The Transport for All campaign, coordinated by DRC Advocacy, is fighting for accessible public transport in Victoria, Australia.
Victorians with disabilities have been asking for accessible public transport for over 40 years. Much of the state’s public transport system is still inaccessible. – DRC
Holly Hammond, Director of the Commons Library, spoke with Ally Scott, Transport for All campaigner, and Greg Ferrington, DRC Advocacy Executive Officer.
Read the interview
The long history of public transport campaigning
Holly Hammond: Hi Ally and Greg, great to meet you both and to have this time to talk about the Transport for All campaign. I’m conscious that there’s a really long history of people with disability working to get more accessible public transport, and I was seeing on your site, it’s over 40 years of activism. Thinking about that long haul, are there wins that really stand out from the history of campaigning on this issue?
Ally Scott: There was a big campaign in the US that really stimulated a lot of positivity around the potential for direct action in particular. There’s also been a long running UK campaign that got particularly strong in the 80s, which was very visible in terms of people chaining themselves to public transport on Westminster Bridge, and things like that. Those two things precede the action here and sent a very empowering international message. The most successful action in Melbourne was around the Upfield line in the 1990s. That led to a very good community building sense of shared purpose.
HH: It’s a great example of how action in one place can ripple out, so people can see that it was very effective. Doing that kind of action, you can see the imagery of it, the drama that happened there, then it’s something that people can take up in different places to make the need for change very obvious.
Greg Ferrington: My background is in the Neighbourhood House community centres sector that has done a lot of work in parallel. A lot of the campaigning in that sector wasn’t around transport, but it was around human rights, about access as an opportunity for people, with a disability or not. I think what occurs in that sector, but also occurs in disability sector, is always working on the strengths, it’s an assets based approach instead of a deficit based approach.
What’s stopping accessible transport
HH: To focus on the deficit briefly, what’s got in the way of accessible public transport? Folks find themselves having to continue pushing in an area that hasn’t changed nearly enough. What’s holding it back?
GF: Government inaction and appetite. Accessible public transport was set (by the government) to be achieved by end of last year, and we’re 15% towards achieving that. The state of Victoria is probably a bit more progressive in lots of ways than other states across Australia. But this is one area where I think this state government’s been lagging for sure.
HH: It’s frustrating when we have a government that is quite focused on infrastructure, like all the level crossing work that’s been happening which shows they do have the capacity to make infrastructure changes that make a difference for people. But this has been a real blind spot.
AS: Public transport was devised initially as a hop on hop off system. There wasn’t really the same breadth of need, as we have currently, with our ageing population, for instance. In 2002 we got the legislation through that all new infrastructure would have to adhere to a certain set of accessibility criteria. That was a real breakthrough, because thereafter new infrastructure was accessible. What we’re really dealing with is the funds and the willingness to do retrospective upgrades to the existing transport system. It doesn’t represent a very big political win. It’s like spending money on your roof or your cellar. You can’t see it necessarily. It’s not a big ticket item, it just doesn’t look like a shiny new political thing that governments want to get behind.
Staying motivated over the long haul
HH: That’s so tricky, when it makes such a difference to people’s lives. Given the long, hard slog what helps people stay motivated to keep fighting the fight?
AS: DRC’s more focused involvement started in 2018, when we were invited to do a community consultation into people’s experiences of the public transport system. That’s when it became clear the depths of people’s apathy in terms of campaigning and exhaustion, and sense of hopelessness. So in terms of what helps people stay motivated – that’s a really, really tough one, because it’s been going on for so long. The Upfield line saga stimulated that particular group of campaigners to keep going, but for people who haven’t witnessed a political win it’s really hard, actually. When I joined DRC the focus was about engaging people with the potential of campaigning and activism by drawing on other sectors, to bring in fresh energy.
