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Ryan Smith MP, Member for WARRANDYTE


Road Legislation Amendment Bill 2015

25 November, 2015

I rise to speak on the Road Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 as lead speaker for the opposition. I have to say that the roads portfolio is a huge responsibility for government. Whatever the government of the day, it is a very important portfolio. It requires vision; it requires foresight. It requires significant investment, and it requires the minister of the day to work very closely with the Treasurer to ensure that the funds are available. It requires the minister of the day to work very closely with the planning minister to take into account population growth, and there has to be an acceptance of the population growth. In a city like Melbourne, which is growing by around 100 000 people every year, there needs to be a vision — indeed there needs to be one for the whole of Victoria — when it comes to putting in place a road strategy. In that regard the roads portfolio is extremely important.

If you have this vision and this foresight, then you will have a solution to the congestion on our roads and a solution to the driver frustration that motorists are feeling every day as they drive on Melbourne's streets. Having a good roads policy and a good roads platform is also an integral part of jobs growth in this state. It not only facilitates building jobs but also increases productivity, and that also is a jobs grower. This is particularly relevant in areas such as freight movement. We are seeing more and more people buying things online. We are seeing businesses that need freight shipped back and forth not only to and from our ports but also between states and between the separate businesses, from wholesalers to retailers.

A good roads policy means our tradesmen can get around a lot easier. They can make their call-outs to individual residents or businesses, do the work they need to do and quickly get off to their next job and in this way get as many jobs in the week as they can. In the construction industry, with building materials being moved around the state, a good solid roads policy will help make sure that building materials are moved on site as quickly as they can be.

In that regard, last week I had the pleasure of spending a day with Metropolitan Express Transport Services, and I gained a clear understanding of the frustrations they feel when on our roads. It was a good opportunity to work closely with the drivers, those who load the vehicles and those in the building industry to understand that when they have delays in moving those products to sites it does throw out the timetable considerably. It throws out the timetable that tradesmen may have, and it throws out the timetable for those who are having premises built or extended.

We can see that roads do affect every aspect of our community and every aspect of our lives. Roads affect our trips to work. They affect how difficult it is to drop off and pick up the kids at school. They influence how quickly emergency vehicles can get to where they need to go. There is certainly an overarching need for the government of the day to have a good roads policy.

In Melbourne and in the rest of Victoria there is a really immediate need to get the policy right. There is so much going on at the moment that needs addressing with some urgency and some immediacy. We have the congestion on Hoddle Street and Punt Road that commuters feel every day. Nowadays it does not even matter if you go to that area during the weekend; you are still going to experience a fair bit of congestion, and that is certainly adding to motorists' frustrations.

There is an immediacy and an urgency to the need to building a second river crossing, because we often see accidents or hold-ups on the West Gate Bridge. They grind the traffic to a halt. There is a real need to extend the Eastern Freeway to connect with CityLink in some way, shape or form, and no-one will say there is not a need for that sometime in the future. Indeed when Scott Charlton, the CEO of Transurban, recently fronted the upper house Standing Committee on Economy and Infrastructure, he said that Melbourne is currently facing crippling congestion and that things have to be done to alleviate that as quickly as possible.

There is an immediacy to the need to improve roads in our farming communities, especially in the west of Victoria. I note the member for Lowan recently talked about driving to Casterton and the state of the roads there. Over the past year I have been out to western Victoria, indeed to all parts of country Victoria, and I have seen that there is a need to do so much more with country roads. As the former member for Rodney used to say, if you fix country roads, you save country lives.

Two new members of this house, the members for South-West Coast and Polwarth, both have a mandate to act forcefully to get funding for the roads in the west. It is an issue that their communities raised to a significant degree during the recent by-election, and they have come in here with a mandate to make representations to the government to focus funding in that area.

The government has made certain commitments around some major arterials — Thompsons Road and Yan Yean Road both require urgent works — but there is no real movement in that regard, even though there is a need for that to happen as quickly as possible. There is no funding in the forward estimates for any work at all, beyond some token amounts for planning. That is of concern to those who live in those areas. There is also a need for funding to be found for country roads, which are already suffering from this government's budget cuts.

