Monday, November 23, 2009

The User Has Already Paid

When the expression “user pays” was first coming into frequent usage some years ago, I took exception and complained at every opportunity that the user has already paid, and that such fees and charges amount to double dipping. The rot began to creep in with an ever expanding range of government charges for things which we had previously been able to take for granted. We all pay our taxes, both direct and indirect, to state and federal governments, as well as hefty local government rates and charges. And yet we were still expected to dip our hands into our pockets and come up with even more spare change to pay ever increasing “user pays” charges.

Such rip-offs range in size from a few dollars for tolls on roads which should have been paid for by registration fees and fuel taxes, through to developer levies adding up to six figure sums to pay for utilities infrastructure which was supposed to be paid for out of our rates money. But even the small charges of a few dollars here and a few more there quickly add up to amounts which severely dent the family budget. Just ask the people who are spending a hundred dollars a week or more for the privilege of driving their car to work and parking it in the city. Never mind that they have no choice because the public transport is either inadequate or nonexistent.

Of course, it wasn’t long before private enterprise realized that governments were onto something here, and were sucking copious amounts of cash out of the pockets of ordinary everyday people who are left with no choice but to pay up. Banks began introducing fees for customers who had the audacity to keep an account with them, another fee for daring to withdraw their own money, and then fees for closing accounts, changing accounts, or for even receiving a printed statement. Once it became obvious that the banks were getting away with robbery, it wasn’t long before other corporations followed suit, culminating recently in the outrageous demand by Telstra that customers who want to pay their bill should also pay a fee for doing so.

Now, the latest attack on the financial health of average everyday Australians has come from the real estate rentals racket, er sorry industry. It seems that estate agents are engaging third party operators to collect rent from their tenants, which is all very well, but it’s the tenants who are expected to pay a fee for this so called service. The fact of the matter is that the tenants have an obligation to pay the amount of their rent, no more and no less. They should have the right to pay in cash, by cheque, by bank deposit, or any means of legal tender. If the landlord, or the landlord’s agent wishes to engage a rent collector, that is their responsibility.

Even if you accept the obnoxious concept of “user pays”, this practice is still repugnant. It is the agency, not the tenant, who enjoys all of the benefits of such an arrangement. The agency can operate a cashless office, employ fewer staff, and generally reduce overheads. It is the agency who is the “user” in this case, not the tenant, and so the agency should pay for the service provided by any such third party operator. Efforts to coerce the tenant to pay this ridiculous fee are simply wrong, and should be illegal.

The good news is that there are some encouraging signs that the tide is turning. We have seen the banks begin to wind back some of their fees, and we should encourage them to do more in that respect. We have seen Telstra respond to customer pressure and abolish its stupid and insulting fee for payment of you bill. And it appears that the New South Wales government is likely to deal with this obscene rent collection fee in next year’s revision of tenancy law. But there is a long way still to go to undo the damage of unfair “user pays” fees and charges, and the only way to beat them is to keep on refusing to be treated like mugs.

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