Second Reading: Road Safety Amendment (private car parks) Bill 2015

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — I rise to speak on the Road Safety Amendment (Private Car Parks) Bill 2015, and what a good, common-sense reform it is. You know that something is a good, common-sense reform in this house when the Greens were the first to champion it.

It was the Leader of the Greens, a member for Northern Metropolitan Region in the other place, Greg Barber, who raised this issue in September 2013. He held a press conference in Brunswick's Barclay Street car park, with Gerard Brody, CEO of the Consumer Action Law Centre, and spoke about private car park operators who are basically scamming people by issuing fake parking ticket notices that look like real parking tickets, and then using the courts to track down people by accessing the VicRoads' car registration database if they do not pay. They then start harassing people directly for exorbitant sums of money.

The Consumer Action Law Centre brought this situation to the attention of the then government even earlier. In April 2012 the Supreme Court of Victoria found that one car park operator had engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct after that person had issued a payment notice that was designed to deliberately mislead consumers into thinking that the car park operator had a connection to official authorities. Members of the Greens announced that they were going to act in Parliament in late 2013 to amend the Road Legislation Amendment (Use and Disclosure of Information and other Matters) Bill 2013, and of course, not ones to pass up adopting a good Greens policy, the Labor Party circulated an identical amendment. Unfortunately it was to no avail because the then Liberal-Nationals government voted down that amendment, against the interests of consumers.

Some of these car parks have very enticing 'first hour free' or 'first 3 hours free' signs displayed, and then if you overstay in one of these car parks, or even appear to overstay — —

An honourable member — Do you own a car?

Mr HIBBINS — I do. I have a trustworthy blue Holden Vectra. I am committed to that car because when it was not working I put a thousand dollars into it. It broke down again and I put another thousand dollars into it. It broke down again and I put another thousand dollars into it. I am very committed to that car. Hopefully the third time is a charm.

These car parks have special cars with cameras on them, and if you overstay in one of these car parks it will take your numberplate and you then get that official-looking piece of paper on the windscreen or in the mail. It looks like an official fine, but actually it is not. It is a claim for liquidated damages from a private car park operator that is claiming you have overstayed by a few minutes and therefore caused them financial damages, and if you do not pay the damages the car park operator will apply to the Magistrates Court for an order that requires VicRoads to give up your contact details.

This is generally the first step in a recovery of damages process through the courts, but in most cases the car park operator will not actually take you to court. They will pull out of the court action and then with your personal information they will simply harass vehicle owners with letters demanding damages. They add on a late payment fee and then they will get the debt collectors involved. These car park operators have a business model that essentially relies on people overstaying and they then threaten people into paying by calling in a fine that they have no power to impose.

This matter came before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in May 2014, and it found that a private car park's claim of $88 was a penalty and therefore unenforceable. It held that the car park operator could not justify the $88 amount. The car park's loss was 'overstated'; the $88 amount was 'wholly unexplained'; and there was 'no forensic veracity' and 'no legal or factual providence'. As has been mentioned in previous contributions, the Consumer Action Law Centre has a Private car parking fines fact sheet, which is its most downloaded fact sheet, and it is no wonder because there are thousands of victims of this dodgy practice.

In September 2013 the Herald Sun reported that VicRoads had handed over 165 793 records containing the names and addresses of registered vehicle owners to private car park operators during the previous three years alone. Currently VicRoads has to hand over that information every time it is ordered to do so by a magistrate. These car park operators have no intention of pursuing these claims through the courts. Instead they simply onsell the so-called damages to debt collectors.

Some private interests are opposed to the changes in the bill. The Shopping Centre Council of Australia claims that somehow the sky is going to fall in if these reforms go through, but these reforms went through the New South Wales Parliament three years ago, and there are still private car parks in New South Wales. Car park operators simply had to adapt. It is not a great stretch to put up a boom gate or something similar in a car park. I am sure that car park operators will be able to find a business model that does not depend on the misuse and abuse of court procedures, does not depend on misleading consumers and is capable of being upheld when challenged in a court.

To conclude, this amendment will protect the privacy of vehicle owners and protect consumers. It will stop the misuse and abuse of court procedures, and it will stop a practice found by the Victorian Supreme Court to be misleading and deceptive and found by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to be unenforceable. It is why the Greens championed this law in 2013, and it is why we are supporting the bill this time around.