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Mar 17, 2010

Aussies. We're all fined, thanks.

I used to work in in Carlton, Melbourne. Some days I drove to work, and I would park outside my office in one of the many metered spots stitching the sides of the roads in the business district. The parking was metered for one to two hours, and the patrolling inspectors were, and still are, numerous. It was here, during my years in Carlton, marching to the beat of a grey gadget on a grey stick with my money in it, that I spawned an idea for a short film. At first, I was so infuriated every time another white ticket appeared stuck to my windscreen, that I was sure this was the time that I - along with an unwitting cast of my friends - was going to make the film. But I didn't. I just played it in my head each time a ticket appeared, and it made me feel a whole lot better.

The short film starts on the stone-wall eyes of a parking inspector. He stands on the street corner outside my office and peruses the cars that fill every park. He has returned to the area to hunt his next victim. He assesses the herd, and hones in on what he knows is the weakest animal. It is the silver sedan, with only a few minutes to live, according to the parking meter. He waits, stone-walls a black sports car that has just parked in the foreground, and stone-walls the owner who clinks coins in the meter as if there is somehow something wrong with doing the right thing in front of him. The inspector checks his watch. The owner of the silver sedan is a photographer. She is held, boarded up in a nearby boardroom [yes, that is why it is called a boardroom]. Her client cannot remember that he requested the model in the shots to have her hair up and all hell breaks loose.

Meanwhile, the parking inspector prepares to strike. He beelines to the car. He glances at the meter if only to confirm the car's fate to the universe, but a presence appears beside him and it forces him to look up. For once, it is the parking inspector who is startled. There, standing in his turf, is another parking inspector. She stone-walls him. She has her ticket machine ready and moves in for the kill. His kill. He assesses his chances in a fight, but something distracts him over her navy blue shoulder. At the end of the street is another parking inspector. This one stands like an A-frame, casting long, lanky legs of shadow down the road toward them from the sun that is setting behind him. Soon it will be after 6.00pm, and there will be no more prey for the predators. This third inspector rhythmically smacks his ticket machine against the palm of his other hand, to the soundtrack of West Side Story. From a nearby laneway, we hear multiple sounds of good walking shoes clopping heavily against the various chunks of alley pavement, and three more inspectors appear. They stand five feet away from the car and they are primed to fight.

From the back end of the street, from up basement stairs, pouring out of those small, practical windows on the sides of buildings, twenty more inspectors flood in. A navy sedan screeches to a halt in the middle of the road and another inspector jumps out from the car. One more pounces on his car and slaps a ticket on it for illegal parking. Yet all eyes remain on the silver kill, and they all see it only for themselves. The first inspector makes his move. The ticket peels out from his machine. He holds it high in the air above himself for the gathering to see. He is an astronaut, and he is about to ram his flag into his moon.
The only sound, the only movement, to break the freeze across the entire street is the feverous fluttering in the wind of the tiny white ticket. He suspends it further above his head, then brings it swiftly down toward the windscreen of the silver sedan. The flag doesn't make it to the moon. A brawl of blue breaks out. It forms a planet around the car like a loose ball of wool that continually entangles and reshapes itself. Arms with fists fly out and back in like solar flares, ticket machines clash together and ricochet off concrete, duco and heads. The punching turns to kicking, the kicking turns to biting. The biting becomes ferocious, rabid, and endless - and when that happens, it becomes something else. As the sun sinks past six o'clock in the sky, the greedy mob have turned on themselves and have eaten each other until there is not even the ticket left. The photographer, red-faced and puffing, sprints into the scene and stops dead in her tracks on the corner of the street. Her body becomes a statue, her heart a demolition ball beating out of her chest. She stares gob-smacked at the scene for well over a minute. She raises her camera lens to the watery glaze of her eye and takes the photograph that, tomorrow morning, the country will wake up to.

Clearly this is a light-hearted fictional story, reflecting the frustration that many in the general public feels with the increasing over-regulation of our lives. Parking inspectors don't really eat themselves or necessarily move to the beat of West Side Story. I don't believe they all have stone-wall faces, even though in my years of coming across them I have never seen one who doesn't. I don't believe parking inspectors should be assaulted for giving tickets, anymore than I would believe a person should be assaulted for going over their meter time. However this story raised an interesting point for me.

Today, people experience indignation and anger when faced with a parking fine, because they are being treated like a criminal, and not because the majority are intentionally cheating the system, but because our lives cannot and will not fit the system, and enormous revenue is being made by catching us out. We are therefore in the conundrum where we cannot change the nature of society, and we have come to believe we cannot change the fact that we'll get a bafflingly disproportionate fine for being 5 minutes late to our car, no matter how much money we have paid in parking over the year. I would like to meet a parking inspector who has never been 10 minutes late to anything in any given month. Perhaps there is some planet where everything happens perfectly like clockwork, where we all function in perfect time slots of 1-2 hours, where nobody interacts with each other or with other things and therefore incur no circumstances out of one's control. But ours is not that planet. Why should we accept a system that pretends we are and then profits off the truth?

Some respond with 'just don't park illegally and you won't get fined' to any questioning of the current system. I've read comments like this in response to extremely informative articles about bureaucratic over-regulation in Australia, and the corrupting effects of allowing local bureaus to directly profit from the issuing of penalties. The moral 'don't do the wrong thing and you won't get punished' is a valid export from our childhood moral education, but as we mature it should always come with the adult responsibility of keeping an informed mind and a watchful eye on what constitutes wrong and what constitutes fair punishment. We must also consider the issue in a broader community context rather than from a self-righteous perspective. To ignore such responsibilities by giving over all power and decision-making in regulating our lives to bureaucracies could lead to the infantalising of the Australian population by the state's hand, and by our own.

So how do we reform the current parking system to reflect more fairly the nature of social life, while "ensuring safe and fair use of Victoria's roads for everyone’s benefit" as it is described on the Local Government Victoria's website? Of course one important step is to improve our public transport services so they are more comfortable, reliable, accessible and indeed better than using a car. When that happens, there will be a considerable increase in people opting for it.

In terms of our parking system, why not have a service where the user has the opportunity to pre-pay money into a parking fee account, well in advance? This way, the money is already there, and they only pay for the time they use. Money is not wasted by the user having to over-pay a meter in order to offset the chance of being delayed.

A solution to the issue of time-limited parking, which  is necessary to enable sharing of scarce parking, is to allow the user to pay for a limited annual allowance of overtime, which creates [dare I suggest] a margin of flexibility for the everyday well-meaning citizen. It means that a person could be saved a few hundred dollars a year and not be treated like a criminal because they got stuck in an elevator, or they helped a stranger get to emergency, or they could not leave their sick child alone. Once they have used up their grace period they would be subject to the risk of fines again, and it would clearly be in their best interests to save their overtime for such emergencies. This step alone would ease the social tension surrounding parking fines by reversing the emerging steel-capped boot attitude that Australia must not allow community realism and humane considerations to get in the way of government revenue. The other massively important change is that revenue raised from penalties should no longer be kept by the local councils, as penalties should have the sole purpose of maintaining civil peace, not profits. The very fact that the parking system profits so disproportionately via the punishment of community points to the fact that there is something wrong with the system, not something wrong with the community.

In the current environment of continually increasing over-regulation of our lives and the invention of ever more penalties, license fees and permission fees for everything we do, why is the Australian public acquiescing to it, and why do we give the bureaucratic system the free ticket to do whatever they want? They're certainly not giving it to us!

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