Otago Regional Councillor Calls Student “Entitled” Over Bus Fares

Otago Regional Councillor Calls Student “Entitled” Over Bus Fares

Someone media train this man

Last week, the Otago Regional Council (ORC) voted 5-7 not to extend the half price bus fares. In what would normally be a one-liner headline in the TL;DR, Critic sniffed a story when we were forwarded an email chain between law student Grace and Councillor Michael Laws, who attacked her character after she expressed support for the half price fares to continue. Local council tea, hot and steaming.

Grace wrote to Laws that she had “deep concerns regarding the upcoming decision [...] regarding the potential discontinuation of the half-price fares policy.” She said that she was among “many who heavily rely on the public bus services for various aspects of daily life, including academic pursuits, employment, and social engagements,” and that without the lower fares, “my ability to travel to university daily, and actively participate in my education will be significantly impeded. [...] Like many students, driving into campus is not an option for me, and I am greatly indebted to public transport to enable me to get to university.”

Laws responded that, “Dunedin ratepayers are already subsidising public bus transport when 90% of them don’t use it and don’t want to, and good on them. To ask them to subsidise it even more – and deliver you a tangible financial gain – seems like sponging to me [...] I’m sure after you graduate you will charging [sic] the maximum hourly rate to these so-called vulnerable. That’s the profession you’ve entered, so cry me a river.” 

Grace told Critic Te Ārohi that she was “really shocked that he responded the way he did. You’d think it’s basic knowledge that an elected councillor shouldn’t speak to the public that way. Then I looked him up, and wasn’t that surprised. And I found it pretty funny that he cares about bus fares so much as to attack me.”

Receiving similar community feedback, Councillor Elliot Weir (and former Critic Feature Editor) responded to another student, writing, “Thanks for emailing. I'm stoked there's some attention on this because too often these big changes go unchallenged. I'm frustrated by this government cutting transport funding in so many different ways, and leaving us to fill in the gaps. I'm also a regular bus user though, and I would hate to sit back and allow our buses to become less affordable for those who need them most. You can be sure I'll be fighting for maintaining cheap bus fares.” Elliot even included his phone number with the offer to discuss the matter further. Bless.

After OUSA Politics Rep Liam White’s attention was brought to the email chain between Laws and Grace (having received similarly snarky responses himself), he said that his initial reaction was to “read it again, because I thought I had misread it and I read it three times because I was so shocked by his response. I was really disappointed to be honest, that somebody from the community reaching out is met with that response in an earnest attempt to be listened to about an issue that they care about and for an elected official to immediately come back with, I disagree with you, I don't wanna listen to your response, here is why you are wrong. To me, that almost doesn't feel like his role. I understand that he has an opinion, but that didn't feel like the way [to do it] or the message he should have purported.” 

Critic reached out to Laws to get his side of the story – and the bro just dug deeper. “I stand by every word and every sentiment expressed. Dislike selfishness in others esp those asking for a special reward by robbing the pockets of others. And it was the entitled law student who took offence after first delivering it.” And the cherry on top of this lovely exchange? “I could have been much harsher,” said Laws. 

He got back in touch following the ORC meeting last Wednesday to say, “I am delighted to report that today the Council voted NOT to provide half-price bus fares sought by union students, and that they will revert to $2 per trip (on Bee Card) and $3 casual. Still heavily subsidised by the Dunedin ratepayer.” Critic could feel the glee radiating through the keyboard.

In a Facebook post about the decision, Elliot said they were “gutted [...] Ultimately, this was a decision not to fill in gaps left by central government ending the Community Connect extension scheme. Nevertheless, as a council we had a choice to fix the problem and we decided not to. Thankfully, we voted to keep the free fares for under-13s, and government funding still covers Community Service Card holders getting half price fares.

This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2024.
Posted 3:17pm Saturday 23rd March 2024 by Nina Brown.