With so much work to be done and with so many areas that need attention, I am sure Victorians were as excited as I was when they saw the Road Legislation Amendment Bill 2015, which was introduced into the Parliament just a few sitting weeks ago. With a title like that, this bill could have gone anywhere. It could have facilitated urgent road works, it could have legislated new funding models for infrastructure, it could have fast-tracked important congestion-busting projects and infrastructure — it could have gone anywhere. But unfortunately this week the government has presented a bill that does nothing more than tinker at the edges of roads administration. It is the sort of bill that Sir Humphrey Appleby in that famous satire Yes Minister would have been very proud of, dealing as it does with government administration and ensuring that nothing practical happens — ensuring that we do not see any movement towards dealing with congestion or dealing with poor roads in country Victoria.

This bill says very clearly to the people of Victoria that the minister has no agenda, no plans for building roads and is just a mouthpiece for his department. I congratulate the department because it has shown us that the minister has been perfectly house-trained over the past 12 months.

We should acknowledge that the minister has to do something. The Premier has taken all the important things off him. The east–west link cancellation was taken off him. Under his ports portfolio, the sale of the port of Melbourne lease was taken off him, and he really has nothing to do until Transurban finishes writing its plan for the West Gate Freeway super off ramp. He does not have a lot to do, but I guess collectively we should go a little bit easy on him. It is very hard to build roads when your infrastructure budget has been cut by $6 billion and when the Treasurer of the day has turned an operational surplus into a deficit in just 12 months. It is very hard to build any road infrastructure when that is the case.

In considering the bill that has been presented, such as it is, I say that the coalition will not be opposing it. There is no need for us to oppose it; there will not be any rioting in the streets over this. There is no controversy. In talking to some stakeholders about it, I am fairly sure that some of them nodded off. As an opposition, the coalition does not think these matters should be the highest priority for the government after just one year. However, when you have no shovel-ready projects ready to go, you have to keep the Parliament busy in some regard.

The bill is something of a potpourri of measures. It contains over 20 changes to legislation, correcting references and typos and a few other administrative issues. It changes provisions in the Road Safety Act 1986, the Marine (Drug, Alcohol and Pollution Control) Act 1988, the Rail Safety (Local Operations) Act 2006, the Dangerous Goods Act 1985 and the Road Management Act 2004. I will go through the different clauses in the bill so we have a clear idea of what it contains.

Clauses 3 to 5 in part 2, division 1 of the bill, replace the term 'properly qualified analyst' with 'approved laboratory' in the Road Safety Act, when referring to the certification of blood, urine and oral fluid analysis, as well as making related changes to put this into effect. These clauses reflect, and it is reasonable that they do so, that the law should accept that in modern pathology work such as this it will be done not just by one individual but by a laboratory comprising a group of individuals, and when presenting certified results to a court the practical reality that there is more than one person working on these analyses should be reflected. It is important in court cases that all points of evidence should have a high level of procedural integrity, and these provisions go to that. On this side of the house, we care about natural justice, and as part of the briefing process we raised the issue about the rights of the accused to appeal evidence and challenge the chain of evidence in court. I have confirmed that nothing in this bill affects that right or would be detrimental to the fairness of the process.

Further divisions in part 2 of the bill make the same changes but with regard to marine safety and rail safety, amending the relevant acts accordingly. Again this is a reasonable modernisation of the process and we do not oppose it.

Clause 13 in part 3 of the bill makes some additional housekeeping changes to the Road Management Act, but none of these changes give us any insight into the agenda that this government may have on roads policy. For example, clause 13 updates a title from 'surveyor and chief draughtsman in the Office of Title' to 'registrar of titles'. It concerns me that this seems to be the government's priority less than a year into government. It bothers me that the ideas shelf inside the Andrews cabinet is so bare that this is all they have to put to this Parliament.

I am sure that there are communities which are desperate for action. The member for South-West Coast and the member for Polwarth, who have been talking to their constituents about road works, and the member for South Barwon have all had many of their constituents come to them about the state of the roads. I am sure that those residents, as they go down the roads that used to have 100-kilometres-per-hour limits and that are now somewhere around 60 kilometres per hour will be very pleased that the registrar of titles now has his correct title put forward in this bill.

