Second Reading Debate – Transport Legislation Amendment (Better Roads Victoria and Other Amendments) Bill 2018

It gives me pleasure to rise today as the lead speaker for the Liberal-Nationals on the debate of the Transport Legislation Amendment (Better Roads Victoria and Other Amendments) Bill 2018. Whilst this is the first time I have been a lead speaker on any bill as the new shadow minister it is not my first time speaking on the subject of roads issues. In fact over the last three years it has been a very intense topic of discussion because the south-west coast does have the worst roads in the state.

The bill that is before the house today is an omnibus bill and introduces a number of sensible if not overdue amendments, which we support. These include the amendment to in the Road Safety Act 1986 which seeks to transfer greater responsibility for the administration of alcohol interlock devices to VicRoads, thereby easing pressure off court resources—clearly a sensible decision when this will take 5000 matters out of the Magistrates Court that are currently being done which are really of an administrative nature. That is a good thing, because the pressure on courts is certainly getting greater as we have more and more people coming into Victoria and rising crime rates.

Any issue that I had with respect to this amendment was clarified for me when I received a briefing from the department, which I am very grateful for, and I thank them for that. Whilst the interlock devices will be moved to the VicRoads office as a result of this change to the law, it will not take out of the court system more serious offences. In fact this law will change the fact that people who do serious offences whilst under the influence of alcohol would have once been convicted of that serious offence, such as causing serious harm or injury to people, and would have actually gone without an interlock system. Now that will be part of this legislative change as well.

The bill also proposes minor amendments to the Heavy Vehicle National Law Application Act 2013 and addresses some fatigue issues; to the Commercial Passenger Vehicle Industry Act 2017 provisions for disciplinary actions for permission holders; and to the Transport Integration Act 2010, and this is basically about streamlining the transactions of land transfers between departments. This is a good thing because it reduces costs and improves efficiency, which is something I am always very pleased to see the government working towards, because that obviously means improved savings. The Transport (Compliance and Miscellaneous) Act of 1983 is also in the bill, and among other things this actually clarifies some compensation issues for train drivers who are exposed to trauma incidents and now includes others in the cabin who may be witnesses to these traumatic events.

We move to support these amendments as they do reduce red tape and streamline transport authority activities. I do make note that this bill does mirror the bill that was introduced in the 58th Parliament; however, it did not make its way through the process and was not debated in the Legislative Council. But where the bill actually fails is in the amendment to the Business Franchise (Petroleum Products) Act 1979 in relation to the Better Roads Victoria trust account, where I feel it is quite inadequate. The bill proposes to direct revenue from traffic infringements into the Better Roads Victoria trust account to fund road maintenance and upgrades in Melbourne’s outer suburban interface communities and throughout regional Victoria. The bill proposes that 33 per cent be devoted to the regional roads area and 33 per cent to the outer suburban or interface areas, as they are called. The remainder is to be used to repair and upgrade roads and level crossings anywhere in the state.

I think this amendment falls short because there is no guarantee of long-term infrastructure funding, as it is reasonable to assume that funding from this source will actually dwindle as vehicles become increasingly automated. There is likely to be a reduction in traffic infringements because of the automation aspect. The government just recently made announcements—a few weeks ago—about a trial around automated vehicles, so they are acutely aware of the industry working towards automation. I certainly am finding, as I go around doing my due diligence and finding out more about the shadow portfolios of ports, freight and rural roads—that this is the direction the industry is heading in.

So clearly there will be an impact on the Better Roads Victoria Trust Account, and that needs to be addressed. There is actually no point, if we cannot be confident of funds being available, to legislate to have them quarantined. I suggest that makes 33 per cent, which I actually think should be 40 per cent, completely inadequate to fund the huge amount of work that we have to fix the roads, while being mindful of the fact that there may be some dwindling of these funds. I propose that the Liberal-Nationals move a reasoned amendment to the second-reading speech and I ask that it be circulated now. I move:

That all the words after ‘That’ be omitted and replaced with the words ‘this bill be withdrawn and redrafted to provide for an increase in the guaranteed level of funding for rural, regional, outer suburban and interface communities from Better Roads Victoria funding and to ensure that such funding is not reduced over time by a reduction in the total funding pool’.