HH: Definitely. Something that came to mind while you’re talking – Daniel Hunter, a US trainer and writer, talks about activating people’s social values. It’s about designing direct action so that people feel empowered by it, for example by going with their bodies and locking onto a train, people are able to put into action the frustration or the hope that they have. It’s interesting how that spark of the actions in the 90s was really important for people because otherwise they are living with a frustration they can’t affect.
GF: We held a recent action where probably over 250 people turned up to a protest. It was on Sydney Road in Brunswick, around the Upfield line again, where there’s going to be eight stations closed while sky rail is put in. And what do people on that tram line do? There’s no accessible tram stops. I got a sense of real momentum out of that gathering. There may be some momentum continuing with planning meetings for the next protests around that. We’re still starting to roll out a transport strategy that’s based on Al Gore’s stuff around getting champions from within the general community to go, ‘Wait a minute, this is a breach of human rights’.
How do we activate people outside the disability community to support the work and campaigning? That strategy is about a wider approach, and telling stories about people with disability not having access to public transport to even be engaged in work or other social activities.
It’s interesting, the balance between the nuanced conversations with state government, and the direct action, and then how do we build the momentum around wider community support, I suppose.
Engaging allies and fostering pride
HH: It’s a big challenge for lots of campaigns where it might feel like the people who are most impacted are a small portion of the population. The work needs to happen to get broader support to demonstrate to political leaders that lots of people in the community care. But I can imagine there’s some tricky spots there too, because you want to make sure that people with disability are very visible and leading the way. Also, there’s a stigma, which means people without disability might be heard more or given more prominence by media or politicians. How do you navigate that tension of challenging current social attitudes, but also recognising them?
GF: It’s definitely a fine balance. But I think looking to other communities… just as a member of the LGBTIQ community, it took years and years and years. I remember growing up in the 80s in Queensland. It’s sometimes that difficult, slow burn, and then there’s momentum. It’s looking at other communities which have been disenfranchised and disadvantaged by the dominant parts of the community.
HH: For sure. It can be a long struggle, while recognising that change can happen over time. It’s also around values and the telling of the story, right? Thinking of that parallel with the LGBTIQ community – it was about finding the language and the ways to connect with the broader community, such that the whole issue was viewed differently.
GF: That’s some of the work that Ally’s working on the moment. The Disability Pride movement is huge overseas, but not really in Australia, a little bit in Sydney. Now Ally’s organising an event for Disability Pride month starting in July, to start to raise that profile and particularly around pride for people with disability, that then tends to raise the profile wider.
AS: That’s all absolutely right. I think there’s two other factors, which is the growth of allyship and building connections with other movements. Certainly, what made the initial US campaign a success was that they managed to leverage allyship. That’s really where we’re at now, and we could see it there on the ground on Saturday (during the Sydney Road action). It was really evident that is growing. The other thing that’s happening to the disability community, which is really impacting campaigns, is the explosion of identity around neurodiversity. And the potential of the neurodiverse community to be very engaged. That has exploded our potential community and has changed the public perception of disability, it’s broadened it. I think that’s a huge asset at this point in time.
HH: Bringing in fresh perspectives and energy and people engaged with the struggle. That’s great!
GF: Sometimes those people are already in the room. Sometimes the disability community has found it difficult to get into the room. I just thought of a friend of mine who was diagnosed last year with ADHD. She’s an executive director in state government, her sphere and her network is huge. There’s much more opportunity to be in the room.
AS: Historically, the way that the campaigning has been structured, certainly in the UK, it was very much about here are people with disabilities chaining themselves to vehicles. What’s growing now is a sense of we’re all in this together. It’s the focus on equity and inclusion, we’re all for one and one for all and I really think that is what’s going to make the difference here. Yes it’s unacceptable, but let’s all take responsibility for that. That’s a very positive development.
HH: I’m wondering about your strategy development for the more recent iteration of the campaign. What kinds of processes did you go through for planning? What kind of activities have you undertaken?
