Monday, September 15, 2014

Polling on the Mt Wellington Cable Car Proposal

The only cable car I expect to be going up any time soon - Fjellheisen, Tromso, Norway (image: Franklin Henderson)

Advance Summary

1. A new poll - the first to examine the issue credibly - shows statewide figures of 59% support 24% opposition for the proposed Mt Wellington cable car project.

2. Although these figures represent strong support statewide, they are weaker than those claimed for the proposal on the basis of a previous opt-in survey and a previous commissioned poll.

3. The likely main reason for weaker support in this poll is that it did not use a one-sided preamble likely to have skewed the poll results.

4. While the poll shows support in all electorates, opinion is most divided in Denison.

5. Modelling taking into account differences in party support across Denison suggests that within the crucial Hobart municipal area, public sentiment on the proposal is likely to be very closely divided.

6. On this basis while the project is generally welcomed statewide as a potential job creator and tourism opportunity, it will continue to encounter significant opposition in the area in which it is to be built.


Cable cars have been proposed for Mt Wellington/kunanyi (near Hobart, Tasmania) since before there was even a road up it.  The idea has come and gone over at least 109 years, and has often generated a lot of noise for and against, but it has been difficult to tell where the public overall stood on the issue.

In one of the more popular pieces published here last year, Public Opinion And The Mt Wellington Cable Car Proposal, I took a very sceptical look at the claims of the current proponent to have used a massive opt-in survey to have proven very strong support for the proposal.  The opt-in survey reported results of 78% in favour, 19% against, from respondents who were almost entirely Tasmanian.  No specific breakdown was given by electorate but for the electorate the proposal concerns, Denison, it looks like about 66% of responses were supportive.

Since then, two things have happened.  The first is the appearance, on the Mt Wellington Cable Car Company website, of a commissioned poll conducted by the previous proponent in 2009.  The second, far more significantly, is the publication of a new ReachTEL poll on the subject commissioned by The Mercury.

The 2009 Poll

I'll start with the fishy 2009 poll because it is another good example of the kind of dubious evidence concerning public opinion that has been present in the debate to date.

The November 2009 survey was conducted by regular Tasmanian phone pollster EMRS for a previous cable car proponent and is published on the MWCC page here.  It is included there under the heading "Independent Poll Results" but it was funded by a project proponent.  (The current ReachTEL, on the other hand, is truly independent).  The result of the poll was: 50% strongly support, 28% somewhat support, 6% somewhat oppose, 9% strongly oppose, 7% unsure, but only after respondents' brains had first been marinated in the following preamble, doubtless at the behest of the commissioning source:

 A group of private investors are proposing an aerial tramway for Mt Wellingon [sic]. It would be entirely funded by the private sector and the public would be able to subscribe to shares in the operating company.
Under this proposed scheme, the take-off point would be in South Hobart or Lenah Valley. The Pinnacle terminal would be located below the access road near the WIN TV tower and contain a viewing area, restaurant, cafe, function rooms and other public amenities. The tramway system would be located and designed to minimise visual impact and would not be readily visible from the city.
The developers say that the tramway would provide a world class facility designed to accommodate more than 500,000 patrons each year, the existing access road would remain open and the pinnacle terminal would be open to all. 

This is a classic example of how the use of a preamble can create or amplify a favourable poll response.  The poll purports to show very strong support for a cable car.  In fact it at best shows that level of support only on the conditions that:

* the scheme is entirely funded by the private sector
* the public could subscribe to shares in the operating company
* the terminal would support a viable restaurant, cafe, function rooms and so on, open to all
* the system would minimise visual impact and not be readily visible from Hobart
* the facility would be "world class"
* the facility would be used by more than 500,000 patrons
* the current pinnacle road would stay open
* the unstated condition: there is nothing wrong with the project that would have been relevant to mention if known

A respondent might well support the proposal if all of these things are true, but consider one or more individual items on the list above, or perhaps even all of them, to be non-negotiable.  So what we're talking about is a kind of temporary in-principle support that becomes less relevant as soon as any one of these items falls over.  It is not even correct to think of this as a firm expression of conditional support, because the same person when exposed to the other side of the argument might change their view.

