Charges scrutinised, but industry may still be ripped off

By: Chris Smith

The decision to alter the road user charge under the Road Charges Legislation Repeal and Amendment Bill by a disallowable

The decision to alter the road user charge under the Road Charges Legislation Repeal and Amendment Bill by a disallowable motion means the Senate has 15 days to debate it.

During that time, the Government can increase the charge to a specified amount, and will only remove it after the issue is debated and if senators claim there is no justification for an increase.

But because sitting days are spread throughout the year, the industry may be forced to operate under a new charge for an indefinite period despite uncertainty as to whether it is warranted.

Although accepting this may happen, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate Stephen Conroy refuted claims operators would be reimbursed.

"I was not suggesting at any stage that there would be a refund of the money," he says.

According to Conroy, the Government is within its rights to charge more while the disallowable motion is in effect.

The Government rejected amendments put forward by the Coalition, which would have forced the Government to hold off introducing higher charges until the 15 days sitting period had expired.

"The 15 sitting days, as we all know, may take two, three or four months to reach," Senator Ian MacDonald says.

Despite raising concerns over the Government’s stance, Family First’s Steve Fielding and Independent Nick Xenophon supported the Bill, which along with the Greens gave the Government enough numbers to get it through the Senate.

However, Conroy claims it is unlikely the industry will be unfairly charged, with the Government committing to a 60-day consultation period over any proposed charges, and ruling more than one increase each year.

"The alignment of the rebate process and the timing of it will see this potential danger become fairly minimal, in the Government’s view," Conroy says.

"I am not suggesting this will be a zero issue, but we believe that, with all these other measures, the likelihood of it happening will be minimal."

There will also be no requirement for the Government to prove progress is being made on reforming regulations before attempting to increase the road user charge.

The Government has also given itself the power to change the charge that is different from the proposed rate publicly released.

After receiving submissions and feedback from the industry, the Government can create a new charge without having to submit it to another period of consultation.

The Government also managed to pass the Bill without the condition any increases to the charge can only be made on the basis of under recovery.

The Coalition wanted a commitment of "substantial harmonisation", but it failed to gain support due to concerns the meaning of the clause would be subject to interpretation.

But Xenophon predicted the subjective nature of the clause would "not be a lawyer’s picnic but a lawyer’s smorgasbord".

"I can just see it fraught with a number of legal minefields," he says.

As well as increasing the road user charge from 19.63 cents to 21 cents, the Road Charges Legislation Repeal and Amendment Bill will allow the ACT to set its own registration charges.

The Bill was passed alongside the Interstate Road Charges Amendment Bill, which alters fees for vehicles under the Federal Interstate Registration Scheme (FIRS).

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