JEFF CORBETT: The inequality of NSW fines and penalties

JUST as well I was sitting down. There, on the front page of this paper, was the NSW Treasurer saying in Newcastle that NSW councils were using parked drivers as cash cows, that councils looked upon parking fines as a source of revenue.

Everyone who has seen the massive increase in Newcastle City Council's fines revenue since it took over the writing of traffic fines from the state government in 2002, who has seen the relentless zeal of so-called compliance officers on our streets, will know Dominic Perrottet is unconditionally correct. Indeed, Newcastle council's hunt for parking fine opportunities has become as good a reason not to visit the CBD as the Supercar and light rail roads fiasco.

It was, though, what Mr Perrottet said next that had me clutching the table for support. He called on Newcastle council to reduce the amount of its parking fines, reminding it that fines should be about fairness and not about revenue raising.

Mr Perrottet is in charge of counting the revenue from the NSW traffic fines binge that makes Newcastle council's greedy efforts look like a lemonade stall set up by children on the nature strip. An exaggerated widening of the eyes as he took Newcastle council to task would have reassured us that Mr Perrottet is smart enough to realise the irony in his scolding of the government on the next rung down.

Most of us can, and do, avoid paying more into Newcastle council's coffers by avoiding as much as possible the city's golden strips, those retail areas with metered parking where even the slightest miscalculation leaves you vulnerable to paying more to an organisation you may well already subsidise more than you should. The worst that can happen in a shopping complex when you lose track of time is to pay just a few dollars for that extra parking time, not $112.

Most of us cannot avoid driving on the state's revenue-raising strips as easily as we can avoid the councils' revenue-raising strips, and it is on these roads that we are highly vulnerable. Detecting the slightest error, oversight or misdemeanour has become so efficient that being fined is simply now a hazard of driving, and often the fine that arrives in the mail is for an offence the driver did not know he or she had committed.

Drivers have become prey.

Drivers have become prey, and the most recent of my rare encounters with police left me feeling very much like I'd been preyed upon. It was at Hat Head, on the mid north coast, late last year and I drove rather than walked the few hundred metres from the camping ground to our friends' house only because they'd asked me to bring our barbecue.

As I drove back to our caravan at about 4pm a highway patrol car with sirens blaring came at speed up behind me, and I pulled over to give it an open road as it sped to what I assumed was a crisis. But no, I was the crisis! How much had I had to drink? One stubby of light beer half an hour earlier, and I understand the cynicism that greeted that answer and the expression of surprise when the breath-test device showed I was telling the truth.

The copper, who was unnecessarily aggressive, had a good look around, asked me repeatedly if I was sure the Landcruiser was mine (my singlet was sporting a few holes!), then handed me a $112 fine for not having my licence in my possession.

It may be that they'd pulled me over because the barbecue in the back suggested to them that I'd been on the booze all afternoon or simply that they wanted to pull someone, anyone, over, and the random breath test was in reality a random everything test.

The fine was hardly a contribution to road safety and betrayed their need to raise revenue. I am sure many people endure such blaring, aggressive and unwarranted intervention as they drive safely on our roads, but that is not the most serious injustice in the cloaking of revenue raising as road safety. That gong belongs to the huge difference in impact of set fines on people of different means.

The $112 fine mattered little to me but to travelling pensioners it may have had a much greater impact. The $187 fine for not using the left blinker as you leave a roundabout is of no consequence to the financially comfortable but a distressing impost on parents struggling to pay rent or a mortgage and raise children. The $472 for exceeding the speed limit by more than 20km/h, perhaps as you enter a 60km/h zone, will put into real hardship many Australians while for many others it is an irritation.

Even the old gits who harrumph the old line about having nothing to worry about if you don't break the law could be fined for not using the left blinker leaving a roundabout or any number of insignificant indiscretions that can be used by police to add to their revenue haul.

At the NSW Labor conference last weekend the party decided to consider introducing means testing for traffic fines if it wins government, and there can be no doubt that on the other side of the political fence NSW's chief fines counter, Dominic Perrottet, was well aware of the iniquity of the fines he oversees when he was wagging his counting finger at Newcastle council.