Political Science: thoughts on the NSW election and what next for Sydney

The NSW election has been run and won, and things are looking pretty bad for Sydney’s transport. The Liberal government will push ahead with Westconnex to bring more motorways and more traffic into Sydney; cycleways are going to be ripped up; and Labor opposition has decided to attack the one piece of public transport that might help the CBD.

So, was there any point in running for the Australian Cyclists Party? We didn’t get anyone elected and it now looks like all our worst nightmares are coming to fruition. However, as pointed out by President Omar Khalifa, the ACP did achieve a lot in just its first year: raising issues during the campaign that would otherwise be ignored; getting a major party to adopt many of our recommendations; and with just a handful of volunteers on polling day, receiving 2% of the vote in most of the lower-house seats we contested. It doesn’t sound like much, but in most cases that’s enough to put the ACP fourth, behind the Liberal, Labor and Greens parties.

The upper-house result was much less impressive, but perhaps should have been expected. Transport congestion and cycling is a ‘city’ issue, and would not be of interest to many people across the state. ACP volunteers and advertising were focused on the seats where we had lower-house candidates, and even there many voters only heard about our existence on polling day itself thanks to the volunteers, so across most of the state the party would be completely unknown. Add to that the ridiculous size of the upper-house ballot, and ‘minor-party-fatigue’ and it’s understandable that the ACP got only 10% of quota. Congratulations must go to the Animal Justice Party for taking the closely-contested last seat in the Legislative Council, showing that a grassroots campaign based on moral issues can beat a well funded and profit-driven group like No Land Tax.

So who did vote for cycling? Despite the anger directed at us by some Greens for stealing ‘their’ votes, we didn’t just attract Greens voters. Thanks to preferential voting, we don’t ‘steal’ votes from anyone – the voter gets to show that his/her first preference is for the ACP, and then indicate preferences for other parties so that their vote will ultimately count for someone, or ‘exhausts’ when the voter decides that none of the remaining candidates are worthy of his/her vote. Yes, ACP supporters were most likely to put Greens next, but not overwhelmingly so: only 43% of ACP’s upper-house preferences went to the Greens, followed by 12% to LNP and 11% to Labor, and the remainder to other minors.

This highlights something demonstrated by the diversity of the ACP candidates: cycling is not a ‘left’ issue. People might support cycling infrastructure because it reduces air and noise-pollution; or because it improves community health and reduces demand on the healthcare system; or because more people cycling means less congestion on the roads; or because it is good for business; or simply because they don’t want to see people die on the roads. Yes, most Greens voters support cycling infrastructure, but so do others. Even Liberal MPs. Shayne Mallard has spoken out against his government’s plan to remove College Street cycleway.

Unfortunately Mallard is an exception in the political world, where ideology tends to trump evidence. And it seems this is becoming more widespread. Anti-vaccination campaigners continue to spread their ideas (and diseases) in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, and during the recent campaign someone even questioned water fluoridation. You can dismiss it as just a few crazy hippies or tin-foil-hat conspiracy theorists, but the reality is people are becoming more and more inured to evidence, and suspicious of scientific findings. Psychology has long known of ‘confirmation bias’ whereby people will only recall things that support their beliefs and dismiss other evidence, and in the modern world where social networks and their algorithms can cocoon you in a cloud of like-minded people showing you exactly what you already believe, this can only get worse. Scientific research, on the other hand, asks people to be suspicious of everything they currently ‘know’ and to constantly try to disprove it. Unfortunately, politics prefers dogma over data. It’s much easier to put in a three word slogan.

“Evidence-based policy” is one of the principles of the Australian Cyclists Party, and it was the three word slogan I used the most during the campaign, and which got the best reactions from voters. Perhaps that should be front-and-centre, and supporting cycling would be a corollary of that one principle (the NSW government is ignoring its own studies to tear up College St cycleway). It would also explain opposition to Westconnex, since repeated studies show that new roads make traffic worse. And of course it would define a stance on fossil fuels and global warming. Our governments have Chief Scientists, but how often do we hear of them being asked for input or advice? In today’s world where we are drowning in the data being produced daily, our politicians should be able to present policies backed up by evidence demonstrating their benefit. And I don’t mean focus group studies showing how it will play in the polls.

Until that happens, what can we all do about it? You can write to your representative and let them know what you think; support groups like WestConnex Action Group or Save College Street Cycleway, particularly their ride-in protest this Thursday, June 4th; or join the Australian Cyclists Party. You could even get to run as a candidate. It’s definitely an eye-opening experience!

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