Last night I went to a screening of Bring ‘Em Back, a documentary about Melbourne’s tram conductors screened by the Victorian Greens MPs, who are now actively supporting the campaign. In the Q & A, filmmaker Phillip Donnellon commented that, based on an experience with an aggressive tram conductor in Amsterdam, he felt that our society had changed. I think he was implying that we’d need to work hard to restore the conductors’ culture of playfulness, friendliness, and perhaps slight naivety.
But you can’t really make assumptions about how much our culture has changed based on one incident with an arsehole. I reckon there would have always been arsehole conductors. The film didn’t show the arseholes though: it totally sentimentalised conductors, interviewing the most colourful, emotionally intelligent, and articulate, many of whom were actually at the screening, and you just felt like giving them a hug.
Maybe they were all really like that? I don’t know; I wasn’t there. I guess it was a campaign film, so wanted to stay on message, didn’t want to explore all the shades of grey. It was a surprisingly well-made film though, despite its $10 000 budget. To be honest, it really moved me, but I am soft, sentimental about Melbourne, and nerdy about public transport – an easy target.
These guys are amazingly determined – they’ve been campaigning for the return of conductors ever since they were removed from trams in 1998. They rock up to Gay Pride marches and other public events dressed in their uniforms, talking to people about their role with a panache and playfulness and sense of humour, which contrasts sharply with the horrifically earnest way most campaigns are run. And from what the movie says, this flair and approachability is pretty typical of the way conductors behaved. They used to do little party tricks, swinging from the bars and stuff.
Even though I’ve just said you can’t make assumptions about culture based on anecdote, it does seem pretty obvious that our public transport culture has changed; you only have to look at the thuggish behaviour of ticket inspectors and the fact that they feel the need to put security guards with semi-automatics at stations. It’s a more fear-based, compliance-based approach, rather than a human, social feel. Although, another thing Donnellon said was that a policeman had said to him that the presence of someone in a uniform on a tram is enough to deter misbehaviour.
I’m all in favour of restoring tram conductors, and adding a little colour and life to the drab commute. Maybe we can wipe those ‘I’m dead inside’ expressions off people’s faces and replace it with an ‘I heart PT’ attitude. There does seem to be an appetite for restoring a friendlier face to public transport, and one that reinforces Melbourne’s unique culture. Particularly with trams, because people love trams, and even though they’re slow and so often overcrowded, you’ll notice they don’t get as many complaints as trains do.
As the government rips myki machines off trams, and fare evasion rates go through the roof (they are 20% in trams), reintroducing tram conductors seems like a legitimate economic proposition. And while tram conductors never had the power to impose penalties, the embarrassment of being asked for a ticket and not having one would be enough to get most people to buy one. Aside from checking tickets, they could help tourists and disabled and elderly passengers. The film showed this amazing footage of people in wheelchairs cutting sick during the tram conductor protests: they didn’t want the connies to go either!
It’s going to be an uphill battle though: Labor and Liberal governments have opposed the return of conductors, and politicians are usually shit scared of changing their mind, which is probably justified because they’ll be castigated by the vapid media. I really hate that: a more intelligent way to proceed would be to accept that you might change your opinion based on new circumstances (aka Julia Gillard having to negotiate with the Greens on the carbon tax) or new information (aka no WMDs in Iraq). Not to say that you shouldn’t have firm principles or strive to keep your promises, just that you should be intellectually responsive.
The campaign’s quaint, fun, nostalgic flavour may work against it . It’s going to be fighting hard against the ‘times have changed, move on, get real’ attitude. And over the years of public transport mismanagement, people’s pride of, and expectations in, public transport have dissipated so much that they may probably struggle to muster up energy for the campaign, especially people who’ve never known tram conductors. But I guess if the economic argument is there, you may only need a small group of pretty dedicated people: a small push may be enough.
This is not the film, by the way, but a 10th anniversary tribute to the conductors. It’s not as good as the film, obviously. If you want the film, I can get it for you.