AS: Our first step was to try to address the sense of hopelessness that was identified in the Transport for All consultation. We set out to do a series of regional and metropolitan workshops, which was about building understanding and stimulating an appetite for activism and systemic advocacy. We only got through two of them before COVID, so we moved them online. That was actually quite beneficial, because then we had people gathering from across Victoria, so we had more of a melting pot of experience. So that was very useful. Out of that evolved a cohort of people who have capacity to get engaged. Because there’s also an issue in our community with people who were battling the complexity of the pandemic and support systems failing them, and then ‘Oh, my God, do you mean, I’ve got to be active online as well on top of that?’ So it takes a certain kind of privilege to be in position to be able to dedicate energy towards it anyway.
We conducted our first digital action in 2020 which was called Lifelong Lockdown. It was encouraging those of us who were experiencing lockdown, to understand the equivalent experience for people with disabilities in terms of their restrictions for community engagement because of inaccessible infrastructure. Because of that, we were just on the verge of, as a community, getting to grips with digital tools. That was a learning curve for us. I think if we did it again now we’d get very different engagement, but it was very positive, the people that did engage. That was the beginning of our allyship development as well. We were working with unions and Friends of the Earth Melbourne, notably at this stage.
Then we started a petition and, as soon as the lockdown was over, we had a rally in Spring Street. We met with Ben Carroll, the Victorian Minister for Public Transport. We took a cohort of people with different issues, and he was incredibly responsive and very knowledgeable about the issues. There’s no question that the action, although it didn’t achieve any wins in terms of budgetary commitment, has certainly spread a greater deeper understanding. I’ve been really amazed when with all our communication with MPs and candidates, everybody knows about the standards. Everybody knows about how government is not compliant with their legislative obligations. There is no lack of understanding about what accessibility is anymore. That’s been the benefit of the work, that people do get it.
Then we started the formation of a Transport for All coalition, which is a cross sector coalition of organisations, agencies, transport groups, disability organisations, individual campaigners, unions, other intersectional groups, all working towards a universally accessible transport system. In 2022 we did simultaneous actions across Victoria that kick-started a lot of media interest, which really kept rolling for a good few months, actually. That was very useful again for public understanding.
We have gone through rocky times when it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere politically. So you know, the deadline for infrastructure to be accessible was the end of 2022. There was no acknowledgement of that, there was no delivery of the tram strategy, which was supposed to be delivered at the end of 2021. It’s really frustrating and hard to keep going. Then it’s only with the opportunity around Sydney Road, because there is a deadline, because it needs to happen before the sky rail. That means there’s a focus, there’s a period of time and it gives us a drive and then we can pick up again. So there have been ebbs and flows.
HH: Urgency is such an important ingredient in campaigns, to get people to see, ‘Oh, if we act now, we can make a difference’. Otherwise it just kind of feels like it’s amorphous. The frustrating thing there is that you did have a timeline (for infrastructure to be accessible by end of 2022), that could have been great. But the government opted out of that. I mentioned Daniel Hunter before, his book Strategy and Soul, I really love it. One of the things he talks about is reclaiming the timeline, so the government’s like, ‘This is our process, this is the time for us to decide when things are going to happen’. But as a campaign you can actually set some of those and say, ‘We’re giving the government an ultimatum, they need to do X by this date, otherwise, we’re going to do Y’ or however that can look. You regain agency and autonomy by setting your own timeline.
That’s what strategy is all about isn’t it? It’s about defining timelines, and creating opportunities for success for everyone.
HH: It seems like it’s an issue that’s well suited to ‘rinse and repeat’. The idea that we have an established tactic that we know how to do, but can roll out in different places. So wherever there’s an issue, you can take it to different areas. That means it’s a different electorate, with different MPs, different people who live in those areas coming together. But there’s some basics that you know how to do and that your cohort of campaigners are familiar with, it’s within their comfort zone.
AS: That’s absolutely right.
