State concession laws bordering on the absurd

The eight nation-states of Australia

This article first appeared on On-Line Opinion

When does a student cease to be a student?

Is it when they complete their undergraduate education? Or is it when they find their very first full-time job?

The answer is neither. In fact, a student loses his or her identity the moment they cross a border. And I’m not talking about international political boundaries – I’m talking about crossing the Murray River.

In my home state of Victoria, I am officially classified as a university student.

I know this because I catch a train and tram into the city every day, on a journey that inevitably finishes up in a lecture theatre. Every now and then, the accompanying tertiary institution sends me a bill in the mail to remind me I am enrolled in their course.

Across the border, however, the New South Wales government believes all this is a fallacy.

The same goes in Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania.

In each of these states, the local transport authorities believe I am a foreigner. A financially viable foreigner, too.

Carrying a Victorian concession card is evidently an offence. Oh, and Sydney’s trains evidently have toilets.

For instance, it didn’t matter to the customer service attendant at one of Sydney’s city railway stations that I possessed a valid student identification badge. Nor did it matter to him that I owned a Public Transport concession card.

The fact that both were produced in Victoria meant they were worthless pieces of plastic, about as useful as AFL memorabilia to a Sydneysider.

The attendant subsequently refused my request to buy a discounted rail ticket, informing me I would have to dish out 200% of my intended travel budget for an adult fare.

I couldn’t blame this man for sticking to his policies; he was merely doing his job.

I can, however, blame this country for possessing such petty and nonsensical laws.

A few weeks ago I arrived in New South Wales by air. I intentionally left my passport at home for this journey because I knew I wouldn’t be needing any foreign visas. After all, last time I checked, Sydneysiders shared the same national flag as I do.

Now I’m feeling like a second-class citizen in my motherland. I feel discriminated against because of a purely artificial characteristic – my state of origin.

Why are Australia’s state transport authorities so determined to make me pay full fares for using ‘their’ public transport? Do they believe I’ve achieved financial independence and security at some point between leaving Melbourne and arriving in Sydney? Or are they determined to punish me for my decision to reside in enemy territory, south of the Murray?

If this seems like a petty whinge, it’s because you don’t receive concession benefits.

While the difference between an adult and concession transport fare might be nothing to a middle-class commuter, it all adds up for the struggling student. Each year students save over $500 on necessities such as public transport because of this equitable system.

This saving, equivalent to roughly 40 hours of part-time work, is an invaluable financial benefit to undergraduate learners, whose top priority should be education instead of juggling multiple part-time jobs to pay the bills.

Remarkably, the Northern Territory is the only Australian state or territory that is willing to accept a ‘foreign’ student card. In fact, those lovely folks up north are not only willing to give youth concession discounts, but will let them ride their buses free of charge.

Sydney’s “Kings Cross-St Pancras” Central station

This isn’t the only example of state governments failing to see eye to eye.

Back in the days before Federation, New South Wales rail engineers and government authorities were too short-sighted to use the same rail gauge as neighbouring Victoria. In 1885, New South Wales decided to persist with the implementation of their 1435mm rail gauge. This came despite reports from across the border that Victoria was using a thicker version.

When the two states became part of the one nation less than fifty years later, I imagine there was a lot of face-palming taking place.

To this day, engineers still have immense difficulties figuring out what to do about Australia’s assortment of ill-fitting rail gauges. Looking into the future, it’s difficult to see a viable way of solving that farce, caused by a lack of foresight and an underestimation of the value of standardisation.

Thankfully the concession card debate is far easier to solve. While the root problem of independent state legislation is largely the same, the concession issue doesn’t require a massive national overhaul. State governments don’t need to be abolished quite yet, although that is an option worth debating.

The introduction of an Australian Student Card – as the Greens proposed during 2009 – would be one way of solving the dilemma. Better communication and relations between state powerbrokers would also go some way to providing a solution.

Simpler than that, this should be a fairly straightforward matter of equity and common sense.

After all, we all live in the one country, contributing to the one national economy.

A student is a student is a student. Surely we can all see the logic in that?