Why do I think that 33 per cent will not cut it? Clearly our roads are bad. But do not take my word for it. Independent analysis found that roads in the south-west, for example, are the worst roads in the state. The RACV has calculated that roads in the south-west have about 600 kilometres of distressed roads that will cost about $486 million to repair. That means that over one term of government $120 million a year will be needed to fix distressed roads in south-western Victoria alone.

In a report by the Auditor-General in which he looked at the state of rural roads, released just a little over a year ago in 2017, he found that the Andrews Labor government severely lacked in ability. He found the government lacked strategy. The systems in place to determine how to spend money to get the best return for taxpayers money to manage road assets were either non-existent or, if there was a system in place, the systems were unable to talk to each other across the state and therefore lacked any way of properly determining where money was actually best spent. This smacks of damning evidence that this government cannot manage roads and its actual management system is shambolic. Notably the Auditor-General’s report found that the government mandates—and this is something that I wanted to point out early in my contribution—that one of the tests for the safety of roads called skid resistance is carried out every three years. But in the report the Auditor-General is very clear and states that it does not happen. So the government cannot even carry out its own mandated requirements.

The government’s response to road pavement maintenance is reactive and is certainly not optimised. Maintenance is carried out when it is critical, and there is a policy of worst first. This constitutes a really costly approach that is less desirable than prevention and early intervention approaches. So exactly how costly is this? To rehabilitate a road costs taxpayers between $70 and $175 per square metre. But to routinely maintain a road only costs $3 per square metre. Hence this is why it is so distressing to find that $1 billion is being put into a system that chooses to use an approach which costs $70 to $175, rather than using a maintenance approach which costs $3. This is simply unbelievable. Why does this happen? It is because the minister cannot get the department to stop, take stock of its approach and its systems and stop wasting people’s money. Why is that? I do not know. The minister is the boss of the department. The buck stops with the boss. And guess what: that is the minister.

Any business operator will tell you that it is basic business practice to manage your assets in a way that maintenance is strategically done and asset replacement is planned and managed. In my 20 years of managing a business, we completely had to have a handle on what the life span of an asset was and replace it accordingly. For example, on a farm, pasture has about a 10-year life span and you need to replace 10 per cent of your pasture every year on a rotational management grazing process. Surely you should see that same sort of practice in departments, but we are not seeing that. The Auditor-General was quite clear. He reported that there is no system for management of our country roads. I am told by VicRoads’ people that 5 per cent of Victorian roads need to be renovated per annum for the asset to be managed effectively. And yet it is no surprise that we are not seeing that. In fact they say it is around 2 to 3 per cent, so it is woefully lower than it should be. No wonder we are not able to have faith that our roads are functional and are being maintained at a rate that is safe.

This is such a lack of management capability, and that is one of the government’s problems. The second problem, though, are the funds themselves. It is a double-edged sword, however, because the government are saying that they are putting $1 billion into country roads over the next four years. They say they did that in the last four years, so it is no surprise that we are seeing that roads are not up to standard. They are throwing money away by using it very poorly. If you are going to go back and fix the same thing over and over again, it is no wonder that there is no advancement in the condition of the assets. There is no way that any business could survive if they used this approach. But when it is someone else’s money, like it is in this case, Labor do not seem to care. The Labor government are clearly using a flawed approach, but it is taxpayers money so I assume they are comfortable that there is plenty more where that came from, given we saw them raise taxes 12 times in the last four years after saying that they would never raise taxes. The Premier was explicit in saying he would not raise any taxes. He promised that to the Victorian people, but what did we see? Twelve taxes. We expect we will see more of this because that money is certainly not being used effectively on our roads under this government’s guidance.

The other thing this government seems to be doing more of is using a technique of managing roads by just slowing people down. Again, to run a successful business this is exactly the opposite of what you need to do. You need to keep efficiencies and productivity up, and slowing people down does not help productivity. I see them stick up ‘slow down’ signs wherever I go. On the Princes Highway we are seeing open stretches at 60 and 80 kilometres per hour, even down as low as 40 kilometres per hour in south-western Victoria. On the Woolsthorpe-Heywood Road, a major truck route, traffic is slowed down to 80 kilometres per hour. It smacks of an incredibly poor understanding of productivity.

