Thursday, 26 November 2020

How states should respond to critics of Australian state EV tax proposals

You couldn't be blamed for looking at the media coverage of the proposal to introduce distance based road user charging (RUC) on electric vehicles in three Australian states and think it was a crazy idea.  There is far more attention been paid to the utterances of the Electric Vehicle Council and a number of motoring related publications, compared to what has been said by Ministers or the relevant Departments.

There is a pretty clear reason for that.

Neither the Ministers nor the departments responsible for leading the communications on the proposals have done enough to follow the number one lesson in advancing road pricing, road user charging or indeed any proposal to introduce direct user charging on existing roads - dominate the narrative.

This lesson was learned in a different, but related endeavour in this field. London Congestion Charging.  Sure, Australia isn't London, and charging EVs for all road use is not the same as congestion charging in a small inner city area.  It's MUCH harder.

Only 55% of households in London have a car (or access to someone else's car).  In Australia it is 91%.  Yes the number of EVs is very small, but charging for all road distance 24/7 is quite different from charging to use a small area of roads at specific times. Moreover, Ken Livingstone got elected on a manifesto that included congestion charging, none of the State Governments proposed RUC for EVs. That doesn't mean everything a government does needs to be in a manifesto, but it certainly makes it easier, and even though <1% of car trips in London enter the congestion charging zone, it was still a proposal that barely got majority support.  

Charging EVs in Australia is much more difficult if you don't take the lesson from London Congestion Charging - lead the narrative. At the moment the narrative is being led by a lobby that regards the proposal as an attack on its constituency and by populist fear of the unknown, and that's because, with the exception of Victoria, the proposals have been too vague and the purpose poorly construed. That's because the introduction of RUC for EVs is a long-term strategic move to avoid the "sinking ship" of fuel excise revenues over time and for the states to get revenue from EVs that would otherwise be collected by the Commonwealth (if EVs were petrol or diesel powered vehicles). 

Yet unsurprisingly, the lesson time and time again from the experience of US states that have introduced RUC (Oregon, Utah) and those that have trialled it (Hawaii, California, Washington State) is that the public simply doesn't care about government revenues. Most people see incomes tax, GST, local authority rates, stamp duty occasionally and other taxes as just being there and given most aspects of government tend to work from time to time (and government is often reported as having wasted money or mismanaged it), there is a great deal of cynicism about higher taxes or new taxes. Right from the start, the idea that electric vehicles should pay a "tax" is the wrong idea.

A "tax" is just a way of penalising an activity that collects money for government.  It isn't seen as a "user charge" or "fee" for a service given.  As fuel excise is exactly that, and none of the money is hypothecated, it is even more difficult to sell the idea of an EV tax based on distance. So it SHOULD be called a user charge, and although critics would call it a tax, the reason to call it a user charge is to differentiate it, and to show it is a start of a wider reform, designed to benefit road users.

A road user charge could be defined as changing that relationship between road users and road providers, and as a first step towards including hybrid vehicles as well, so that over time decisions on spending on roads within states are more controlled by states (and territories).

The narrative should not be about a revenue problem, but about moving away from a model whereby there is no transparency in money going from road users to the roads, to one that has a closer relationship.  This is already the narrative around supply-side reforms for heavy vehicles in Heavy Vehicle Road Reform at the Commonwealth level. These reforms have widespread support in the heavy vehicle user sector, and there would be considerable advantages in bringing this together with electric and hybrid light vehicles as well, so that rate setting, use of revenues and planning for investment are linked with user preferences.

Moreover, don't let opponents and the less well informed lead the narrative. If you don't fill the gaps in information, they will, and you will lose the argument.  This already looks like what has started to happen in South Australia.

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