GF: I suppose for me coming in, the first six months or so, was just putting some more structures in place for DRC, moving to a new office, just a lot of structure work. We’re at the point now, where we’re starting to get back to being involved with campaigning work. There’s never been funding for any particular role within DRC around campaigning but we’ve been able to build the hours up over time. We’re able to do more work around the transport campaign again, and some of the strategy we developed earlier was around building new partnerships. So the Australia Institute are going to do some research work and collect data for us about cost benefit analysis of improved access to public transport, particularly trams. We’re developing a new comms approach and the Champions for Change program, defining what that will look like. We’ve been getting good media coverage as DRC tends to be the first organisation for The Age, the ABC, The Guardian, they come to us for comments. So there’s an opportunity for us to be raising the profile of the campaigning work and what needs still needs to be achieved. That’s been built up over the last few years by Ally and now it’s the two of us working in coalescence together.
Direct action and digital action
GF: Thinking again of the Sydney Road action. I had to leave the protest a little bit early and speakers were still speaking on the intersection, with the crowd shutting down the road. I was talking to people going along, and they were saying ‘What’s going on?’ I explained what the protest was about and they’d go, ‘Yeah, I’m happy to wait. I’m fine to sit in traffic. All, good.’ People were pretty positive about it.
HH: It’s an interesting one with direct action. There’s been a live conversation in the climate movement, for example, about when to do disruptive action, and how you get the community on side with it. So some people actually recognizing… they support the cause and they’re prepared to put up with a bit of inconvenience, because they can see the merit of the issue. Plus your communications have been really effective. I live in Brunswick so I’ve been hearing about the Sydney Road stuff, I’ve been seeing it on social media, and I’ve seen fliers around as well. It feels present in the community. It’s not a surprise when things are happening, because we’re informed.
HH: Going back to what Ally was saying about digital actions and the learning curve around that, I see that you’ve been using video really well. You’ve got videos that help people connect to the history of the 90s actions and videos that document current actions. And then just really simple little videos showing someone trying to get on a tram or a train and showing how inaccessible it is. People need that very clear explanation of the issue: you can’t access a service that everyone should be able to access.
AS: I suppose one observation is that the digital platform is an evolving new tool for this community, but it’s also come at a very useful time, in that we’ve all had to get to grips with it through the lockdown period. All of us developed this incredible articulacy with the potential, which I don’t think we would have reached otherwise. That’s enabled the message to grow more effectively, so we are all engaging with the social media messaging more than we were previously.
The importance of community building
GF: DRC’s core funding is around individual advocacy and working with people with disability on issues they may have. What we’ve been trying to do is bring more and more funding that allows us to have projects that have a community development approach. So we have a network that Ally runs called the Belong Network. Having that network of people with particular interests, like employment and transport, there’s momentum as we build that community and their ability to be heard. I think that’s really strong.
HH: Community building is so important. The connections between community building, between pride and identity and people embracing that, building allyship, and then the capacity for campaigning. They’re all connected.
AS: Absolutely. The Belong network is all held online, which is again, another opportunity to develop a sense of ease with using digital platforms. We meet with various focuses, and the most powerful meeting is the campaigns and advocacy one. That’s where people bring ideas and we talk about strategy: ‘Does that make sense to everyone? What can we do to push this one forward?’ So that’s also helping to stimulate positivity and engagement.
In our campaigning we didn’t start with a focus on identity and pride. But we were connecting with people at a particularly difficult time, and in retrospect, we should have sewn that in earlier. It’s an exploration of engagement based on pride, disability pride. That’s been an important lesson.
HH: Before, you were talking about the big coalition that you’ve been building. It takes time and energy to build coalitions and also to maintain them. What’s been going well in that space? What things are ongoing barriers or lessons to be learnt?
