Encountering the Qld version of the road tolls ‘scam’ (1st of a 3 part inquiry)

After recently graduating from university in Townsville with a large HECS debt my son came to Brisbane to look for work in a very difficult job market. Only able to land a casual job on the north side of Brisbane initially, he got a Govia account with related digital Tag administered by Transurban so he could go to work via the Gateway Bridge. However, after just a few weeks his Govia Tag and thus account stopped working without him being aware of this. By the time Transurban customer service really went to any trouble to contact him about this more than five months later, he had (a) gone over the Gateway 38 times without his Govia account processing this, and (b) although only about $175 in direct tolling fees it had become a debt of around $12000 with penalties converted into Queensland (Qld) Department of Transport infringements and a convergent process of threats and intimidation without any prior notification or warning.

Then instead of being provided any real options to contest this he was threatened with the loss of his licence and his car by predatory and aggressive debt collectors operating as part of an apparent agreement between the government and Transurban. This was in the context of how the Qld government had simply given Transurban a monopoly on toll roads in South-East Queensland from 2015 (Lynch, 25/4/2014) as part of its controversial sell-off of public assets strategy. No wonder that like many other Queenslanders in the same boat (as I soon discovered), he became very angry and depressed as well as stressed – not just about the unfairness of the initial penalty debt but by the disingenuous, evasive and clearly money-gouging behaviours and practices by Transport agencies as well as by Transurban customer service (e.g. McKinnell, 28/7/2016; Preiss, 14/2/2017).

Over the next twelve months I had extensive dealings with so-called public servants (or bureaucrats) in the State Penalties Enforcement Registry (SPER), the Qld Tolling Offence Unit (TOU), senior Qld Main Roads and Transport bureaucrats, the so-called Tolling Ombudsman and also the Transurban/Govia customer service as I tried to assist my son to challenge this. While this was all going on as discussed below, my online searches revealed that disingenuous toll-gouging, refusals of due process and denials of natural justice were increasingly, regularly, and often inadvertently or innocently happening to many other ordinary Queenslanders – as the epicentre of similar exclusive deals or arrangements also in Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere. Many of these stories about how other Queenslanders have been similarly impacted are pictured on dedicated websites such as www.Goviacomplaints.com as well as other social media – where I noted that many people spontaneously were referring to this tolling regime as a rip-off, a sting, a rort and/or a scam, etc.

A report for 2016 (e.g. Guillem 22/1/2017) noted that toll fines were the main $250 million focus of ballooning SPER debts of more than $1 billion which have caught out many Queenslanders unable to pay as well those refusing to pay more as a matter of principle than a case of real evasion. This has led to recent big brother moves by governments to accelerate and automatize the process of dispossessing people of their cars and related actions (e.g. ABC 22/5/2016) so often without proper due process or fairness (e.g. Caldwell 1/5/2014). Following on from local exposes about this in special Channel 9 and 7 news reports (e.g. http://www.9news.com.au/…/toll-debt-for-queensland-motorist… – Cf also Hogan, 19/10/2015). A recent A Current Affair special edition about this was headlined as both the ‘great toll sting’ and the ‘toll rort’  https://www.9now.com.au/…/20…/clip-cisjf9f6m00150hmvqc7oo2u9. It is further estimated that more than a billion dollars of unfair charging or penalties were involved as Transurban are increasingly allowed to take over toll roads around Australia. As we discuss below, more recent reports indicate this could be the first step in a process by which more and more or even most roads will increasingly become ‘user-pays’ and have tolls administered in agreements between Transurban and Australian state Transport bureaucracies (i.e. you may soon have to pay to drive down the road to the shops or take your family out for a weekend drive) (e.g. Preiss, 9/9/2016).

However, as alarming as many of these reports were, the only thing which seemed to be clear was that these hasty public infrastructure sell-off agreements by debt-strapped governments carelessly looking for quick but necessarily sustainable ‘fixes’ had all come about in world-class negative,  self-defeating and counter-productive fashion (e.g. Hannigan, n.d.). As Millar & Schneiders (14/5/2016) put it in their excellent if narrower inquiry into the emergence of ‘Transurban: the making of a monster’ from the origins of an initial Melbourne Citylinks agreement: “It is difficult to imagine any other country where Transurban-like dominance would be allowed over something as important, and lucrative, as major city motorways”. But my own inquiries indicated that even this report (like the others) tended to barely scratch the surface when it came to questions of who was responsible, and the exact nature of the subsequent government-Transurban agreements and ongoing relationships also at the micro level of the kinds of systematic obstruction (i.e. denial of due process and natural justice) as well as money-gouging evidenced in the case of my son and so many similar stories.

So, in the two related Blogs to follow (Toll Scam Inquiry Part 2 – The Qld Dept of Transport’s unethical role in this? And Toll Scam Inquiry Part 3 – Transurban’s masterplan for taking over Australian roads as a ‘cash cow’ for global profiteers at local expense) we not only explore the larger question of whether it might be appropriate to talk about a general or overall ‘toll scam’ but how so exactly as a massive failure of accountability – not just by Transurban but also by concerned governments and particular politicians and bureaucrats involved in the process. In contrast to some previous otherwise useful reports, our inquiry will investigate both a micro level failure of accountability by both public servants and Transurban customer service on one hand, and on the other how this is an exemplary consequence of the macro ‘scam’ of the kind of what are really scandalous sell-outs and agreements against the public interest in Australia. As pointed out by the very person who okayed the initial Citylinks toll agreement, Jeff Kennett: “Money, instead of going to government [for new roads as well as to maintain existing infrastructure], is going to the private sector; that is a total waste” (as quoted by. Millar & Schneiders – our parentheses). That is, few members of the public are aware of the extent of how little of all toll fees paid actually go into public roads, whilst Transurban make massive cash profits and extends its road ownership and control (Myer, 11/2/2016). This is so even with clearly little real interest except for profit-making in (as Millar & Schneiders further  suggest, often with some antagonism towards) better and additional options involving more sustainable transport and indeed city planning for the future.

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