Again, why won’t 33 per cent cut it? Well, our roads are no longer fit for purpose and they are crippling industry.

Unless the minister gets a hold of the problem within her portfolio, we will be missing out as a state. The opportunities that are able to be captured for agriculture alone are staggering on a global scale. Our food and fibre industries will be able to contribute enormous amounts to state coffers if we harness this opportunity. With 19 000 kilometres of major rural roads and more than 4000 bridges across country roads, there are only going to be more problems if change does not come soon. There are significant parts of the network that need some renewal, and if we want industry and the general population to be kept moving safely and efficiently, then change is what we need.

Businesses in my own backyard are suffering the effects of our appalling road pavements. There are still issues in the Glenelg shire around the Portland area, which is actually Victoria’s second-busiest port. The RACV manager of roads and traffic, Dave Jones, said that it is a real hurdle for a region that creates 10 per cent of Victoria’s total gross domestic product. Brian Williamson, managing director of freight operator Porthaul, said that the roads had deteriorated into such a terrible state that the company has been spending an extra $100 000 or more on repairing damage to the 60 trucks caused by poor roads around Portland:

They’re half-million-dollar rigs and we were spending money on them while they were still fairly new, repairing parts that should not be breaking: spring hangers, king pins.

Just last Saturday in the local Standard newspaper in Warrnambool Graham Ryan of Ryans transports, Mike Steel from Bamstone and Glenn Owen from Owen Truss were talking about how their products are getting damaged. You have heard me say in this place before that Mike Steel, who runs a bluestone company, says his pavers are turning up to jobs fractured and broken. That says a lot when the road is responsible for doing damage to a bluestone pitcher. Graham Ryan and I have had many conversations about Ryans transports—it moves people all over the world, Ryans transports does—and what he tells me is that if he ran his work yard the way the government runs the roads, he would be absolutely in trouble with WorkSafe, because the damage to the roads is putting his drivers at risk. If it was in his workplace that he had potholes like that and somebody was hurt, this would be akin to a WorkCover issue. I have had that conversation with Graham many times about this double standard that is expected by this government compared with business owners. And he is right—he is basically saying that he is worried about his drivers and that our roads are unsafe.

People on rural roads are dying at almost four times the rate of people using city roads. They are killed because our roads are not up to standard. That is 2500 people who will die in the next 10 years on country roads. This is an even more staggering figure: 50 000 people will be hospitalised with serious and life-changing injuries as a result of our roads. I am going to repeat that: that is 2500 Victorians, country Victorians, who will die on our roads in the next 10 years because our roads are not getting the attention they deserve and 50 000 people who will have life-changing injuries. That affects their families. That is people affected with life-changing injuries. Rural people are consistently telling me that their roads are important but very unsafe—96 per cent of people who responded to a survey said roads are important and unsafe. Another part of the RACV review said 10 per cent of roads in south-west Victoria are poor or very poor. That is alarming when you consider that our region is the state’s biggest agricultural producer. This points to a lack of understanding of the correlation between producing products, being able to compete in the world and producing taxes to get Victoria moving faster and safer and to help our roads.

But back to business and how our roads are reducing productivity and reducing the competitiveness of our state—do not take my word for it; here again is what the RACV said:

Rural businesses have had it with the state of country roads in Victoria …

So, again, why are we, the Liberal-Nationals, believing a reasoned amendment is necessary for this bill? Well, our road network is suffering as a result of decreased and insufficient funding. The Victorian Auditor-General says that state funding of the road network is insufficient and funding has actually decreased, particularly in the area of maintenance, by 41 per cent. That coupled with the mismanagement of funds—effectively having a government chasing its tail—is just never going to work. We see all the time this government’s inability to run the state as a business and to run projects, whether it is due to cost overruns, consistent overspending or, as I am pointing out, mismanagement of the funds they have. These funds are actually not indexed, so funding has not kept pace with road construction, has not kept pace with maintenance needs and has not kept pace with the cost of building roads and bridges.

