Australian governments appear to be in the process of succumbing to efforts of persuasion by the Transurban corporation to adopt a so-called user pays ‘road pricing’ scheme on all public roads in the future (i.e. that people might need to pay to drive just down the road to the shops or a school, and not just on the existing tollways). We investigate here how this proposal for ubiquitous electronic toll roads – to be facilitated of course solely by Transurban for profit – would also seem to be the culmination of a cynical, opportunistic and often counter-productive process. This is also how, encouraged and supported by an uncritically naïve and generally reckless governmental strategy of market-led public-private investment and public asset privatisation in Queensland as well as elsewhere in Australia in recent times, Transurban emerged as a manipulating and all devouring as well as opportunistic ‘mega-monopoly’ ruthlessly seeking to take over, own or at least control, and endlessly profiteer from perhaps the most pivotal domain of public infrastructure assets (public roads). With a particular personal as well policy focus on Transurban’s recent takeover of the South-East Queensland tollway network as a model also for Sydney, Melbourne and beyond, the paper also explores the nature of various claims at both the macro and micro level that this all constitutes a rip-off, a sting, a rort, and/or a scam (i.e. various and inter-related inappropriate ‘conflicts of interest’) that needs to be challenged as a convergent corporate-governmental-bureaucratic refusal as well as failure of overall accountability at various levels.
An exemplary micro ‘toll scam’ focus: How even genuine ‘toll non-payment’ complaints or appeals are now being systematically ignored, obstructed and/or denied as a result of a secretive, ill-advised, and simply reprehensible Qld Transport-Transurban ‘deal’
“The idea of forcing motorists to submit to electronic tolling instead of paying cash at toll booths is not mainly to save money and time, as the government and toll road operators would like you to believe. It is a very carefully crafted technique of social engineering that seems to be working, fooling most motorists and lulling them into a state of complacency while they are getting ripped off royally.” – CARR (n.d.)
At the heart of the various issues and concerns raised by the many valid complaints about ‘cashless’ electronic road toll implementation (Copeland, 7/28/2008), toll money-gouging, and related arrangements with relevant government agencies is how the new system automatically treats any of the related myriad genuine challenges of digital processing and payment (resulting from the loss of a manual toll payment option) as acts of intentional evasion when mostly they are not. This was actually the justification put to us regularly by both Transport and Transurban’s Govia ‘customer service’ people we regularly dealt with for over a twelve-month period as the basic rationale for obstructing due process procedures, denying natural justice principles, and simply refusing outright to provide any related policy or procedure explanation beyond this.
It is common sense that any move from manual tolls (where ‘toll evasion’ as such is generally clear-cut) to cashless, automated electronic toll collection will result in many inadvertent non-payments which are clearly not wilful ‘evasions’ or violations (e.g. WSTC 20/9/2006). This includes cases such as my son’s where toll payment devices or tags are not working without people being aware of this. There are also many people who are not even aware there are tolls in place in the first place (suffering what some call ‘cashless confusion’) before receiving a letter of demand or related infringement notice in the mail. But perhaps a key cause of avoidable penalties is how both Transurban and Qld Transport more refuse rather than fail to recognise or adjust procedures for an increasingly mobile society where especially younger people (often new drivers) are often moving addresses and do not receive letters posted out. Together with the arbitrary three-day cut-off date for toll payments set by Govia (apparently approved by Qld Transport), this appears to be tantamount to wilful designs for quite predictable yet largely avoidable gouging of additional fees. In our direct experience it appears to be a joint plan to entrap people for not only inadvertent non-payment of tolls but also the even more burdensome related infringement penalties (e.g. ABC 22/5/2016).
As we also learnt from first-hand experience of my son’s case where a technical issue led to multiple ‘non-payments’ (which Govia automatically calls evasions) and ultimately a $12000 debt, this was also the disingenuous rationale to justify both (a) the extensive Transurban ‘penalty administration fees’ (i.e. in similar fashion to the ‘video matching fee’ and ‘retail service fee’ added to every toll quickly amounting to big profits, how multiples of an ‘unpaid’ $4 toll can also incur additional multiple fees including a $28 or so ‘administration fee’ and then related infringement penalties of several hundred dollars each) and (b) Transport’s position that genuine and even successful appeals about initial ‘evasions’ as well as related and resulting ‘infringements’ could not ultimately or be challenged on any basis on one hand; and on the other hand (c) their mutual and convergent denial of any appropriate or effective basis to challenge either unfair penalties or a generally unfair situation. As Michael Fraser (4/3/2015) has reported about the issuing of both toll penalties and related traffic infringements “a whistleblower has told us that unless anything is contested very strongly they will fight you and deny you compensation [etc].”.
