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Ryan Smith MP, Member for WARRANDYTE

Roads and Infrastructure

Road Legislation Further Amendment Bill 2016

10 November, 2016

I rise to lead the debate for the opposition on the Road Legislation Further Amendment Bill 2016, and I would just like to say from the outset that my position is that the government should withdraw this bill immediately and split it. The provisions that are outlined in part 3, division 3, are important enough to stand alone. I believe that the tragic circumstances surrounding Andrea Lehane's death and the disregard shown by the accused, Caleb Jakobbson, and others like him should have led to a specific piece of legislation that stood separately to issues such as road sign placements and website information.

I think that there is a very cynical display of politics in this bill, which contains issues that will basically hide some of the bungling of the minister in relation to the Tullamarine widening project. It bundles that up with a serious and vitally important issue — an issue that should be raised and debated in this house on its own, separate to other issues — and it is an issue that the government would have had complete and absolute bipartisan support on. The issues that are addressed in part 3, division 3, as I said, warrant a bill on their own. I would say that there was probably some delay in putting together the bulk of this bill, and there would have been a delay in putting these particular provisions forward. Having said all that, that is for the government to decide and live with, and the opposition's position on the bill in its totality is that we do not oppose the bill. But certainly I think the government should be thinking very seriously about addressing that particular issue in a piece of legislation on its own.

Having said all that, I am very happy to go through the various aspects of the bill. There are a number of innocuous and administrative provisions in the main part of the bill. The opposition has little if any problems with many of these clauses. Clauses 3 to 5 are said to clarify certain areas in relation to VicRoads, including the publication of the register of public roads on a website, as opposed to how things stand now, which is that they are listed in the Government Gazette — welcome to the 21st century, I guess. These clauses also cover permissions required around the placing of signage and other structures as detailed in the clause on road infrastructure, and VicRoads is empowered to tow obstructing vehicles if those vehicles are on roadways or obstructing roads for other users.

Clause 6 deals with the holders of overseas licences and will allow visitors to our state who hold an international licence, who are currently only allowed to drive vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes, to drive vehicles up to 4.5 tonnes, which is in line with what Victorian drivers can do. I do note that the purpose of this particular clause is to introduce some harmonisation with the rest of Australia's jurisdictions. I also note that Victoria is the last one to put this in place, so it is certainly quite valid we need to be in line with other states.

Clauses 7 to 22, as described to me in the briefing, allow a driver who commits a drink-driving offence in another state or territory to be subject to the same penalty as they would if they had committed the offence in Victoria. At present, those who commit these offences interstate have their licence suspended, and that seems to be the extent to which they can be prosecuted. This clause seeks to bring the penalty for those offences, if they are committed interstate or in other jurisdictions, in line with Victoria's penalties. These provisions will ensure that they are prosecuted to the full extent of Victoria's law.

I think we can certainly not overstate the dangers to other road users when people take the privilege of driving as a right and do not take the responsibility that they should. I always take particular care when I am coming home from a late night with the family in the car. If it is a Friday or Saturday night, particularly if it is about 11 o'clock, I always keep an eye out for drivers who may be intoxicated. I could not imagine anything worse than having your family taken from you in those circumstances, and I do look out very, very carefully. I do think that those who have disregard for the law in this way should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and as such these clauses are well supported by the opposition.

Clauses 32 to 34 relate to the manner in which blood samples are taken and stored, particularly in relation to those taken at a hospital following a road accident. The member for South-West Coast accompanied me to the bill briefing and as a former nurse had some very informative views on this matter. She agreed that the changes put forward in the clauses should be made. Currently we have a situation where two samples are taken at a hospital following an accident — one for clinical tests and one for alcohol and drug sampling. There are times when, due to the seriousness of the motor vehicle accident, blood is taken for clinical reasons but there is not time to take one for sampling reasons. Because of that, sometimes police do not have the proof that they need to prosecute someone if they are drink-driving or driving under the effect of drugs. That is a sensible approach, and it is certainly supported.