Clause 14 moves a reference from section 17A(1) in the Road Management Act to section 17A(2A). I am sure that is very important.

Clause 15 aligns Australian Bureau of Statistics CPI data with the indexation provisions for the threshold on damages that may be claimed from a road authority below which the authority is not liable. This clause relates to the threshold being linked to changes in the CPI and neatens up the process. I agree that does assist the processes of government, not that I have had many constituents come to my office in Warrandyte with their concerns about the former non-alignment. However, I am sure that it is a very important change which needs to be made.

Clause 17 talks about licensed vehicle testing and again contains more housekeeping changes, this time to the Road Safety Act. But once again these changes do not give us any idea of how the government is planning to make our roads safer or how it will save lives on our roads or what work will be done to improve the infrastructure of Victoria's road network. It does, however, clarify the powers surrounding the process for suspending vehicle testers. The details of this process are set out in the Road Safety (Vehicles) Regulations 2009. Of course everyone wants to ensure that anyone responsible for testing vehicles is doing so correctly and with a high level of integrity, because I think we would all agree that ensuring vehicles are safe is important to all of us.

Again we on this side of the house want to make sure that there is natural justice and decent processes, and I confirmed with the departmental officials during the briefing that there is nothing in this clause that will be detrimental to the application of natural justice in the suspension process, with testers being given a proper and fair chance to respond to any suspension notice before being suspended outright. I think that is a fair thing.

Clause 18 substitutes the phrase 'unsuited to drive' to 'unfit to drive' and makes this provision consistent across legislation and regulation.

Clause 19 adds a list of factors that drivers should be aware of when they are driving — issues such as the physical characteristics of the road, the prevailing weather conditions and the level of visibility. There are a number of factors that drivers need to be aware of as they drive. I am sure that the average motorist is not aware that these factors are written in law. They are largely factors that intuitively they are aware of as they pass their drivers test and jump into their car each day, but of course they need to be in the relevant legislation, and this particular amendment ensures that list is consistent across legislation.

Clause 20 clarifies that an international driving permit is not a licence — a very important distinction again. I am sure motorists sitting on Hoddle Street are very concerned about having that portrayed accurately!

Clause 21 deals with drivers who are 75 years and older. The legislation already allows VicRoads to grant a license for a shorter period than the standard 3 or 10 years. This clause simply adds a provision enabling VicRoads to renew a licence for that shorter period of time as well. This clause is an interesting one. It refers to the effects of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 and, as I said, changes the language in the bill to ensure that it meets the criteria for an exemption under that act, thus allowing drivers 75 years and over to have their licence renewed for a period less than that standard period. Following the briefing process, it is our understanding that this is to ensure that those drivers who are 75 years and over will have opportunities to decide on a more regular basis whether or not it is the right thing to do to renew their licence.

The issue of older drivers is one that our society is certainly going to have to discuss at some point. As our population ages and as life expectancy grows, the question is going to be asked: how do you balance the risk on the roads as capabilities in some cases diminish with age with giving older people the freedom and independence to drive and get out and about? We have had some recent media reports — in the Herald Sun just a few weeks ago — which raised those issues. There was a push from QBE, one of Australia's biggest insurers, calling for S-plates for seniors, and that is a debate we need to have.

With respect to the policy platform of the government, whilst as I said this is a debate we need to have, this bill does not go anywhere at all towards having that debate. It is not an issue the government has raised to any degree. The government is not trying to start a conversation in this area. It is not trying to have a debate. It is not trying to understand the pros and cons of balancing the independence of older drivers with safety issues. This bill simply tidies up some legislative language, and it is disappointing that we have no sign at all of the government's agenda in this area.

I mentioned that the clause refers to the Equal Opportunity Act. It is interesting that this government has prioritised the exemption of elderly drivers from the Equal Opportunity Act. This is the same government that is keen to beat up faith-based organisations with the same act. I find it quite odd that the government is happy to pick and choose where it is going to be righteous about discrimination without waiting for its own review into the act to finish. Given that the government has a process to review the act, these issues should be dealt with once that review is finished.