Another interesting aspect of this poll is the use of the term "aerial tramway".  Although the term means the same thing as "cable car", some local respondents would not know this, and might picture something different.

But above all, the problem with this sort of thing is skewing.  In everyday public debate, people who take positions for or against a proposal are not necessarily familiar with all the facts about a proposal, and while some will be familiar with statements made on behalf of a proposal, they may also be familiar with statements made against it.  Measuring what respondents say when they have just heard a preamble giving one side of the story doesn't replicate the state of the debate when the poll is taken, and also isn't a fair representation of what the debate will look like in the future. Project proponents can't dictate how the community receives the debate.  What would happen if they could is quite irrelevant, because they never will.

The 2009 poll was a skew-poll using similar tactics to those often used by green activist groups to create poll results that exaggerate public opinion.  Fortunately we now have a neutral and valid poll to compare it with.

The 2014 Poll

The recent poll (Mercury write-up) was a robopoll conducted by ReachTEL with a sample size of 2646, and was taken on the night of 11 Sep 2014, following questions about voting intention, preferred premier, the state budget, job creation, school retention and tourism development in national parks.  Discussion of results for the first four questions was published in ReachTEL: Liberals With Solid Lead.  Compared with the stew served up to respondents of the EMRS developer-commissioned poll and MWCC opt-in, the ReachTEL poll question is as follows:

"Do you support the proposal for a cable car project on Mt Wellington?"

Options were support, oppose or undecided.  However the polling method would have excluded any respondents who were persistently unable to pick a party they had even a slight leaning for, or pick a preferred Premier from a choice of three.  It is likely many such respondents would have been undecided on this question too.

To start with, the raw state results:
The poll shows the proposal to have strong support statewide, including a majority of respondents in four of the five electorates.  However, the overall 59-24 response (71-29 excluding undecided) is weaker than the 78-15 (83-17 excluding undecided) response of the 2009 EMRS survey.  While someone might argue that support for the proposal has declined by 19 points in five years, it is much more likely that support was simply never as high as in the EMRS poll to begin with and the EMRS poll exaggerated support because of the use of a skewed preamble. Indeed, the worsening of the Tasmanian economy since 2009 provides one reason why support should have increased.

The electorate of Denison is an important comparison point because Denison is the electorate in which the cable car is proposed to be built, and in which its visual impacts (if any) and impacts on road traffic would be most significant.  The Hobart City area is especially significant because the cable car is likely to be built within the Hobart City boundaries, with Hobart City Council a significant decision-maker.  The samples above show 57% support in Denison after removing the undecideds, which is already lower than the c.66% rate for mostly inner-city suburbs in the MWCC opt-in data.  But I think we can use the party support figures to go a little further.

Supporters of both major parties tend to support the proposal while Greens supporters tend to oppose it, but perhaps not as heavily as some people might expect.  (I calculate that supporters of other parties or independents were supportive by about 56% to 30.) Here it's important to bear in mind that not all those who say they vote Green in such polls are actually "greens" ideologically.  Some pick the Greens as a token rebellion against major parties, or because of the Greens' positions on social or economic issues.  Anyway the Green result is quite a contrast to the MWCCC opt-in findings (which had Greens supporters in favour), probably for the reason I suggested: Greens supporters who oppose the project would often not fill in an opt-in survey by its proponent in the first place.

A useful aspect of the breakdowns above is we can use them to look at the electorate figures with more detail.  In the case of Denison, if party preference perfectly predicted views on the cable car then a result of 56% support 27% oppose should be expected, not the actual 48-36.  So there's a tendency for Denison voters to be more anti-cable-car irrespective of their political positioning, and this makes 8-9 points of difference to the Denison results.