Further on, clauses 43 to 49 deal with the use of personal tolling information which is collected by tolling concession holders. It is an administrative change that takes into account the fact that the restrictions that currently apply are covered by the commonwealth Privacy Act and there is no need to have legislation that mirrors those provisions here in Victoria.

That leads us to the more contentious parts of the bill. Clause 36 goes to the issue of police pursuits. People are well aware that in Victoria, although there have been some recent changes, in the main over the last year and a half or so police command have said that police cannot pursue those who are trying to get away from them in a vehicle. When a car is signalled to stop by police and the car takes off, we have seen many cases where the police have had to let the car go. That has caused many concerns, certainly in recent times.

We have seen a couple of offences raise their heads in Victoria that have hardly been seen at all in this state prior to the last 12 or 18 months — carjacking and home invasion. Invariably home invasions happen because criminals go into people's houses, take the keys to the car and take the car, and in many cases the police are unable to chase them.

We had some conversations with senior police officers out in the west of Victoria who said that routinely on Friday or Saturday nights they would have people who would steal cars, often through stealing the keys in home invasions. They would come down to the police station and actually do burnouts in front of the police station. As police came out they would just take off and there would be no option for the police to chase them. That is certainly not the Victoria that I grew up in and certainly something that needs to be addressed, but it has not been addressed adequately by the government due to a number of issues, including a reduction in police numbers per capita when you take into account the growing population. This is certainly a big issue. We have heard anecdotally from the rank and file that this is a real concern, and on a number of occasions they have asked the government to do something about this particular issue.

As I was informed during the bill briefing, this clause goes a little way towards helping the police. Currently if the police have a car that has not stopped when it has been asked to, they have 10 days to investigate. The most direct way of investigating is of course to take the licence plate number down and go to the address at which the vehicle is registered. That really does not help when the car is stolen or when the plates have been removed. This clause extends that investigation period from 10 days to 42 days. I am not sure how effective this will be.

I was briefed that during the period of 10 days that the police currently have they will generally go to the address where the car is registered. I do not know how an extra 32 days will really assist in those matters. I think the issue is really one of being unable to pursue vehicles that have been involved in any sort of criminal activity. We certainly understand that many of the people who go off in these cars are dangerous and the public expects them to be caught as soon as possible. We do not want to wait 10 days, and we certainly do not want to wait 42 days for these people to be followed up. We want them to be pursued immediately and caught up with immediately to make sure that they are off the roads as quickly as possible.

This brings me to division 3 of the bill, which I spoke about at the outset, with regard to creating the offence of riding miniaturised motorbikes or, as they are colloquially known, monkey bikes on the roads. I reiterate that I think this part of the bill should stand alone. The circumstances that led to Andrea Lehane's death are certainly tragic, and I think few could think of anything worse than having a mother taken from her young children. I can only imagine the depth of despair that her family and her friends must feel because of the reckless disregard of another person.

Frankly, it makes me feel quite angry, and I am sure members of the community are angry, when I read in the paper how the accused, who had been warned many times about his behaviour on monkey bikes in that area, had ignored the warnings and had fled the scene of the crime. It has been reported in the papers that he has breached his bail conditions eight times and has also not stuck to his imposed curfew. As I said, I cannot imagine how desperately sad Ms Lehane's family and friends must feel, particularly when this sort of reckless behaviour is why this young lady was taken from her family. Of course the opposition supports those provisions and believes that they should be put in place as soon as possible, but the issue seems to be of such magnitude that it should be dealt with through legislation of its own rather than put into this more expansive bill.

Clause 43 goes to the Tullamarine Freeway widening project. This gives us an opportunity to highlight some aspects of the mismanagement of this particular project. It began its life back in 2008 when the then roads minister, now the Treasurer, told Melburnians that they would face up to 18 months of disruption at the end of the project. The Age reported at that time:

Motorists are facing at least 18 months of traffic disruption as work proceeds on the massive upgrade of Melbourne's Monash and West Gate freeways.

Victorian taxpayers will have to foot the bill for a $363 million blow-out in the project, which was initially costed just two years ago at $1 billion …

This shows us very clearly that there was a 36 per cent blow-out in the budgeted costs — from $1 billion to $1.4 billion — before work had even started. Certainly it shows us, as all Victorians know, that Labor has a lot of difficulty in managing major projects.