Clause 23 refers to physical drivers licence and learners permits and makes it law that these permits remain the property of the state. This is already the case with myki cards, as you may be aware, Acting Speaker. This clarification ensures that the state, through VicRoads, has total control over what can be put on these cards, which ensures that offensive photos, in particular, cannot be put on them. In the United States recently some case law has developed relating not to licences but to licence plates. There are issues currently before the courts in Virginia and in Texas through which it has been shown that the licence plate — in this case — should be owned by the state. If that is the case, the power to determine what is and is not printed is much clearer. The government has put forward these amendments to make sure that with respect to licences we have the same provisions by which we can police what is and is not allowed on the licences. I am sure that all of us in this house uphold the right to freedom of expression, but that has to be balanced in society, and we want to avoid a situation where that law needs to be tested in the courts, as it has been previously done and is currently being done in the United States.

Clause 24 makes some changes to provisions that referred to a permit such that they now refer to a learners permit. Again, these are the sorts of changes that frustrated motor vehicle users can be proud of! In relation to clause 25, I note a provision in the current Road Safety Act 1986 gives a person immunity if they report that someone may be unfit to hold a licence. The amending clause will provide for giving immunity also to a person if they report that someone may be unfit to hold a learners permit.

Clause 26 refers to the fact that the courts can currently disqualify someone from holding a drivers licence or learners permit, and it also adds the capability to stop people from getting a learners permit. We want to make sure that those who should not be obtaining a learners permit do not. We certainly support that very important clause.

Clause 28 deals with alcohol interlock removal — the processes around the removal of those interlock devices. Increasingly these devices are becoming commonplace. They are an important part of dealing with drink drivers, certainly with repeat drink drivers, and they keep our roads safer by ensuring that those who are prone to driving while under the influence have their actions policed. It is a great example of using technology to handle some crime, and I am proud that the former government did some good work in this space. In October of last year we put in provisions to make sure that anyone who blows above .07 and is disqualified will get an alcohol interlock. That level — which we moved to .07 — had previously been a lot higher, up at .15. It is very important that we ensure we get those drunk drivers off the road.

The changes in this bill improve the manner in which data is used in determining whether a convicted individual has met the terms of their court order and can have a device removed. Drunk drivers on the roads, however, are a very important issue, and again this bill does not do anything to further the government's agenda in this space. Indeed it leaves us no wiser as to what the government intends to do going forward in this space.

Clause 30 refers to penalties that relate to a driver in an accident and specifies that those penalties can apply to holders of learners permits as well as those with full licences. I am sure that most of those who are getting learners permits are younger people, and it is very important that we make sure those young people have the education they need in order to be well equipped and well prepared for driving on the road. There are some great services out there. In this house I have previously mentioned Road Trauma Support Services, a great organisation which does important work in diversion programs for younger drivers who are doing the wrong thing — largely younger drivers but not always. I have sat in on one of those diversion programs, and they are outstanding. Seeing the young people walk in the door, a little bit cocky after they had been sent by the courts to the division program, I was fairly sceptical.

I wondered what good could be done in the 2 to 21⁄2 hour course that they were sent on, but I have to say that those participants were extremely contrite by the end of that session and had a very clear understanding of what damage they could have done to other people or even to themselves. Certainly they could have paid the ultimate price, and they had a far greater understanding of that by being part of the diversion program.

The government has been largely silent about its approach to younger drivers. Indeed there was a much-hyped election policy of defensive driver training for students. That was revealed in the budget to be an underfunded sham, with the minister during the estimates hearings of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC) denying that it was even a defensive driving course. I quote from the Labor Party's media release of 10 November 2014:

Labor will also enrol every year 10 student in a free defensive driving course …

When questioned in the PAEC hearings by the member for Gippsland South, the Minister for Roads and Road Safety said:

It is not going to be a defensive driving course … So it is definitely not going to be defensive driving.

