Ken’s muddle-headed car tax will hit Labor’s Sydney seats
Treasury secretary Ken Henry should spend less time hanging around with hairy-nosed wombats and more time talking to working families in suburban Sydney.
That’s not to bag wombats, especially hairy-nosed ones. Nor to question the right of anyone to take a holiday, and to do what they like with their leave.
As Dr Henry said last year amid criticism of his five-week wombat-rescuing odyssey into Queensland’s far-flung Epping Forest National Park, there are 10 times as many pandas in China as there are hairy-nosed wombats in Australia.
These wombats are endangered.
But they’re only marginally more endangered than the average family budget will be - nowhere more so than in Sydney - if Ken Henry holds sway with his muddle-headed proposal for new road taxes and congestion taxes to discourage people from their reliance on cars.
And if it’s good enough for the bloke who oversees the nation’s finances to spend 35 days crawling through wombat holes, the least he could do is come out of his burrow in Canberra and spend maybe a week in Castle Hill, Campbelltown, Liverpool, the Northern Beaches and the Shire to discover just why Sydney has no choice but to drive - and is already paying through its own hairy nose to do so.
In releasing his tax blueprint last week, Dr Henry said he wanted to encourage lateral thought and creativity about how Australia generates tax revenue. He said it could be possible to make our big cities less brutal and more liveable by embracing innovative reform. He said that he wanted to encourage debate, which can only be a good thing.
But as part of that debate, I’d humbly counter that when it comes to Sydney, don’t even think about it, as it is much too late to overlay some conceptual framework inspired by boutique towns such as Copenhagen or Portland on a mess of a joint like Sydney.
A few key points here which, sincerely, would be beyond Mr Henry’s grasp because he spends no time living here:
- Sydney residents are already paying more than they should for road services which were once run by government, but have been shamefully gifted to one of the greediest parts of the private sector, toll operators, which as The Sunday Telegraph established last week have consistently increased user charges above the rate of inflation. These tolls have the same effect as taxation, except they save the government from spending money on a service, and (excessively) reimburse the private sector for doing so.
- As Four Corners demonstrated two weeks ago in its commendable potted history of this city’s transport woes, thousands of Sydneysiders live in suburbs which are not serviced by viable public transport at all. As infrastructure fails to keep pace with urban sprawl, working people are left with no choice but to drive - and generally, to pay more than they should for the privilege.
- The areas that are served by public transport are marred by over-crowding, untidiness and, on a number of routes, unreliability. Using the tax system to force more people onto buses and trains which are at breaking point (or just broken) would only make things worse.
- As The Daily Telegraph established on Monday, the State Government does not have a single co-ordinated plan to address the seemingly permanent hotspots which plague the basin. Two cases in point: the current desecration of Iron Cove to let motorists spend about seven seconds going like the clappers on a double-span bridge (before returning to gridlock) and the utter chaos being perpetrated with the interminable widening of the M5 around Campbelltown and Hoxton Park.
Unless Dr Henry is trying to find ways of generating less tax revenue - unlikely I would have thought in his line of work - his ruminations about road and congestion taxes can have only one result in Sydney.
That is, to charge people more for using cars which they are forced to use by the absence or inadequacy of public transport.
(That’s not to labour the other little point that, unless you’re an inner-west vegan with no kids and a love of light rail, the only way to get to the school and daycare and the shops and soccer practice and home again to get dinner on is with a nice big station wagon.)
Dr Henry obviously has a national role and much of what he says could apply in less congested and more functional parts of Australia, certainly in my old home town such as Adelaide, where the city is served by a more reliable transport service, where cycling is a less suicidal option than in Sydney, where the whole place is much, much smaller.
It’s surprising that no-one in the Rudd Government has ruled out his transport tax talk. You’d have to think that Sydney hardheads such as Anthony Albanese and Mark Arbib, the instinct politicians who have Sydney in their DNA, will take Rudd and Swan aside at some point and discreetly advise them to ice this part of the Henry plan.
It is difficult to envision a more direct attack on the million-odd people who read this newspaper every day.
The people who will suffer the most under the models Dr Henry canvassed are tradies in white vans, men and women who run small businesses, and suburban and outer suburban families - that is, about 95 per cent of the readership of The Telegraph.
These are hard-working people who already pay far too much money to use toll roads which the city has been re-designed to funnel them into, by a hapless RTA at the behest of a criminally incompetent state government.
All of it to line the pockets of privately-run companies such as Macquarie Bank which, this year, to avoid any fallout from the lingering backdraft of the GFC, are forcing guests to their lavish Christmas parties to agree to keep the details confidential, lest they suffer any public wrath at seeing just how much of your daily road toll can be pissed up against a wall, a nice glassed wall with harbour views, at a lavish five-hour swim-through somewhere down at the Quay.
Sorry Ken, but a one-off save the wombat levy would be better received in this city where we’re already paying too much to drive to and from work at roughly the same speed as your hairy-nosed friends.
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