As we discuss below, this is entirely consistent with our own now extensive experience in these matters. In this section we summarise our extensive of dealing with both Transurban customer service and corresponding government agencies such as the Tolling Offence Unit (TOU) drawn out and reinforced by literally hundreds of emails, phone calls and also the interesting events which followed a visit to Transurban’s secretive headquarters in Brisbane. In this way we came to understand how the Government-Transurban agreement goes well beyond how “the government gazettes the fees and charges and stipulates the rules Transurban operate under” as Michael Fraser also points out in the same article.
On or about July 15, 2015, my son contacted Govia customer service (which we later realised is actually Transurban) after receiving retrospective demand notices that had also been converted into Transport infringements as well as an extensive range of penalty charges. These related to the 38 times he went across Gateway Bridge over the next few months after his automated Govia Tag account had stopped working without him being aware of it (and no real further effort to contact him in those subsequent months). In this initial exchange, my son informed the Govia/Transurban customer service representative (who freely admitted that they were part of a Philippines call-centre – Passmore, 11/3/2015) that he wanted to challenge or appeal this as he was not aware that his automated payment account had stopped working, and had never been informed there was a problem in the five months since (they now told him) it had first stopped working. In short, the call centre rep responded that there were no avenues to appeal through Govia/Transurban and that he would need to take the matter to the Tolling Ombudsman if he wanted to challenge this. After an online query to Transurban about a review of his complaint, my son received a call the following week (on or about the 22nd July) from a customer representative who identified herself from their ‘back office’. She told him that the matter had now been passed on to a debt collection service (Dun & Bradstreet Pty Ltd) and that he had no choice but to pay up. When he reiterated his wish to appeal the matter and also indicated that as a new graduate with only occasional work he had no money to pay this, she replied by saying that he had no other option, that he would have his credit rating suspended, and that he would likely lose his driving license also and possibly his car.
At this time, after being made aware that over two-thirds of the $12000 or so debt from about $175 in unpaid tolls was actually owed to the Government (with SPER admitting to us they also cooperated with Transurban on debt collector arrangements), we also turned our attention to making an appeal about this part of the overall unpaid toll debt. After my son was given the run-around by an anonymous rep (in uncannily similar fashion to Transurban’s overseas call center reps), I personally rang up and was initially lucky to find someone apparently helpful in the TOU. After looking into the matter, they advised that it seemed to be a reasonable and genuine case which could be supported by evidence provided. They told us that if we would just provide by email a statutory declaration to confirm in writing a couple of key details then all the related Transport infringements would be fully waived. However, after we provided this requested declaration (email to – 23/10/2015), and well after the fifteen-day email response turn around assured by TOU, we then received a message from someone else at TOU to say that the case would not be waived as promised. No real explanation involving any specific detail was provided, and there was only silence about this when we pointed out in follow-up communications that we had been provided an earlier ‘full waiver’ assurance.
After further emails and phone calls to TOU representatives who would only give a first name if pressed and refused to take on individual responsible to follow-up (as well as being distant, evasive and disingenuous, their modus operandi to also refuse to nominate any one with overall responsibility), they retrospectively justified their position on the demonstrably inappropriate and inaccurate basis about the Vodafone evidence provided. This was that my son would not have received the one SMS text message warning Transurban claimed was sent out on 22nd January because he could prove he had switched from prepaid to postpaid accounts the day before when the capacity to receive messages is suspended for days. This also ignored how although Transurban had his full details they had failed to call his phone number or post to his address until many months later demonstrating clearly inadequate procedures that were arguably a case of designed entrapment and more ‘customer avoidance’ than ‘customer support’. When we immediately followed up with an additional Vodafone statement confirming that the TOU had made a legally indefensible judgement they again simply ignored this and refused to review, explain or even defend their thus indefensible decision. And to my repeated requests (by emails which I am happy to share as well as by phone) for them to clarify their policy and procedures for fair or legitimate appeals and complaints, they just persisted in refusing to do so and intentionally and therefore dishonestly ignoring these requests.
