice plans to ride into parliament on a transport platform

When Janet Rice became mayor of Maribyrnong in Melbourne’s inner west seven years ago she replaced the car that came with the office with a bike.

Much more than a symbolic gesture, it signalled a fresh approach to transport policy and a commitment to lead by example on her mission to reduce council’s emissions. Finding alternatives to the car-dependent model of urban planning that she calls “developer-ment” is one of her top priorities.

“I’m not against cars or driving ­– they’re an important part of the transport mix and I drive when it’s the best option,” she says. “The problem is that they’re strangling our cities. We’ve ended up with transport poverty on the fringes and gridlock along the arteries and throughout the inner city.”

Now the pedalling politician wants to shift gear and take her low-carbon vision to the national parliament. She heads the Victorian Senate ticket for the Greens at the September election and has a strong chance of winning a seat and helping the party to maintain its hold on the balance of power in the upper house.

Trained as a climate scientist, Janet began her working life as a campaigner for forests. During her student days she had been to the 1983 Franklin blockade where she met Bob Brown. Within a decade she became a founding member of the Victorian Greens.

Campaigns in support of community facilities around her Footscray neighbourhood and against trucks on residential roads led to her running for council in 1997. After two close losses, she won a council seat in 2003 and was elected mayor in her second term in 2006.

As a councillor Janet positioned Maribyrnong as one of the first local government bodies to adopt a carbon neutral policy. She got the council to improve cycling infrastructure and pushed for planning models that encouraged walking and public transport.

But after she departed no Greens were elected to replace her and those policy settings were no longer actively pursued. Janet blames the pressure of vested interests ­– the developers, the fossil fuel industry and the political and business networks that support them – and reluctance from the community to accept the unsustainability of our current lifestyle.

“We need to face up to the powers that are aligned against sustainable development,” she says.

During her term on council she also served as chair of the Metropolitan Transport Forum for four years, and this period sharpened her appreciation of a strategic approach to solving complex problems.

“I get frustrated applying bandaids,” she says. “I like to concentrate on what needs to happen upstream to stop the problems from occurring in the first place, and to create different paths, different options.”

Transport, planning, infrastructure and their impact on climate change, jobs and quality of life are critical issues for the Greens. Janet is keen to take on a role in shaping national policy and programs in these areas. She says the urban sprawl created by housing construction on disconnected city outskirts is a glaring example of how badly the system fails us.

“I recently completed 18 months as a strategic transport planner for an outer-Melbourne local council and it was an eye opener,” she says. “Despite the best intentions of local government to provide sustainable development with access to jobs, transport and services, it’s not happening. State government planning guidelines leave too little room for councils to move and the funding for services falls far short of the minimum we need.

“It’s also easier and more profitable for developers to build greenfield estates on urban fringes than it is to infill in existing areas where services and jobs are located. And it’s cheaper for governments to keep building more and bigger roads across greenfield developments than it is to provide public transport.”

Pull these factors together and there’s a powerful coalition of forces protecting the status quo. “The economic pact between government, the development industry and the road builders is to keep providing more of the same, regardless of policy or the long-term social and environmental costs,” she says.

Another factor casting a shadow over planning is the long history in Australia of donations to the major parties by developers. Greens policy is unequivocal: ban them.

Janet believes that fixing this broken model requires national input and can’t be left to state and local government. “Through its national infrastructure funding program, the Federal Government has great influence over transport and urban development. If we are serious about tackling climate change we need a co-ordinated national approach.”

So, what are her transport priorities for Victoria?

“At the moment about 80 per cent of motorised trips are by private cars,” she says. “That needs to come down significantly, and to do that we need a lot more efficient and convenient public transport. Building more freeways like the east-west tunnel is hugely expensive and just shifts congestion to another spot, without reducing emissions.”

Here’s Janet’s list of passenger transport projects she will push for in Victoria:

  •        Upgrade metro rail signals to double train services on existing lines
  •        More metropolitan and regional bus services
  •        Doncaster rail line (instead of the East West Tollway)
  •        Airport rail line
  •        Phase out dangerous level crossings by separating road and rail
  •        Western suburbs train upgrades, including electric trains to Melton and extending the Werribee line to meet the forthcoming Regional Rail Line
  •        Reopen the train link between Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo
  •        Train to Rowville, to reduce congestion on the Monash Freeway
  •        Metro and regional rail extensions and upgrades including Mernda extension, and upgrades to Albury, Warrnambool, Gippsland and Shepparton lines
  •        Metro rail tunnel

Although programs and the policies that guide them are undeniably important, they are not the full picture for Janet. Her experience working as a facilitator has taught her that the greatest success comes with effective collaboration, when all contributions are valued.

“My skills in helping people to work well together are just as significant, if not more so, than the knowledge I bring to a situation,” she says. It’s an approach she believes will come in handy during the long hours of negotiations over legislation that lie ahead if she wins.

Having been on the campaign trail for the Greens many times before, Janet believes voters want politicians who walk the talk. For this campaign she’s developed a pie chart showing the modes of transport she uses to get around. Even with two flights to Canberra earlier this year, a majority of her overall mileage is still by public transport, cycling and walking. She’s pedalling an average of 52km each week.

If she wins a senate seat she plans to get on her bike next year for a long commute. The co-ordinator of Bicycle Victoria’s first Ride to Work event in the early 1990s, Janet wants to go on a cycling “listening tour” all the way from Melbourne to Parliament House in Canberra.

That will certainly lift her cycling miles; it may also strengthen her stamina for the politicking ahead.


Disclosure: I’ve worked with Janet in the Victorian Greens for the past seven years. She brought over a bag of mandarins from her tree the other week when I said I wanted to write about her.