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Treasurer Dick takes a shot at cracking open Qld's Aladdin's cave of unpaid fines

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Fine defaulters owe the State Government more than a billion dollars. Successive Treasurers have tried to collect but with little success, writes Robert Macdonald.

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Will Cameron Dick be the Queensland Treasurer who finally cracks open the hollow log stuffed full of Queensland’s unpaid fines?

Dick introduced legislation to Parliament last week designed to improve the Government’s chances of recovering the more than a billion dollars of overdue penalties now sitting on the State Penalties Enforcement Registry (SPER’s) books.

The proposed new laws aim to “speed up the fine administration and the debt collection system across the Queensland Government”.

“Queensland taxpayers expect that if someone owes them money, it should be paid back – and that’s what these changes are all about,” Dick said in a media release.

“We want people to pay what they owe, and to pay it as soon as possible after they incur a fine.”

Good luck with that.

The Peter Beattie-led Labor Government created SPER in 2000 to modernise the state’s debt-collection practices and to minimise the chance of debtors being sent to prison.

At the time, 25 per cent of all prison admissions were fine defaulters, many of them Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Today, no one gets locked up for failing to pay a state government debt.

But defaulters have ended up owing the state a lot of money – a billion dollars or more in overdue fines for the past decade or so.

Successive governments have struggled, so far unsuccessfully, to find the key to unlock this tantalising stash of potential revenue.

Premier Campbell Newman’s Government trialled the use of private debt collectors, with the ultimate aim, at least according to the Labor opposition, of privatising much of SPER’s work.

The new Palaszczuk administration thought this was a terrible idea when it came to office in 2015.

“Would bounty hunters have started to appear at the doorsteps of those who didn’t pay their Gateway Bridge toll?” then Treasurer Curtis Pitt mused at the time.

The new Labor Government’s solution was technology. It announced in 2016 it had signed a $58.8 million contract for “a debt recovery solution that will provide SPER with access to a solution offering global best practices in debt recovery”.

This, too, turned out to be a terrible idea. Costs blew out amid disagreements between the vendor and SPER about the scope of the project.

SPER lodged more than 300 change requests before cancelling the contract in 2019.

Within a year, the Queensland Audit Office had issued a damning report, which highlighted not only “SPER’s inexperience in projects of this nature,” but also “its unfounded optimism”.

The Government was undaunted.

In September  2020 it had another go, launching the “Debt Recovery and Compliance Program”, which it claimed, would raise an “additional $488.1 million by 30 June 2024, at a cost of $74.95 million”.

It’s always worth being sceptical of any forecasts with such precise, decimal-pointed predictions.

And it’s too early to tell if the new program is on track, although the 2021-22 State Budget, tabled in June last year, did note SPER collections had risen slightly from $137 million to $143 million.

Treasurer Dick’s new legislation – the State Penalties Enforcement (Modernisation) Amendment Bill 2022 – proposes further tweaks to SPER’s operations, which Dick claims will boost collections by another $20 million or so a year.

Uncollected debt, however, remains stubbornly above a billion dollars.

And it’s likely to remain there, whatever the policy approach.

Around 10 per cent of SPER debtors are responsible for 20 per cent of the total outstanding debt, according to figures released by then-Treasurer Curtis Pitt back in 2017.

The numbers might have changed slightly since then, but as Pitt noted at the time, “they have little or no capacity to pay because of financial hardship or other issues”.

The Government’s response has been to create “work and development orders” which let people work off their SPER debt by attending counselling and treatments programs or doing relevant courses or approved unpaid work.

This is certainly a more humane strategy than throwing fine defaulters in prison but it doesn’t much help treasurers trying to tap hollow logs.

And so, no, Dick probably hasn’t found the password to unlock SPER’s Aladdin’s cave of treasures

But treasurers do have other tricks in their bag, among them thinking up new ways to fine people.

The 2021-22 Budget forecast a 39.3 per cent increase in revenue from fines and forfeiture this year, “partly driven by the introduction of new cameras that detect use of mobile phones and if seat belts are being worn”.

So watch out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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