Scott Morrison’s big on cultivating the image of an ordinary bloke who’d prefer to be at the barbie or mowing the lawn and keeping out of trouble with the wife but mate, when it comes to transport policy, he’s at one with the sneering, inner-city kombucha-sippers.

In 2016 Malcolm Turnbull took the unusual step for any Australian government of not rejecting road pricing out of hand. Instead, in the wake of an Infrastructure Australia report urging it, Turnbull and his cities minister Paul Fletcher decided they’d have an independent study done of road pricing, under which better options for charging motorists the costs of their infrastructure use, including congestion, would be considered.

Problem is, decide is all they did. “The Turnbull Government has signalled some reform directions in relation to road funding,” Fletcher said at the end of 2017, more than a year after “deciding”. “One of those directions is to appoint an eminent Australian to carry out a study into options for direct road user charging for light vehicles — and we will have more to say in coming months about that study.”

Road pricing is a no brainer. Currently, we have a Soviet-style queueing system for road use during peak hour — we just line up like Russians at an empty bread shop, waiting for a chance to use the meagre road space on offer along with thousands of others. As we know from basic lived experience, putting a price on a product dramatically improves its availability and efficiency. We’ve long had road pricing for heavy vehicles, based on calculations reflecting fuel use from axle weight.

But for the rest of us, the only price signal is the fuel price, which responds to international fluctuations, not congestion or the costs of infrastructure. Economists and people overseas have known this for decades but we’ve been content to sit and watch the costs of congestion head toward $20 billion a year while sitting in our cars complaining that governments don’t build enough roads.

Then along came electric cars, creating the prospect of a whole section of the public who don’t pay any fuel excise at all. This brought into sharp relief a long-term problem with current arrangements: if you drive a new car, your fuel efficiency is dramatically greater than someone driving a 2003 Commodore, so you’re paying far less excise. But the person driving it is probably on a significantly lower income than you. So our current “road pricing” system is not merely Soviet, it’s regressive.

Tesla drivers are only the most dramatic example of this — if you’re the kind of wealthy inner city elite who likes the idea of buying an electric car, you will pay rego but otherwise be opting out of paying any fuel excise. Meanwhile, ScoMo’s mates at his suburban barbie are all paying through the nose at the bowser to keep their cars running.

The inquiry Turnbull and Fletcher “decided” would have tackled this. The means of bringing Tesla and hybrid drivers and buyers of coming generations of high fuel efficiency vehicles into the road pricing system would have been addressed, almost certainly with an extension of e-tolling to all urban areas.

But it’s not to be. Morrison and Transport minister Michael McCormack abandoned the promised inquiry. Undecided it, as it were. They’re too scared it might upset motorists. Or, at least, News Corp. Back in 2011, the Telegraph’s Gemma Jones blew up over the mention of road pricing in a paper that had nothing to do with the Gillard government, claiming Labor and the Greens were about to hit motorists with extra charges. You wouldn’t pick it, but when the Turnbull government decided to actually have an inquiry into road pricing, no one said boo. But that’s just your usual partisan double standards in Rupertville.

The abandonment of the inquiry means any solution to the road pricing problem will be delayed for years. Meantime, more and more kombucha-sipping, Tesla-toting inner-city types will opt out of the fuel excise system. They can thank ScoMo. Maaaaate.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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