Published: September 9, 2013 - 8:24AM
Tip-tap tiptoe: Prime minister-elect Tony Abbott prepares for a ride on Sunday morning. Photo: Kate Geraghty
For the first time, Australia will have a cyclist for a prime minister.
That’s not to say some previous prime ministers didn’t use a bike to get around. But in our car-culture society, Tony Abbott is about to become the first leader of our nation who is a bona fide cycling nut – and from day one.
After a gruelling campaign, a late-night victory speech and a bit of unscripted excitement, Abbott surely had no more than a few hours’ sleep before fronting up for a Sunday morning hit-out. If you’re looking for a good reason to pike on a group ride, being elected prime minister the night before would have to be up there.
Follow the leader: heading out after taking government on Saturday night. Photo: Kate Geraghty
But while cycling has done a lot for Abbott, what has he done for cycling? I would say … not very much. It’s true he is a good role model, while his annual Pollie Pedal raises admirable amounts for charity. But in terms of cycling advocacy, he’s coming up short.
I’m happy to be corrected, but to my knowledge the last time he went on record about the benefits of cycling to society was in an article in The Australian in 2008 – under the headline: “Pedal power the way to be fit, green and free.” It’s a great article, one that should resonate with every open-minded reader.
Since then, he’s been pretty quiet, and I wonder whether it’s got to do with the curious perception of cycling in Australia.
In my first On Your Bike blog, almost two years ago, I noted that cycling is often considered as a political act in Australia. Cycling – especially for transport or utility, rather than recreation – is regularly derided as the preserve of greenie, leftie, sandal-wearing yarn-bombers.
It’s a curious divide, one that is echoed in few other countries.
That’s not to say there aren’t conservative leaders who are fans of cycling. Earlier this year, I attended the annual Bicycling Achievement Awards, presented in Old Parliament House, Canberra. Politicians of every stripe were there to speak or hand out prizes; it was a lovely morning where treadly passions were set apart from political leanings.
So why are conservatives often so opposed to cycling? Sometimes, one senses it’s for political gain. Since taking power two years ago, Barry O’Farrell’s NSW government has been at loggerheads with Sydney’s lord mayor, bike lane advocate Clover Moore. In that time, cycling infrastructure has become a political football, and all developments have been halted. This obstruction plays well with those addicted to tabloid media and talkback radio.
This could be a reason why the future prime minister has been quiet about the benefits of cycling as he has climbed the ladder of power. But now he’s on the top rung, maybe he can risk a change, by spruiking the benefits of cycling to all.
Often, cycling advocacy is most effective at state or local levels of government. But there is one key area where Abbott could use his influence, and it lies in one of his three-word slogans.
Along with such staples as “stop the boats” and “axe the tax”, a new phrase gained prominence in the last weeks of the campaign: “Build the roads.” Abbott says he wants to be "the infrastructure prime minister".
In truth, the incoming government’s plans to spend more on roads and less on rail is disappointing. We should be encouraging people to use alternative forms of transport, not reinforcing the nation's addiction to cars.
But if roads are going to be built and upgraded, surely Abbott can stand by his words from 2008, and make them more friendly to cyclists?
He has a great opportunity to use his personal passion for cycling and healthy living to ensure some of his future road investment caters for bike riders, enabling and encouraging more of us to enjoy the benefits of cycling to work and to the shops.
And, of course, getting out on a Sunday morning, after a late Saturday night.
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