On the one hand we have got a press release which says Labor is going to give defensive driving courses to young people and on the other hand the minister said to the PAEC that it is not a defensive driving course. I guess we are none the wiser about what actions the government is taking with regard to educating young drivers, but I have it on the minister's word that it is not going to be a defensive driving course.

Clause 31 changes some wording in a provision from 'A person authorised by a police officer to do so may release an impounded motor vehicle at a time directed by a police officer' to 'A person authorised by a police officer to do so may release an impounded or immobilised motor vehicle at a time directed by a police officer'. This is a very important distinction. Again, I am very sure those who are winging their way down to Casterton, as the member for Lowan often does, will be very pleased that those couple of extra words have been put in as a result of clause 31.

Moving down the list of riveting clauses, clause 33 repeals provisions in the Road Safety Act that allows VicRoads to use or disclose information to respond to issues raised in correspondence as it has other means to do so. That particular provision is no longer needed.

Clause 34 helpfully adds a footnote in the Road Safety Act. The next time I am stuck on the West Gate Bridge I am going to be very pleased that there is now a footnote in the Road Safety Act. That is going to be very important, and I am sure many of Melbourne's motorists will agree with that.

Clause 35 is about refusing an application for a learner permit. The legislation currently admits references to the circumstances under which VicRoads is required to refuse an application for a learner permit. This clause rectifies that omission and also replaces 'permit' with 'learner permit'. The Road Safety Act is now going to have the word 'test' changed to 'assessment', which is very good.

There is a typo that clause 38 corrects towards the end of the bill, and it is something I am very pleased about. The minister obviously saved the best until last. This clause amends item 3(e)(i) of schedule 6 to the Road Safety Act 1986. In the act it says 'the the' where it should be just 'the'. I am very pleased that has been tidied up. The minister can be very proud of those amendments.

The opposition will not be opposing the bill. The amendments improve the legislation broadly, if only in a technical manner. Again, I raise my criticism that this housekeeping bill seems to be all the government has to offer in the road space, which is very disappointing. As I said at the outset, we have issues with country roads in the east, in the north and in the west. Traffic congestion continues to increase. We have a number of road announcements with no funding attached to any of them. The one project that the government came to office with, which was apparently fully funded and shovel ready, the West Gate distributor, has gone off into the ether.

We have had $855 million of taxpayers money thrown away to remove a contract that would have put in significant road infrastructure that everyone — every road stakeholder and every road user — thinks is important and is necessary to be in place. As I said, the CEO of Transurban has said that the east–west link or something similar will be needed within the next 10 to 15 years. These are the same guys who are currently writing policy for the government, as we speak.

As part of the debate I am sure government members will come in and opine that there are some great social reforms happening in the road space with this legislation and that these changes are very important to the future of Victorian motorists. It is certainly an ongoing trend that the government is filling up the parliamentary agenda with administrative bills and is filling the speakers list, and I will watch with interest as the departmental blue folder gets passed from Labor member to Labor member as they desperately try to fill the speakers list on a bill that really is nothing more than some administrative changes. I am sure a few members opposite know in their hearts that they are just propping up a government that is obsessed by the trivial and that the government lacks any sort of agenda in this space. I am sure also that motorists are very keen to see these administrative changes, as typos are corrected and certain titles have been changed.

We all know on this side of house, and indeed Victorian motorists also know, that these administrative changes are really all that the government has got to offer after one year in office. Not one shovel has hit the earth when it comes to actually building anything and this has come off the back of a very important nationally led piece of legislation about how we measure weights on trucks and how we manage fatigue for drivers of smaller transport vehicles. There were a lot of promises and a lot of commitments made. There was a lot of funding committed, but, as I said, if you cut $6 billion from the budget and you turn an operational surplus into a deficit after only 12 months, then I guess you cannot be expected to have the ability to deliver the road projects that Victoria needs. The government is bereft of ideas. It is bereft of the ability to build any road infrastructure. Melbourne motorists know it. They feel the frustration of this government's inactivity every single day.

Authorised by Ryan Smith MP, Suite 2, 1020 Doncaster Road, Doncaster East, VIC 3109 | © Ryan Smith MP 2014
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