Ombudsman finds Victoria’s electric and plug-in hybrid vehicle charges administered unfairlyDate posted:
Today Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass tabled her Investigation into the Department of Transport and Planning’s implementation of the zero and low emission vehicle charge. The report details a range of failures in the State Government’s implementation of the road-user charge for electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (ZLEVs) under the Zero and Low Emission Vehicles Act 2021 (Vic).
The Ombudsman received more than 30 complaints about the application of the ZLEV Act. These complaints concerned two main issues – whether the charges were unreasonably applied, considering how owners used their vehicles, and whether additional charges imposed after submitting a late odometer declaration were wrong.
One driver of a plug-in electric hybrid, a vehicle that can use either fuel or electric power, reported travelling thousands of kilometres in remote parts of Australia using fuel, as there were no charging stations. Despite the driver paying fuel excise on those kilometres, the Department did not waive the additional hundreds of dollars payable under the ZLEV charge.
“We found an unreasonable lack of policy guidance to those administering the legislation, inflexible handling of complaints, and an unwillingness to exercise discretion. It is also wrong to charge penalties not provided for in legislation, and the money collected under this ‘penalty’ should be repaid.” Ms Glass said.
Drivers must generally provide photographic evidence of kilometres travelled at the start and end of each registration period. One case in the report highlighted the unfairness faced by a driver who was late providing the required photo of their vehicle’s odometer because they were overseas. Instead of responding flexibly, the Department cancelled her registration.
If an odometer declaration becomes overdue, the Department estimated a charge based on the ‘average travel’ of Victorian vehicles. This occurred even where people told the Department this estimate exceeded the distance the ZLEV had travelled in its lifetime, as a ‘penalty’ charge.
In five complaints made to the Ombudsman, the Department initially refused to amend invoices where the estimated kilometres exceeded the total distance the vehicle had travelled, describing it as a 'penalty' for lateness. There is no provision in the ZLEV Act for the Department to impose a penalty charge.
“As the Robodebt inquiry showed us, there are dangers in making assumptions and using average calculations to charge people. Assumptions have been made about how people will use their electric vehicles, which plainly disadvantage people with older vehicles or those who have less access to charging stations.
“And while this report focuses on the actions of the Department of Transport and Planning, there are broader lessons for the public sector about the dangers of making policy on the run (or not making it at all), and the importance of exercising discretion.” Ms Glass said.
In July 2021, the new road-user charge for ZLEVs was introduced in Victoria under the Zero and Low Emission Vehicle Distance-based Charge Act 2021 (Vic) (‘ZLEV Act’). This legislation was the first of its kind in Australia. Its validity is currently being challenged in the High Court.
This investigation does not touch on the validity of the legislation, which is a matter for the High Court. Nor does it consider whether it is good public policy to impose a charge on electric vehicles.
The Victorian Government’s rationale for introducing the charge was that ZLEV owners pay little or nothing towards the maintenance of Victorian roads. Owners of traditional fuel-powered vehicles pay for public road upkeep through the Commonwealth fuel excise.
ZLEVs are grouped into two categories – battery electric vehicles (‘BEVs’) and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (‘PHEVs’).
1. BEVs include vehicles that use only electric power from a battery and vehicles that use a hydrogen fuel cell.
2. PHEVs have two independent engines: a PHEV can operate as an entirely electric vehicle or an entirely fuel-propelled vehicle. PHEVs can travel varied distances using electric power, from around 40 to 80 km per charge.
Hybrid vehicles, which have a fuel motor that is simultaneously assisted by an electric motor, are not considered to be ZLEVs and owners of hybrid vehicles are not charged under the ZLEV Act.
By the numbers
19,200 ZLEVs registered in Victoria
Over 180 complaints made to the Department
67% of these were about unsatisfactory process or policy
Over 240 ZLEV registrations cancelled