This is the part that I found very, very disturbing when I read it. According to economic forecasting, at the current level of investment we are seeing right now and have seen for the last four years road deterioration will continue to the extent that 50 per cent of the road network will be in poor condition by 2025. That is only six years from now. I am going to repeat that: 50 per cent of our roads in poor condition. That is alarming. Six years—I know how fast I find six years goes. So it is absolutely clear that the government’s haphazard, reactive approach to road maintenance is costly and ineffective.

Another issue that my colleagues and I constantly have brought into our electorate offices is that roads are falling apart within weeks of having been repaired. Beside me sits the member for Lowan, who just last week raised in this place an issue about an intersection that had been repaired and had just fallen apart. In my electorate there is the Myamyn-Macarthur Road, a road that the community had campaigned for years and years to have done. In the first three months, with the first rainfall we saw, the blocked drains left water sitting on the road and potholes were created on that beautiful new construction site that had just been finished three months earlier. It was an absolute disgrace, and didn’t the community go berserk about that—and rightfully so.

The government bill succeeds in cutting some red tape and tidying things up a bit, but what it raises is the question of Regional Roads Victoria’s effectiveness. Basically I think what we want to see as members of this side of the house is whether they are taking these recommendations the Victorian Auditor-General has put forward about how shambolic the system is and actually looking at how the system can be better run, because all I am seeing out in the country are billboards and ads on the radio telling us that Regional Roads Victoria is doing a great job fixing roads. The evidence is not on the table just yet so far as I can see.

Let us start pushing government to get their management systems in order because, according to the Auditor-General once again, there is actually inadequate data collection. How can you manage a system if you do not know what is wrong with it? Deterioration factors are not monitored. There are actually 10 key road deterioration factors that you use to assess a road, but the government are not even using four of these factors to do their assessment.

Issues relating to data collection and consolidation use are really widespread in the department. It is just amazing to read about if you have a good read of this report, and I urge you to do so. There are disparate systems and databases in use, so that means regional offices recording data in separate spreadsheets cannot actually compare it with other areas because there is no centralised road assessment system. Data concerning our regional and rural roads is not validated through a central system, which might trigger further assessments and repairs. Alarmingly—and this one really is quite alarming—there is no overall governance policy existing around data collection. Also, maintenance reporting is not mandated. What we have found is reporting only reflects planned work rather than all work which has been carried out, so when the government does manage to collect the relevant data, it is unable to make proper use of it because existing databases are not integrated to enable network-wide evaluation. The government does not have the capacity to consolidate and review information about our road network. Consequently, statewide decision-making is not driven by important factors such as the condition of the road itself and the condition of the road pavement.

Rural data is out of date. The government are only inspecting rural roads every 12 months, yet freeways are inspected much more often. This means data upon which decisions are based can be a full year out of date, and this is particularly concerning in areas which have been ravaged by floods or other extreme weather events. Just two days ago, in the Wangaratta Chronicle, we saw an article about how the community there are saying, ‘We need help with getting our road fixed’. We all remember the story last year when floods hit that area. Well, those roads are being left with no repairs because there is no system—and they are not in that system because it does not exist—to get those roads fixed. Moreover, the government is not able to access historical data regarding past maintenance issues, and this creates very real problems when trying to plan a maintenance program for the following year.

One other issue that really distressed me when I was doing my research into this bill and working out whether it was adequate is that contractor monitoring and compliance issues are really poorly managed by government and there is confusion and a lack of understanding that relates not just to the condition of our roads; it actually relates to the way the government understands and evaluates contractors employed to fix them. Contractor performance is not accurately measured because the government—surprise, surprise—does not oversee things centrally. Timeliness and quality of work are assessed regionally, albeit by numerous contract arrangements and monitoring systems—no benchmarking—but cost effectiveness and quality are not assessed at all. Unbelievable! I do not know if anyone else has run a business here but if that was how I ran my business, I would have gone broke years ago—in fact, I do not reckon I would even have gotten it off the ground. Consequently, the government is unable to evaluate, compare or benchmark performance at a regional or statewide level.

There is also the potential for conflicts of interest—and I have had many people in my office who know the VicRoads system quite well talk to me about this, but this is out of the Auditor-General’s report, so this is not hearsay. This is after investigation and research. Historically, road contractors have also been employed as road inspectors, so the person who is fixing it inspects what they have fixed. Contractors have been subject to performance ratings, and as a consequence they frequently only register hazards and defects that they can address confidently, so they are not actually doing the whole works; it is only what is easy.