We seemed to be completely snookered except that in a further conversation with a SPER representative in October 2015 we were (a) assured that if a Transurban appeal was successful then all the related infringements would be automatically waived (as documented at the time) and (b) also their similar advice to the Transurban reps that our only option was to appeal to the Tolling Ombudsman. However, after then also reading on the Transurban website about the ‘small print’ option of requesting an internal appeal we then rang their Manila-based customer service again to be told that we would need to speak to their ‘back office’. For several weeks calls to the phone number provided for this were never answered, so we tried their online form (where someone emails back after a couple of days). We then had another slow and unhelpful (i.e. intentional ‘run-around’) exchange with someone who identified themselves as Jason – who kept promising to arrange to call us to clarify the details of our case and complaint, but never did. After it was clear that we could not catch him ‘in the office’ and that he would never call back, we used the online form option to try and appeal this which lead to similar online communications with several other back room reps (Paul, Gillian and James) who also gave us a similar and recurring run around experience.
The situation completely and dramatically changed after I was able to track down the apparent location for the Govia customer service at the Transurban corporate office at Eight Mile Plains. This was after finding out that a Murarrie centre had closed down the previous year (Passmore, 11/3/2015) and that an apparently current Heathwood centre was really a non-existent address on online maps pointing to the middle of a tollway overpass road. My query about speaking to Govia customer service reps at the Transurban front desk was cause for security guards to immediately come out and listen in on my query in intimidating fashion. After being told by the front desk person that Govia reps did not work in the building but only existed ‘virtually’ I was assured that if I left a contact phone number someone would call me. In reply I told them that I had had many such assurances for many months now and no-one from their back office had ever called me back as promised. I agreed to their request for me to leave and provide a contact phone number for someone to call back – on the clear mutual understanding that I would physically come back every week to follow up on this until someone did call back.
Within a couple of days I received a call back from the rep Gillian who now introduced herself with real or full name. In her phone call she said that she had been authorised to acknowledge the genuine claim, to unconditionally give a ‘heartfelt apology’ for the ‘unprofessional’ and ‘clearly inappropriate’ earlier responses’ to a valid complaint and appeal. She also agreed to wipe out existing claims as well as reimburse my son for all the penalties and fees that had been the cause of debt collector harassment. This subsequently did happen. She also assured me that Govia had taken note of and would address the inadequate policies, procedural failures and related concerns that I had raised in relation to my son’s case. I then received a follow up email that day (16/3/2016) fromGillian using (for the first and only time in all my dealings with anyone in this matter) her individual work email account generally confirming all this. I had mentioned that SPER had assured us that all the related infringements would be waived when Govia either directly notified them or at least provided us with a confirmation of this. But Gillian had then replied that this was ‘not part of their agreement with Qld Transport’ refusing to elaborate any further. So the next day I emailed a formal request for either option only to receive an email message on the 21st April which set out a formal refusal to either inform SPER and TOU of the upholding of our claim or to provide any additional confirmation letter or message which could be used as part of our mentioned plans to appeal the related infringements. After challenging this and getting no more responses from Ms. Potter, I was eventually emailed by team leader James Newton on the 20th July which definitively confirmed that his office would not provide ‘any further assistance’ because of their agreement with Department of Transport agencies.
