Speech prepared for debate on 24 May 2022, but crossbench members were prevented from speaking.
Fines, and whether they are fairly administered, can impact all Queenslanders. For Queenslanders on a low income, these fines can be devastating. So how we administer this scheme is really important.
Many of the changes in this bill do what it says on the label, and I can see how this bill responds to the call from local councils to streamline and modernise State Penalties Enforcement Registry processes. We also welcome changes to ensure beneficial treatment within the land tax act for beneficiaries of special disabilities trusts.
With that in mind, there are features of this bill which have the capacity to further drive up inequality in Queensland, and I’ll be making amendments to address those.
Firstly, there is the inexplicable decision to remove the Residential Tenancies’ Authority’s independent source of funding. And secondly, there is the ambiguity about how discretion will be exercised where a fine will cause significant financial hardship, or where it has been applied in particularly unfair circumstances.
Any bill that proposes to impose state penalties on the people of Queensland needs examining, and I’ll be shining a light on the issues that the bill and its supporting documents simply don’t address.
Seizing rental bonds
The decision to seize the rental bonds paid by the people of Queensland is inexplicable. Literally, it has not been explained or substantiated in any way. And advocates as diametrically opposed as Tenants Queensland and the Real Estate Institute of Queensland have noted this.
We have a system for rental bonds in Queensland that has worked well for decades. Tenants put the equivalent of four weeks’ rent in a trust account. This is their money, held in trust. As rental prices soar, so too do the value of these bonds. The interest on this account is used to fund the Residential Tenancies Authority, which has a key role in helping tenants resolve rental issues.
On the conclusion of their lease, tenants receive the bond back, but not the interest. Every tenant in Queensland, therefore, foregoes that interest, for the collective benefit of all their fellow tenants. The Residential Tenancies Authority has an independent source of funding. This system works.
But what the government is trying to sneak through here is a seizure of these funds. What this bill plans to do is put the sum of these rental bonds into the hands of the Treasurer, and replace it with direct funding from consolidated revenue. This puts the Residential Tenancies Authority back on the same unsure footing as so many other underfunded services. If the government’s ultimate goal was to fold the Authority into the Office of Fair Trading or similar, this would be the first step.
To me it looks like yet another spurious move to plug up the holes in the Queensland budget. Instead of going after the big banks with a bank levy, or going after the mining corporations with raised royalties, or going after property developers with a developer tax - instead, we’re going after the bond and interest of the 1.8 million Queenslanders who rent. To be clear - rather than going after their big corporate backers, this government is yet again going after everyday Queenslanders.
The best predictor of what this government is going to do is what it has already done. And I can only assume that this seizure of Queensland tenants’ rental bonds is yet another form of dodgy accounting, that will ultimately be used to make this state’s budget figures look better than they are.
As we race towards a surplus at the expense of our health system, our education system and all of the social supports that make us a community, this government has been very keen to conjure money out of nowhere and invent wealth where it doesn’t exist, rather than generating real wealth out of mining royalties, a big bank levy or developer taxes.
In last year’s budget we saw the government use an astronomically higher-than expected valuation of the Titles Registry to fund the $1 billion Housing Investment Fund, Path to Treaty Fund and a Carbon Reduction Investment Fund. Of course, the value of the titles office is directly linked to the soaring housing prices we’ve seen in the past few years. But no detail was given of how this works, or how these yet-to-materialise funds would work.
Let’s take the $1 billion Housing Investment Fund for example. The government announced this as a $1 billion investment into social housing. But when we look at the fine print, we see that this fund stays with the government - it’s only $40 million per year that will be generated by the fund, and used to build housing.
I’ve asked at every opportunity how these returns will be generated and how they have been tracking in actual terms. There has simply never been an answer. And when we look at the detail of what new housing is being built, the only announcement I’ve seen is for 118 new social and affordable homes to be built at Chermside and Redcliffe. When you consider that the government has committed to commencing 6365 new homes under the 2021-25 Housing Action Plan, and that there are 50,000 people on the social housing waitlist, it’s miniscule, and let’s down those thousands of families waiting for housing.
The government likes to talk about big money, but doesn’t want big money working for Queenslanders. And while it presides over a housing system that sees homes as an investment vehicle for the rich to get richer, rather than something that every single person needs and deserves, it’s going to take Queenslanders’ rental bonds and use them to make its own books look good.
I’d like to table my amendments to this bill, which will reverse this attack on the independence of the Residential Tenancies Authority. And further, they will enact a framework to ensure that decision-making about fines takes into account the needs of Queenslanders on low incomes, or who have incurred a fine in unfair circumstances.
The impact of fines
The impact of an unfair fine on someone on a low income can be devastating, and cumulative over time. Many fines aren’t provable in bankruptcy, meaning even the system designed to let people make a fresh financial start won’t extend to this.
As LawRight have said in their submission “automated fines, including toll fines and fines for camera-detected offences, make up a significant amount of the SPER debt pool and have a disproportionate impact on people experiencing disadvantage and poverty. People experiencing personal hardship and poverty are both more likely to receive these types of fines and less able to resolve the debt that accrues”.
In their casework, there is an average debt of $4000 to $8000 per client.
Sisters Inside, an organisation based in West End that supports women caught up in the prison system, has been campaigning to end imprisonment of aboriginal women for non-payment of fines, and raising money to help pay women’s fines, to help them avoid prison. Often SPER fines are criminalizing people for living in poverty. And It’s important to remember the life of Ms Dhu, who died in a Western Australian watchhouse, where she was being held for unpaid fines.
Last year I helped one of my constituents for a fine she incurred while trying to be a compassionate neighbour. An elderly woman herself, she was dropping off a friend with mobility issues and a walking stick, and got fined for stopping contrary to a no-stopping sign to help her friend get to her building. She never turned off her engine or brake lights, and has mobility issues herself. In this case I advocated on her behalf to have the notice withdrawn. Wouldn’t it be great if the issuing authority was required to publish how it will make decisions like this?
Another constituent contacted us after he got a fine for dropping off a First Nations aunty to a shopping centre over a yellow line. These kinds of cases demonstrate a need for nuance, to avoid unjust fines or criminalisation.
Protecting people from unfair fines
The changes in this bill could have a significant impact on people already experiencing disadvantage, as LawWright set out in its submission on this bill. My amendments require the registrar for this scheme, in consultation with the community legal sector which works so hard to support Queenslanders to challenge unfair fines, to develop a guideline about when infringement notices will and will not be withdrawn.
These guidelines will need to be published online.
They will guide an administering authority to withdraw an infringement notice in circumstances like these:
- Where someone has been incorrectly named as the alleged offender.
- Where maintaining the fine would cause significant financial hardship to the person paying it.
- Where taking the person’s circumstances into account would warrant it.
- And, if withdrawing the fine is in the public interest.
Getting a fine is never good news. For those of us who can afford it, we can get the money together, pay it and move on. But for people on a low income, that money may not be there. Community legal centres do incredible work supporting these people to have these fines waived, but there is a lack of clarity about when this will and won’t occur. With these amendments, the government could instill a level of transparency in decision-making about fines, and ensure the Residential Tenancies Authority retains the independence to keep on supporting tenants.