There is a conflict of interest here, and that is what I am trying to point out. How can you assess a problem that you design the solution for and provide the tender for? How can you be objective on that job? Of course if you think you can get away with as little material as you possibly can use, then that is what you will put forward. If nobody is actually monitoring, which is again what the report points out—no-one is monitoring the work that is being done, no-one is testing whether it is 30 centimetres or 60 centimetres of rubble that has been put down—how can we understand if the government is getting a good return on investment if there is actually no way of monitoring the system?

I will conclude by saying that the bill does not go far enough towards fixing our state’s dangerous road network, and it is clearly not a priority for this government. The government keeps delaying this bill, and that is what I said earlier. It has been through the house, and the government put out some terrific press releases last year—they would rather grandstand than find real solutions. The postponement of this bill did not stop the former minister putting out a media release on 9 August last year, under the headline ‘$2 billion guaranteed to fix country and suburban roads’.

Mr R Smith interjected.

Ms BRITNELL: The point that my colleague beside me makes is that this was first discussed in 2015, and it is now 2019—four years on. Perhaps the minister in the past should have put a little disclaimer in that press release saying, ‘You’ll only get it if we pass it through Parliament’. He certainly did not put it in the fast-track basket to get it through at all.

Roads are important, even when you pass the tram lines of the city. Rural people do matter and our lives and safety matter too. Our industries matter and are stifled by underinvestment in our roads. The passage of freight is slowed and its safe arrival is jeopardised. Businesses wear these increases and, when the roads are poor, the maintenance costs to their businesses. This means there are less likely to be products that we are producing that are wanted overseas or domestically because they are damaged. This means that taxes for Victoria that could be put into hospitals, more roads or more schools are being compromised. Shoddy road patch-up jobs are simply not the answer. They put people at risk and they end up costing more in the long run. Effective road management is essential so we can plan, review and resource roads appropriately. Let us straighten out the tender process.

Government, come on, do your job: run the state like a business. Do what normal businesses do: use practices that are really quite standard—yes, absolutely.

Mr Pearson: It is not a business.

Ms BRITNELL: The running of a contract is what we do in business—and it is what you do in government. Straighten out your tender practice so the taxpayer is confident that the road that is getting built meets specification because you have been monitoring—part of basic work practice—and is independently assessed and that there is actually a good return on investment.

That is just what any business that is commissioning any work would do, and the state has a similar responsibility.

Members interjecting.

Ms BRITNELL: I cannot believe you think that is not appropriate. This bill offers rural roads and rural people a tokenistic, inadequate and potentially dwindling source of funding. It fixes some issues relating to red tape and administration, but it does not fix or even address the larger and more serious issues at play here. The government has mismanaged our roads because the system used is shambolic. It is a mess, and you know it. The safety of rural people and the survival of the industries upon which we all rely is vital to Victoria. I urge the government to seriously consider our reasoned amendment because our roads are vital to getting product to market, to getting kids to school safely, to getting families home after school, to getting dads home from work and to getting mums into the workplace and out to pick up the kids. Come on, these are the activities that we need to do safely on our roads, and we are losing. Do you remember the statistics? I do not know if you could possibly forget them—2500 people in the next 10 years will be killed on our rural roads, but 50 000 people will suffer life-changing injuries. They will be left dealing with the fact that the road they were travelling on left them maimed for life.

Bus drivers come into my office and say, ‘I really don’t know if I can take on this responsibility any longer. Those 30 kids on the bus—I’m just really not coping with the fact that that responsibility is too great for me because our roads will not cope for much longer. I am not sure I’m going to take this responsibility on any longer’. I have had constituents in my office say that. I know the member for Lowan has heard that in her office because we have discussed this. I urge the government to seriously consider our reasoned amendment, to get back to the drawing board with this and to at least give us a fighting chance of getting our roads in the country, the city and the interface areas—some of which are growing like the Mitchell area—back into shape. Let us keep our families moving; let us keep our industries growing. The state of Victoria and the state of our roads are something we should be investing in and moving very much forward with, not backwards.

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