This project was designed to complement, as was reported back in 2008, the east–west link, which had been foreshadowed in Sir Rod Eddington's John Brumby-commissioned report. It is funny to listen now to those opposite who only have convictions when they are convenient. An article published in the Age of 2 May, 2008 states:

Mr Pallas said that, because the financial return to the community of Sir Rod's proposed road tunnel was not as great as widening the M1, it did not mean the road tunnel was a bad idea.

It is interesting to listen to him in more recent times when he has said the tunnel was a dud, the tunnel did not stack up and the tunnel's contract was not worth the paper it was written on. Some $1.2 billion later it certainly is interesting to see that the Treasurer only a few years ago said that the project was certainly not a bad idea. My, how the world turns! Indeed it is putting politics before infrastructure.

The fact of the matter is the project is somewhat of a traffic nightmare. When we first got this project kicked off last year the headline in the Herald Sun was 'Melbourne motorists facing 546 days of gridlock for Tullamarine Freeway-CityLink widening'. The article states:

Frustrated drivers are giving up and returning home, or even considering quitting their jobs, because of the hours spent in gridlock due to the widening of the Tullamarine Freeway-CityLink corridor.

The article goes on to say:

… project managers concede the pain will increase significantly …

'It's an absolute debacle,' said — one worker.

'I left home at 5.30 a.m. and got to work at 8.40 a.m. I don't think I did more than 5 kilometres per hour for an entire hour. I can't do this for 18 months.'

Indeed she goes on to say that she was seriously contemplating leaving her job because she was not putting up with that for that entire time.

The government really did not do anything to relieve the pressure on motorists and the frustrations that motorists have experienced during that period, which we are still in the middle of. The roads minister ruled out scrapping CityLink tolls for motorists during this period. He also rejected the possibility of adding more train services to the west. Even he conceded that the government had done a very poor job when he said in his comments that some commuters would 'love to literally strangle me'. I am sure that motorists on a daily basis, whether they are stuck on the Tullamarine Freeway, the Eastern Freeway, the South-Eastern Freeway, Hoddle Street or Punt Road, would all feel at many times they would like to literally strangle the minister.

Further to the Road Legislation Further Amendment Bill, I was talking about the chaos the Tulla widening project is in under this government. I think it is worth reiterating the remarks I made just before the lunch break, which were that even the Minister for Roads and Road Safety said that the mess he had created on that particular piece of road would certainly drive commuters to want to literally strangle him. I think he is probably right.

The provision is in clause 43 to correct what appears to be an oversight by the minister to allow for a process to be put in place that should have been put in place some time ago. It also highlights the slow, inefficient and ponderous process for the minister with regard to putting in the appropriate lease arrangements that are needed. They were slated to be done some time ago, and it is amazing that, in addition to the year that has taken, he is flagging with this provision that it could take almost another two years before these particular lease provisions are in place.

I move now to clause 39. There was some confusion with this during the bill briefing, which the member for South-West Coast accompanied me on. We asked the bureaucrats whether any of these charges detailed in clause 39 already had fees attached to them. The answer was quite plain, I would have to say, from that department. From memory, the phrasing was: 'Well, I expect that none of them have, otherwise they would not be in the bill'. Subsequent to that briefing, some days later — in fact not until almost midday on Tuesday this week — I got advice from the minister's office saying that a number of these issues or services detailed in clause 39 actually did have some fees attached to them and that the advice I had been given earlier was wrong. I understand that points (i) and (k) in the new section 95(3F) will have services attached to them that were not previously there. That appears to be what the advice I have says.

On those charges for services I would have to say that unfortunately, generally speaking, VicRoads does not have a great reputation across the state with regard to the services they provide, particularly over-the-counter services. Since I have been in this place and certainly as a consumer, I and other people have certainly experienced service that could have been better, and I think most people would be kind of appalled that they would have to pay for a lot of things that — maybe not just recently, but in the past — were free. These particular charges do not guarantee us any more efficiency, they do not guarantee us any more productivity and they do not guarantee us any more timeliness.

