The Roads Amendment (Toll-Free Period) Bill was debated in Parliament on the 15 October 2020 and Jenny Leong MP spoke on behalf of the Greens. The Greens' view is that this legislation does not really hit the mark. Instead, it skirts the edges of a deeper and more systemic problem with privatised toll roads and the collection of privatised tolls on behalf of private corporations. This bill would potentially have the unfortunate side effect of inducing further demand for toll roads instead of moving people out of private vehicles and onto public transport. It is effectively a government cash handout straight to corporations.
Watch Jenny's speech on the Bill below:
"I speak on behalf of The Greens in debate on the Roads Amendment (Toll‑free Period) Bill 2020. As well as enforcing a toll‑free period for any new toll roads opening in New South Wales, the bill stipulates that the private corporations that lose revenue during a toll‑free period can and should seek compensation from the Government for the duration of that toll‑free period. That decision is left to the discretion of the government of the day. As my Greens colleague Ms Abigail Boyd said in the other place, The Greens will not oppose the bill. But, as she set out clearly, there are very serious concerns about this approach. She said:
A holiday from a toll on a privatised road is like a try‑before‑you‑buy marketing scheme delivered on behalf of the toll road operator.
And it is paid for by the New South Wales Government. She went on:
It could have the unfortunate effect of encouraging people to use toll roads when they would otherwise use public transport due to the comparatively lower cost. Once people give up commuting by public transport and get into their cars, it is very difficult to get them back onto public transport. Who would benefit from habits being changed in favour of using toll roads? Again, it is the private operators of those toll roads.
They would be the ones who benefit. The Greens' view is that this legislation does not really hit the mark. Instead, it skirts the edges of a deeper and more systemic problem with privatised toll roads and the collection of privatised tolls on behalf of private corporations. This bill would potentially have the unfortunate side effect of inducing further demand for toll roads instead of moving people out of private vehicles and onto public transport. It is effectively a government cash handout straight to corporations. We need to recognise that people at the moment are doing it tough and that they have been slugged with big tolls in the middle of a pandemic. I appreciate that more and more people are choosing to drive because of safety reasons. That said, we need to look at the bigger picture. The issue of tolls is complex and it is important that we consider why successive governments in New South Wales have locked our communities into these private, polluting toll roads in the first place. Whilst The Greens do not support private toll roads that fleece commuters, there can certainly be a role and a place for tolls that are progressively taxed and directed back to the Government, which this bill fails to recognise. As my colleague Ms Abigail Boyd said in the other place:
Not only can our Government not redirect the tolls raised on our roads towards other infrastructure projects that benefit everyone in the State, but also every action by our Government to alleviate the burden on poorer families has the nasty side effect of helping the profits of private road operators. Tolls, per se, are not the problem; the privatisation of our major infrastructure projects is. The fact that road users in New South Wales are forced to pay more and more of their money on toll roads is a symptom of a much more serious and concerning disease: the privatisation of State assets. The result of privatisation is a self-inflicted inability of our Government to provide relief to the people of this State when they need it without, at the same time, sacrificing scarce State revenue to line the pockets of private companies.
The problem, or question, is: Why has there been bipartisan support by the old parties and an obsession by successive governments in New South Wales to build private, polluting toll roads? In his second reading speech the Labor member who introduced this bill in the Legislative Council said:
Research by the University of Sydney's Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies found that Sydney has more kilometres of toll roads than anywhere else in the world.
On behalf of The Greens in this place and in the other place, it is important for us to put on record that this regrettable situation is due in no small part to the willingness of New South Wales Labor to support privatised toll roads in this State—especially the $20 billion WestConnex and its planned offshoots, including a new western harbour tunnel and more tunnelling for privatised single-vehicle transport into the North Shore and beyond—and, prior to that, its obsession with toll roads when it was in government. What our community wants and needs is world‑class public transport. The Greens recognise that road transport has a role to play, but we must recognise that the way we deliver it in the interests of our community and our State is not by privatising toll roads so we lose control over them.
Is this bill simply a ruse, disguised as concern for commuters and other users who are being forced onto these privatised toll roads? Is it a way to say, "Oops, sorry we failed to oppose these privatised, polluting toll roads when they were being built and now you are being slugged with massive costs to get where you need to go so we are going to offer you a toll-free period just to help you get through"? After supporting more and more privatised toll roads—or at least failing to oppose them—it is slightly disingenuous and, to say the least, a little disappointing that New South Wales Labor members now stand in this place, years later, calling for a toll-free period. They now pretend to care about people being hit with hefty tolls when they knew that tolls slug people in their hip pockets because of the private profits and private interests of those building the toll roads. New South Wales Labor has been part of enabling and facilitating the wholesale privatisation of road transport and toll roads in this State.
The Greens have stood strongly against the New South Wales Government's neoliberal obsession with toll roads for many, many years. It has showered billions of dollars on willing conglomerates to slash and burn tunnels and roads through our suburbs, locking us all into decades of tolls, which—as the member in the Legislative Council noted when he introduced the bill—are increasing at about 4 per cent annually. The Greens have long echoed the many calls for real investment in world-class public transport across the whole State anda vision for world-class public transport. Why are we seeing instead a concerted program to force people onto more and more polluting toll roads and off our public transport and active transport systems? Serious issues with the process used to prioritise some of the toll roads is most clear in relation to WestConnex. When speaking to this bill, my colleague in the Legislative Council said:
WestConnex, the latest in a long line of privatised toll roads in Sydney, is perhaps the best example of the insidious obsession with privatisation by successive governments and the impact it has had on the commuters forced onto those roads.
Two investigations by the Auditor-General into the project exposed that the public interest benefits, the ability to deliver and the financial risk were not properly established. This is now being played out as the company with most of the toll concessions in this country, Transurban, is in financial strife. This Liberal-Nationals Government sat on recommendations for amendments to the Land Acquisition (Just Terms Compensation) Act that would have given people whose homes were compulsorily acquired fair compensation, and hundreds did not receive fair compensation as a result of this privatised toll road disaster. In September 2016 then finance Minister Dominic Perrottet revealed in a budget estimates hearing that 1,713 properties had been acquired for infrastructure projects in the past four years and that 111 properties were yet to be acquired for the WestConnex project. How many of the people concerned received just compensation and were treated with dignity and respect?
The complete failure of successive governments in New South Wales to take note of the global trends when it comes to building toll roads is beyond belief. Global trends clearly show that many countries are removing toll roads and investing in efficient public transport. We know that building more toll roads induces more traffic—especially if alternative options are not provided for commuters, as is the case in so much of Sydney, especially western Sydney. Toll-free periods may sound good but what does that mean in terms of compensation to private companies? What does that mean in terms of public money going back into the hands of private companies? Some toll roads, like the M8, are not even being used at present. Recent messages sent to me have pictures of toll roads like the M8—which is part of WestConnex—virtually empty, with drivers avoiding them in droves.
We know that trucks are rat-running through local suburbs to avoid paying the high tolls and that people are doing it tough by choosing to sit in traffic in congested areas rather than pay tolls. This is a lose-lose scenario. Privatised roads are not in the public interest. The public needs fast and accessible public transport, not these white elephants. The reality is that we do not know the details of the contracts for the private toll roads. We do not what the big penalties are should any government build an alternative transport option that would offer commuters another choice, particularly in western Sydney, and stop them using the private toll road. What kind of money and compensation would we have to pay? As I said, The Greens will not oppose this bill because we recognise that, sadly, massively polluting toll roads are a reality in this State right now. But we put on record our objection to the idea that we are coming in after the fact to try to resolve this problem when we should have stopped privatised toll roads in the first place."