Published in The Age Newspaper, December 1999

Will tram conductors be back? How this question is answered will tell us what kind of shape post-Kennett Victoria is taking.

Their departure in May 1998 seemed part of an unstoppable process. The tide of technological change swept away conductors along with service station attendants, bank tellers and milk bar owners. Instead of conductors, we have seen security guards at ticket machines, fleets of inspectors and even undercover agents. We were ‘Jeffed’.

But there was resistance. Since their departure, ex-conductors have been active in public life, organising Full Monty spectacles, Moomba floats, candle vigils, Circus Oz acts and international exchanges. Their absence has given us the opportunity to appreciate what we had.

This came home to me personally when I asked an ex-connie about his favourite tram route. Roberto elected the #15 Moreland-St Kilda line and recited a list of the people who use it, including Italian shoppers from ‘Morelando’, sewing factory workers, Mosque-attendees, university students, St Kilda road businessmen, suburban tourists and St Kilda artists. I realised that nothing else in Melbourne would bring these people together apart from their use of a common route, and their ordinary contact with this man. With so many of our traditions imported from elsewhere, here was a welcome example of living cultural heritage.

With pressure from exiles like Roberto, the ALP election policy included a promise to return one hundred tram conductors into active service. Will they do it? And more importantly, how will they do it? We currently have two approaches—virtual and real.

The virtual strategy comes from the MET, who are currently running a campaign titled ‘Tran(sit) Stand-Up’. Windows are covered with jokes like ‘Does the psychic ever miss a train?’ Patter broadcast through trams charms passengers to validate their tickets. And lurking somewhere is a comedian ready to pounce on an unsuspecting commuter with prizes.

M & C Saatchi Advertising designed the $1/2m three-week campaign so more commuters would validate their tickets. Rather than enforce validation by burly inspectors, they have enlisted the talents of three radio breakfast personalities (including the Panel’s Kate Langbroek) and a fleet of clowns.

Why is validating tickets so important? Even if you have a legitimate ticket, it is obligatory to validate it at every change of transport. Privatisation has made tracking passengers essential. To the average commuter, it seems an irrelevant exercise. To change this attitude, the Met has to convert ‘passengers’ and into ‘customers’.

There are two major concerns with this campaign. First, it replaces a home-grown tradition with a veneer of entertainment. In the place of daily contact with a tram conductor, you contract some local Seinfelds to jolly things along for a while. A comparable process occurs in Sydney, where acid jazz musicians add a ‘vinyl crackle’ to give their digital sounds a little ‘warmth’. Like sprinkling dust on wine bottles, these short-cuts give the look rather than the experience of authenticity.

Second, the campaign reinforces a ‘prize culture’ that puts individual greed before cooperation. It panders to a consumer increasingly hungry for freebies, give-aways, and privatisation dividends. Is this inverse coercion the way of the future? Will breathalysing police offer random prizes to sober drivers? What was before a moral choice becomes now an opportunity for gratuitous acquisition. It has dangerous implications for how citizens are expected to participate in public life.

The real alternative is to extract the machines out of the Class W trams and replace them with people can respond to immediate passenger needs. This may seem retrograde, but the Stolen Generation report provides a lead. Genuine progress is sometimes a matter of acknowledging past mistakes and restoring what has been lost. According to the Jewish proverb, we can ‘make our days new as of old’.

Rather than shunt the hundred extra pay-checks into Customer Service Officers, we need tram conductors back on the job. They are a living and working cultural heritage unique to Melbourne. Fares, please!

Kevin Murray©2000