With Ms. Potter’s email confirmation of a successful Govia appeal we then contacted SPER again. They informed us that they were only the ‘collection agency’ with an administrative function only, and that only TOU had any executive authority to deal with appeals and waivers – so that we would need them to process the confirmation of a successful appeal on the multiple initial penalties as a basis for a waiver of related infringements. With some trepidation after our earlier dealings with TOU, we went ahead with the further appeal. In this we included the Govia confirmation of a successful appeal as well as the additional Vodafone evidence which should have been sufficient to uphold the initial promise of a waiver and override any pretext for refusing to honor this. We subsequently received an email response from KP someone finally identifying herself as the head of TOU (i.e. the hidden person in a number of previous communications). In this she applied what we were to further discover was a cookie-cutter template of arbitrary appeal refusal without reason and without any evidence or detail at all to indicate they had even looked at any of the irrefutable evidence or compelling grounds provided. In short, she just rejected our appeal out of hand with no explanation given. Over the last six months of 2016 we made further complaints and appeals which were passed up the chain of Qld Transport until we got to the apparent top. We received almost identical letters from three apparently more senior members of the Qld Transport hierarchy including D, H, and the general manager himself of Qld Transport’s Customer Services Geoffrey Magoffin. Mr. Magoffin also indicated that his conclusively definitive response – also showing an apparent intent to dissuade and intimidate (email from – 29/9/2016) – was additionally authorised as a response also to a separate complaint made directly to the Qld Minister for Main Roads Mark Bailey who had promised to follow it up. Mark Bailey had been on the record when interviewed as part of the Channel 9 News toll debt scandal ‘expose’ as wanting to get to the bottom of this and address the problem.
Michael Fraser had informed me that in an interview he personally conducted with her, KP had claimed that TOU was just a collection agency with no real say on genuine complaints. So I did further point out to KP by email that her apparent disingenuity (i.e. that TOU clearly had the executive function whilst it was SPER which was Transport’s ‘collection agency’) was clearly a breathtaking dishonest misrepresentation – a ‘Laurel and Hardy’ effort of apparent Transport whitewash (email to – 19/9/2016). We also pointed out to Mr. Magoffin (e.g. email to – 25/10/2016) that the convergent Transport-government claim that “Govia NODS are simply not related to Transport PINS” was clearly unfair, highly inappropriate and likely illegal. This was in addition to being simply indefensible, arrogantly dismissive, and demonstrating a complete lack of both accountability and transparency – which is why it appeared that KP and the others had sought to just ignore and whitewash our specific complaints about this. In other words, of course it should have been legally as well as ethically inappropriate and even quite self-evident that if an original offense was upheld by an appeal and denied/cancelled or waived as well as recognised to be demonstrably unfair or inappropriate, then so should any related or subsequent infringements issued by Qld Transport agencies. However, we also conceded that he had at least assisted with possibly a proposed new verb in the English language – to magoffin someone: that is, to bureaucratically discourage or deny perfectly reasonable inquiries and legitimate concerns, especially those related to transport or ‘main roads’ matters.
We earlier mentioned how Qld Transport as well as Transurban reps had regularly advised us that our only real option was to appeal to the Tolling Customer Ombudsman (TCO). We therefore had proceeded earlier in the year with a very detailed and compelling appeal (email to – 9/2/2016) to TCO solicitor Michael Arnold who on his website and in relation to the initial email query had guaranteed to provide independent judgments which would be ‘binding on toll operators’. In relation to the initial complaint and a series of follow-up emails over almost six months, Mr. Arnold kept simply ‘flicking on’ every communication to Transurban to look at with usually no additional comment (and not appearing to ever get a response from them). Each and every time there was never any real indication that he had ever looked at either any supporting detail or the overall case of the complaint and repeated promises of some eventual judgement which never came. At this stage, as well as repeated similar online complaints about him, I also came across claims that he was a Transurban ‘stool pigeon’ and ‘fraud’ actually paid by Transurban to (a) give people with genuine grievances the ‘run around’ without acting, and (b) make people think he was the only independent help available who would genuinely review cases which would then be independently binding on Transurban.
A bit of further research confirmed that he was originally appointed as the Transurban Tolling Customer Ombudsman in September 2006, had an alternative email address email@example.com, and had continued after a name change to still be employed by Transurban for his clearly disingenuous ‘services’. I also discovered that this function was also set up by another Transurban officer Jean Ker Walsh (Arnold, 28/2/2013) who had both earlier and later worked for the Victorian government as a political media adviser or ‘spin doctor’ (e.g. Lucas, 7/1/2010). This apparent government-corporate conflict of interest was also replicated by Edward Byden (as well as quite a few others), who had worked as Legal Counsel for Transurban and had later moved on to a key position with Public Transport in Victoria. In such ways the suggestions of a micro version of the toll scam kept increasingly pointing to a macro version centered around inherent conflicts of interest in government-Transport agreements – agreements or ‘deal’ which also appeared to completely be against or in contempt of the real, sustainable, and future public interest of Australian communities.