EDITORIAL: Bang for your buck remains unclear

By: Graham Gardiner

Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese talks of "parliamentary scrutiny" when it comes to governments’ ability to hike the amount you

Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese talks of "parliamentary scrutiny" when it comes to governments’ ability to hike the amount you pay for road access if and when they choose. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Government is spinning its latest amendments — designed to end a parliamentary filibuster which leaves pricing changes applied inconsistently under the federal and ACT schemes — as a win for the transport industry. In fact, the situation is even worse.

Industry was concerned the Government would apply an automatic indexation to the fuel excise, which would have seen fuel tax rise in January every year regardless of road use and infrastructure investment.

Instead, the Government intends to amend the excise "by regulation". When it chooses, under a formula it won’t reveal.

Parliament can’t debate regulation, only block it. If the Government has the numbers in the Senate higher charges sail through. That is more money for treasury coffers with no obligation to return it to the road on which it was collected.

To call that scrutiny insults the transport industry, which signs a blank cheque every year for billions of dollars in access fees. It’s underhanded and unfair.

This Government had promised more. Indeed, transport ministers across all jurisdictions welcomed a Productivity Commission report into road and rail pricing that strongly recommended a more transparent process for collecting road user charges and a stronger link between revenue and infrastructure investment.

Ministers were left burnt by the last round of pricing regulations which were knocked on the head largely because they failed to make a logical and transparent case for higher transport costs. Albanese hasn’t learnt the lesson.

The industry’s response has not been unreasonable. Groups like the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) accept operators need to pay more as the road task increases and governments spend more on the infrastructure network. But the ATA rightly asked to know just what operators are getting for their buck. That remains entirely unclear.

The deal the ATA put on the table was fair: we’ll pay our way, but you’ll live up to your end of the bargain and build the necessary rest area facilities on the national network to provide a safer workplace for the increased rent.

There’s the suggestion the Government was unfairly wedged on the issue. Try being wedged between complying with fatigue laws (and keeping your job) and not having anywhere to pull up.

Not only is there no obligation on behalf of the Government to build the facilities so necessary to comply with fatigue regulations it supports, there remains no responsibility to base its pricing decisions on anything other than whim.

Not the amount and types of vehicles on the road. Not the damage they do and the share of maintenance they’re responsible for. Not the amount of money governments are actually investing in building and repairing highways. Not the mysterious mathematics of any revenue-hungry government of the day.

The fundamental flaw with the current pricing model is, really, nobody understands it. Infrastructure investment figures from jurisdictions were apples-and-oranges stuff; the estimates on road use and the damage certain vehicles do to certain roads are rubbery at best.

Now Albanese wants to add yet another layer of cloaked confusion. He should again go back to the drawing board.

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