The City of Hobart has quite different voting behaviour to Denison as a whole - it has a very high Green vote and a low Labor vote (at booths within Hobart City last election, the Greens got 33% and Labor 25%, compared to 21.6% to 34% in the electorate as a whole).  On that basis alone, the split within Hobart City would be expected to be down to about 46-38, but that's assuming the drag created by the NIMBY factor is the same across the whole electorate.  Almost certainly that drag factor is much stronger in the Hobart part of the electorate than the Glenorchy part (if it even exists in the latter). So while we can be quite confident on these results that Glenorchy voters support the cable car, it's probable on these results that Hobart City voters are very closely split, and possible even that they are on balance very slightly opposed.  

Little wonder then that Glenorchy aldermen are keen to grab the project for their city while even some of the usually pro-development aldermen on Hobart City Council (see also Hobart City Council Voting Patterns) are pretty cautious about it.

The Cable Car: The State Of Play

Nothing in the ReachTEL findings is hugely surprising.  I was expecting to be asked to predict these results and was going to say (if so challenged) that I expected the project to have majority support in electorates other than Denison, with Denison being harder to predict.  After all, for other electorates the project is a potential job creator that could make a trip up the mountain easier while ducking into Hobart. Voters outside Denison are not otherwise affected by it, and do not have the same aesthetic and psychological ties to "the mountain" as some Denison voters.

In the time since I wrote last year's article, there has been a lot of noise about the proposed cable car, but material progress towards its approval has been slow.  (You can see the developer's view on the state of play on the MWCCC site and the main opposing group's at Residents Opposing the Cable Car.) While there has been progress on the removal of developmental vetos affecting the project, it still requires landowner consent from the Hobart City Council to progress on its intended route.  At present there exists a stalemate between the developer and the Hobart City Council in which the developer doesn't want to go to a formal application stage without in-principle approval, and the Council won't provide in-principle approval without a formal application. 

The new Liberal government, while in principle supportive of the project, seems so far to have learnt from the mild embarrassment the issue caused the last state Liberal regime, and doesn't want to do the project's work for it in the absence of a concrete development submission either.  (That said, after seeing the general support for breads and circuses in the first Gutwein Budget, I'll not be surprised should the government be begging to splash out in some way if the project reaches a more concrete stage.)

 Meanwhile, the colourful online debate about the scheme has turned to such things as the identity of fictitious or at best pseudonymous cable car proponent "Nathan Carswell", and the alleged leaking of documents being considered by Hobart City Council (methinks any alderman who opposed the project enough might have done it).

The term "social license" is frequently heard in major development debates.  The idea is that it makes a project's path to success much easier if the project achieves not merely grudging acceptance from the community, but also trust and strong support.  At this stage, although the project has strong support outside the impacted area, opinions within the impacted area are divided closely enough that it is likely the proposal will always have a fight on its hands - court cases, protests and so on.  I have not actually seen any empirical analysis of the "social license" concept and how reliably it predicts the success rates for contentious projects, but for the time being the project remains some way short of clear local acceptance.

Update July 2017:

A further ReachTEL poll is out finding a narrowing of support since 2014 to 54.1% support 30.6% oppose.  Support by electorate is 60.9-19.2 in Bass, 57.4-24.7 in Braddon, 47.6-40.3 in Denison, 52.3-38.3 in Franklin and 52.5-30.0 in Lyons.  By party, 67.9-19 Liberal, 46-35.7 Labor, 24.8-57.4 Green, 63.5-28.5 Ind/Other, 51.1-28.3 "Undecided".  Interestingly, voters aged over 65 are less sold on the idea than younger voters, although elderly voters tend to vote Liberal.

The wording of the poll question was "Do you support a cable car to Mount Wellington?"  This is arguably subtly different to the 2014 question which might have been taken to be more specific to the current proposal rather than the general concept.


  1. There is an error in the July 24 2017 results as reported by The Mercury. The sum of all respondents in the electorate of Denison is jut 90%. All other electorates, and the state total, sum to 100%.

    1. Fortunately just a formatting issue. The Undecided for Denison is 12.1 and the 1 has got lost in the adjacent column.