Students of opinion polls know that questions about “issues” need to be handled with care, since voters won’t necessarily tell pollsters what they’re really thinking. Unemployment is a classic example: no one wants to say they don’t care about it, but except in real depression-style conditions, most people are relatively untouched by it. It doesn’t affect people’s votes nearly as much as you would think from looking at the polls.

Before the last Victorian election, poll respondents said they were very concerned about public transport. Some commentators, including me, thought maybe this was another “feel-good” issue, where people would say they cared but wouldn’t really let it influence their votes — after all, the large majority of voters in the outer-suburban marginals use public transport rarely, if at all.

But it seems we were wrong. The Victorian Coalition made public transport a centrepiece of its campaign, and the swings against Labor were critical in the places where transport was a key issue. Four seats lying consecutively along the Frankston train line, a model of crowded trains and unreliable service, were lost with swings of between 5.3% and 8.7%: Bentleigh (now sitting on a margin of 0.9%), Mordialloc (1.5%), Carrum (0.3%) and Frankston (0.4%).

It’s hard to see Labor returning to government without winning back a couple of those, or making inroads elsewhere in commuter territory, such as Yan Yean (0.1%), on Melbourne’s northern fringe. To do that, a major objective will be to turn around the hostile perception on public transport that was so harmful in 2010.

When it was first elected in 1999, Labor was running against an incumbent government that was seen as obsessed with road-building and hostile to public transport. It promised to change that, and at least in the early years, it did, particularly with improved services to regional centres.

But many of its promises turned out to be hollow. It had committed, for example, not to build the Ringwood-Frankston freeway but to invest in public transport for the outer-eastern suburbs instead. Ten years later, the freeway (actually now a tollway) was up and running while plans for new rail construction had been shelved indefinitely. Its roll-out of the Myki electronic ticketing system was an almost unmitigated disaster.

So it wasn’t that difficult for the Coalition at the last election to present itself as more friendly to public transport. It attacked the late and overcrowded services and highlighted plans for rail links to Doncaster, Rowville and the airport — none of them in terms that promised an actual start to construction, but more definite than anything Labor could come up with.

Four years in government, however, have altered the picture considerably. Doncaster and Rowville are off the table, while the airport line — although now presented in the government’s advertising as a firm commitment — is part of a planned cross-city link that will not materialise until the mid-2020s at the earliest. Instead, there has been an unseemly rush into another giant road project, the East West Link across the inner-northern suburbs, projected to cost upwards of $16 billion.

As Jason Dowling put it in Friday’s Age:

“You are being fed a myth. Again. These rail projects are never happening, or at least not for decades.

“The worse part is millions of dollars that could be invested in better public transport is instead being spent propagating this public transport illusion across television, radio and print media.”

But it’s one thing for a government’s plans to be discredited, it’s another thing for an opposition to take advantage. That’s particularly the case when the opposition’s failings in government are a sufficiently recent memory to damage its credibility. If you decide that both sides are lying to you equally, that leaves you with little reason to change your vote.

Labor’s promises are not silly: cancelling the East West Link, rebuilding the railway to Mernda (in the heart of Yan Yean) and removing 50 level crossings to reduce congestion across the metropolitan system.

Its challenge is to get people to believe them.

* Charles Richardson was a member of the Liberal Party from 1978 to 1996 and worked in the Kennett government.