AS: We’ve learnt to engage in the broadest possible array of manners. We found that our partnerships were so rich and gave us so much that that it was almost quite difficult to keep spinning other plates but actually, everybody brings something different. As people came on organically over the months, we found we can learn from each person. The capacity to build as many different partnerships from the beginning and to keep learning is really valuable. It’s obvious, isn’t it?
HH: It is, but it’s something that that bears repeating. In that coalition work, that’s relationship building, has to be connecting with those different people, and then getting enough of a sense of them to know what it is they have to offer, whether it’s skills or networks or access in different ways.
AS: Yeah, because every single one of them had different relationships as well. So it’s not just about their experience, but also their connections and where they could tap in politically or community wise. It’s amazing what building those relationships can bring.
HH: But it’s also relies on a central repository for all the information, right? So DRC Advocacy folks have those connections, but then you’re able to go, ‘So I heard this from these allies, and these folks over here had this thing to say’, and you’re able to kind of filter it and go, ‘Okay, well, that’s why we need to take the next step, or this is what we need to communicate to people about this issue’. Because otherwise, if it’s all just kind of amorphous, and everyone’s doing anything, it doesn’t add up to as much impact.
AS: That is so right. Which leads us back to the point that it’s very, very difficult to get funding for systemic advocacy. What you need to keep those relationships continuous is consistent ongoing funding. So that’s been frustrating, too.
HH: It’s such a challenge, isn’t it? We want to do the work to make change in the world. But so much of our time, we’re trying to figure out how to track down the funds to be able to put that much time and effort into something that’s so important. Folks can donate to DRC Advocacy to support your great work.
HH: At the Common’s Library, we’ve been focused on Making Advocacy Accessible, and really encouraging campaigns to tune up their practices to include people with disability more. Of course, campaigns that are led by people with disability are the gold standard. They have a lot of innovation and ways of doing things that other campaigners don’t see happening. I heard an interview with Anja Homburg from DRC on 3CR. One of the things she was talking about was because of inaccessible transport, it can be hard to get people to some of the actions. To get people to protest at an inaccessible tram stop is a challenge, there’s a built in barrier there. I’m wondering, are there creative ways you’ve come up with to counter those inaccessibilities, or have you had alternative actions at times, so there’s other ways that people can get involved?
AS: That’s one of the terrible ironies of it all, isn’t it? We have been battling with that and we’ve done that in various ways. We produced posters of people that couldn’t be there saying ‘I’d be there if I could’ and we all held them. We’ve also done Facebook Live and live tweeting so people can engage digitally. We had a transport budget to get people there if they possibly could. I mean, actually, the long shadow of the pandemic went on much longer for this community, obviously, in the sense that people didn’t feel necessarily that safe coming in and out, people who were immunocompromised. So there is that contingent as well. But I think we’re in a new era again. It’d be interesting to focus on the ‘get there by hook or by crook’ technique now, rather than supporting people to be present in other ways.
Support Transport for All
HH: If people want to support the campaign, are there particular actions that you’d like them to take?
AS: In the first instance, they can sign the parliamentary petition that’s linked to the Sydney Road campaign. They can also sign up for Transport for All updates, where people get updates on the campaign and invitations for engagement.
HH: Stay tuned for actions! Great to talk with you both. Thank you so much for sharing your hard fought wisdom.
Find out more about the Transport for All campaign
- DRC Advocacy – Transport for All
- Pressure grows for accessible tram stops in Sydney Road – Brunswick Voice, June 2023
- Interview with Christian Astourian about the Sydney Road campaign – 3CR CityLimits, May 2023
- Making Advocacy Accessible collection on the Commons Library
- The History of Campaigns in Australia by People With Disability
- Insights from Disability Campaigning from El Gibbs and Elly Desmarchelier
- Insights from Disability Campaigning from Rochelle Porteous
- Campaign Strategy: Start Here
- Coalition Building: Start Here
- Campaigning - Strategy
- Movements_Campaigns - People with disability
- People with disability