Many, as I said, do complain about the service, and I guess extra charges just add insult to injury. We saw last weekend the Herald Sun reporting that VicRoads would now be slugging Victorians a new charge to:

… pay their registration with a credit card.

As the Herald Sun put it:

Apparently the 0.4 per cent fee will allow the cash-strapped agency to recover $5 million they lose to the nasty banks that process payments.

It is interesting that the Herald Sun is characterising VicRoads as cash-strapped. I am surprised that this government has allowed them to become that. It appears that an agency that deals with the general public, and certainly appears to get a fair amount of money in terms of the budgeted amount that goes to this agency, is cash-strapped. That does not seem too good.

I referred earlier this week in debate on another bill to the press release that the minister put out in 2012, which basically complained about the Baillieu government limiting closing VicRoads hours to 4.30 p.m. and that some weekend hours had been cut down or got rid of. It is interesting, as I said earlier this week, that four years later almost every one of the offices — 38 out of 39 — across Victoria still close at 4.30 p.m. But there are in fact no offices — none of those 39 offices, as I understand it — open at all on weekends, and indeed some of the rural centres are closed for lunch, which would seem to be the time when people in the country would like to go to their VicRoads office.

While there was a lot of talk when the minister was in opposition, it appears he is not so keen now to deliver the sort of services that he asked for when he was in opposition. It is certainly quite hypocritical of him to say that those things were done wrongly but then not fix them when he had the opportunity.

The short of it is that the Liberal and National parties will not be opposing this bill, despite some misgivings that they have, particularly around changes to the Melbourne City Link Act 1995. I am grateful to the Leader of the House that we are going into consideration-in-detail on this bill and I will be able to raise a couple of the issues that I have with the minister later today.

It is worth noting that we have a serious issue around congestion in this city and a really serious issue around safety in country areas. The government made an announcement earlier this week but you would be hard-pressed to know it happened because other issues of the government's own making swamped this $1.8 billion announcement. The scrapping of the public holiday for Christmas Day and the antics of the former Minister for Corrections have certainly overshadowed any announcement that the government wanted to make on this issue.

But the fact of the matter is that the roads targeted by the government in that particular announcement do not extend much past suburban Melbourne. In fact, if you go out to the south-west of Victoria, the members for South-West Coast and Polwarth have been amazingly vocal advocates for money to be spent in their areas on roads. Nationals and Liberal members in the Gippsland area have been talking a lot about the roads in their patch which drastically need work; those roads are particularly unsafe. This bill is not going to do anything to help those roads; it is not going to do anything to help congestion. As I said earlier, whether it is Punt Road, Hoddle Street, the Eastern Freeway, the Monash Freeway or the West Gate Bridge, this bill is not going to help with any of the growing frustration that people feel on a daily basis when they are trying to get to and from work.

Motorists probably will not be comforted by the fact that this government has focused instead on sign placements and overseas licence-holders. The government needs to acknowledge the significant problems we have. We have not heard very much from the government about dealing with the congestion; we may have heard a little bit but we certainly have not seen too much action.

This is a government — and Victorians need to be reminded of this on a daily basis; I do not think they forget but we will continue to remind them — that spent $1.2 billion to scrap a road project that was only going to cost this state $2 billion anyway. They have replaced it with a glorified off-ramp that cost $5.5 billion, which every expert across the board says really will do not much to relieve congestion at all. In fact the Transurban CEO has even said that in the next 10 years this area will be congested anyway.

The government has spent $5.5 billion for a road that is, as I said, really no more than a glorified off-ramp. It is a pale imitation of the western section of the east–west link. It is a lot of money to spend on something that is not going to do all that much good, particularly when there was a very advanced project in place with financing — with a federal contribution and a commercial contribution. The fact that this government scrapped that project and, without a care, threw away $1.2 billion of taxpayers money is quite extraordinary. But with those comments I indicate that the opposition does not oppose the bill. I look forward to raising some of the issues that I have with the bill with the minister during the consideration-in-detail stage.

 


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