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Former Chairperson of Parliamentary Committee discusses the possibility of a rapid transport system for Canberra and the pay TV issue

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Slowly, but surely, Canberra is moving to a rapid transport system. That's the only conclusion you can draw from the Commonwealth's adoption of a parliamentary report into National Capital Planning. The report comes from the Federal Joint Parliamentary Committee on the National Capital, a committee report chaired by Labor Member for Fraser, John Langmore, who joins me now.

Good morning.

JOHN LANGMORE: Good morning Matt.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Are we moving closer to a rapid transport system?

JOHN LANGMORE: Yes, we are. It's a very significant response from the Government because it says that and I quote:

EXTRACT:

.... a corridor between Civic, the town centres and the major employment nodes suitable for priority or segregated right of way use by public transport services will be reserved against a possible future need to develop a system of inter-town and express routes suitable for buses or other technologies as appropriate.

What they're saying is it'll be a right of way that could be used by either express buses or by a light rail system.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Now, we've seen a number of people and I've noticed this consistently in the letters to the Canberra Times and also to information we're getting on our whisper lines that people are pretty cheesed off with the setting aside of bus lanes which Terry Connolly says could eventually become transit lanes. In a way is that a bit of insurance, setting aside some transit space for future transport technology?

JOHN LANGMORE: Well what's required is an identified route which express buses or light rail could use that could be on existing roads where these bus lanes are, or it could be separated from the roads. In some ways it would be cheaper immediately to use the bus lanes but, I think if we're committed to building our public transport and reducing carbon-emitting energy use and reducing use of private cars, then we have to build up the efficiency of the public transport system, build up its speed between the town centres, and those bus routes are a step towards that goal.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Now would you see the Gungahlin to Civic link as a good starting point?

JOHN LANGMORE: Well it's not ideal really no, because of course not many people live in Gungahlin. It would be more suitable to have a link between Belconnen and Civic or Woden and Civic.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Right.

JOHN LANGMORE: And the reason for the emphasis on Gungahlin was that the Joint Parliamentary Committee was asked to report on transport links between Gungahlin and the rest of Canberra; and so we worked out a strategy with which the planners now agree, for public transport and road links with Gungahlin but, the principles that would be applied to that link are also those which should apply to other town centres.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well you know developer Bob Warnell (?) was pushing for effectively a private light rail system linking Gungahlin and Civic but, you think that will be an inappropriate focus as a starting point?

JOHN LANGMORE: Well his proposal was much more complex than that. It involved handing over to him in effect a right to plan the centre of Gungahlin which would have been a way of rejecting in a sense the Government's responsibility for planning in the public's interest. But he was picking up an idea that we and many others have been promoting for some time; of a light rail link, and I think that there's a lot of support in the community for light rail. In fact one of the very valuable steps that the planners have taken is to do a survey of alternative routes, attitudes in the community, price sensitivity to use of those alternatives and that's a very useful tool in deciding whether enough demand is there to build a light rail system.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Now, do you see that we would need to set aside significantly more land corridors for this, because we do very fortunately have the main drag still running down Northbourne and Adelaide Avenues with almost a tailor-made avenue for a light rail system?

JOHN LANGMORE: That's really a question you should ask the planners but, quite clearly there are areas where it would be very easy to build a light rail or an express bus system down the centre of Northbourne Avenue for example or the centre of Commonwealth Avenue possibly, or the centre of Adelaide Avenue. I mean there are many ways in which the planning has already allowed for that but, there are issues in deciding whether to designate those areas for that use and those are the issues that we're now looking at.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: What's the next step do you think?

JOHN LANGMORE: Well, for the completion of this study. There is a study funded partly by the Commonwealth and partly by the ACT Government that's now well advanced. The first part of it was that survey that I've already mentioned, the second part is working papers on the detailed assessments of the costs of alternative transport possibilities, technologies, and then the third would be to look at exactly where those would be built and what their economics are and a decision. And they're well into coming towards the end of the second stage of that process.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Would you think a light rail system would have to be funded entirely by the ACT, or could it attract Commonwealth funding, some Commonwealth funding anyway?

JOHN LANGMORE: Well, I would hope that the Commonwealth would contribute because it would be a way of reducing carbon-emitting energy use. It would also of course pass through parts of Canberra for which the Commonwealth has complete responsibility. I would hope that the Commonwealth would contribute but, in any case it would be an entirely appropriate project for which to use borrowed funds. It's an investment project, it would be there for the long term. It's entirely responsible in that situation to use borrowed funds and repay those over the life of the project.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Right, John Langmore, if I can move onto the broader national issues and certainly the issue of pay television which I think on AM has been described as a circus. Do you share that view?

JOHN LANGMORE: Well there's certainly a lot of confusion and there've been a lot of misjudgments and it has been a very confusing series of events certainly.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: You initially welcomed the two pay TV tenderers. Have you changed your view in the light of events since?

JOHN LANGMORE: I welcomed those two because they were not two of the main media groups in Australia and what I've always thought, right from the time this proposal was made seven or eight years ago, that pay TV was an opportunity to increase the diversity of ownership in Australian media. Australia is well known, has one of the most concentrated patterns of media ownership in the Western world. If we want to have a healthy democracy we must diversify that ownership so as to increase the diversity of the sources of information and ideas that are available to us and new technology like pay TV was an opportunity to do that. So when two licences, two bidders won the licences who weren't linked with any of the major media groups in a sense this was a welcome development. Now the question is. Are they suitable; are they viable? And unfortunately the suitability and viability tests were not part of the process by which they were selected, they should have been ....

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: They were taken out. You were saying that these criteria other that the top dollar were taken out of the revised Broadcasting Act.

JOHN LANGMORE: Yes, they were part of the previous Broadcasting Act but when the Broadcasting Services Bill the one that came in about a year ago was drafted, those suitability and viability tests were left out. And so these bidders were not tested in that way and I think it would have been better if there had of been a qualitative test as well as a financial test.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Have you been surprised at the extent of media, I suppose, exposes about the two tenderers? Do you think it's been unwarranted?

JOHN LANGMORE: Yes, I have been surprised. It has come in part from the outlets owned by Consolidated Press and News Limited both of which were bidders apparently, and who therefore have a strong, a very strong, vested interest in demolishing the two successful bidders and I think that's exactly what they've tried to do.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Do you think the exposure would have been the same I mean I suppose looking at the Members of the Board and so on and the sources of finance if one of the main conglomerates had secured the licence?

JOHN LANGMORE: It's unlikely. For one thing the people would have been better known and therefore there would have been less scope for that I expect but, the motive for doing it so rigorously, even ruthlessly, would not have been there.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Are we going to get pay TV do you think?

JOHN LANGMORE: Yes, I'm sure we are, and as one of the reports on AM this morning was showing, pay TV overseas is still a rapidly growing industry and we're one of, possibly the only Western country that doesn't have pay TV at all. And whether you want it or not I think we must have it and we are going to get it and people can chose whether they want it or not but, I think it would be wrong of the Government to prevent that and that's of course why they decided to go ahead.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay. John Langmore, thank you for around the world for sixpence I think but thank you for talking to me this morning.

JOHN LANGMORE: Thank you, Matt.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: John Langmore, Labor Member of Fraser in the Federal Parliament; one of our two Federal MPs in Canberra.