BILLS: Road Safety Remuneration Bill 2011

Road safety is of paramount importance right across Australia, particularly in regional areas where every highway, byway and single lane country road is regularly used by trucks and semitrailers. These heavy vehicles cargo fresh food from paddocks, grain from silos, fuel from refineries, livestock from saleyards and resources from mines.

If it needs to be carried, carted, dumped, hauled, moved, shifted or transported, there is every likelihood a truck or trailer will be the most economical, fastest and most reliable way of getting it from point A to point B. Tarcutta, in my electorate of Riverina, is on the Hume Highway midway between Sydney and Melbourne and has long been popular in the trucking industry as a stopping and changeover point for drivers. The Australian Truck Drivers Memorial, dedicated to truck drivers who have died on the Hume Highway as well as around the country, is situated in a park at Tarcutta. Established in 1994, the memorial contains hundreds of names of truckies who never made it to their destination. Many of those truckies are locals: drivers missed forevermore by partners; fathers whose children never really got to know them; truckies gone before their time. We mourn for them. We know what an important role they played in our transport industry. We appreciate the contribution they made in keeping Australia moving. We feel for their families and the colleagues they left behind. 

Truck driving is a tough occupation. It takes a dedicated individual to keep on trucking—long hours, time away from home, days without their daily creature comforts that others take for granted, high expectations, tight deadlines. It is a high pressure job. Truck driving demands commitment, diligence, discipline and unwavering concentration. The consequences of a momentary lapse in judgment or of concentration can be catastrophic. We have all seen the dreadful and heartbreaking television footage and newspaper images of what happens when trucks and cars collide. We all want the road toll to be reduced. We all want loved ones—professional drivers and any road users just going about their daily lives, shopping, mothers taking children to and from school, tourists, whatever the case might be—to return home safely. 

The Road Safety Remuneration Bill 2011 and the Road Safety Remuneration (Consequential Amendments and Related Provisions) Bill 2011 will create a new tribunal, empowered to inquire into sectors, issues and practices within the road transport industry and ensure mandatory minimum rates of pay and related conditions for employed and self-employed truck drivers. Since being elected in 2007, the Labor government has been steadily moving towards the introduction of so-called 'safe' rates in the heavy vehicle industry after a long and drawn-out campaign by the powerful Transport Workers Union. 

A safe rate, according to the union, is a proposal for an enforceable rate of remuneration for transport workers, determined by the government or other body deemed appropriate, to reduce accidents involving the heavy vehicle industry. But no real research has been done to prove beyond doubt that there is a link between payment to truck drivers and road accidents. The very fact that carriage of this legislation has moved from the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations exposes the real agenda behind these bills. 

This is about giving trade unions more power over the transport industry and control over drivers. In time, this will filter through to cover all forms of drivers—courier drivers, mail contractors and the like. There is no causal link between money and danger to drivers. The government has revealed, only in the past hour, amendments which were apparently approved by the Labor caucus—when it was not quelling internal ructions—a fortnight ago. The lateness of these amendments is unsatisfactory and is a complete rejection of the alleged new paradigm under which this parliament is supposed to be operating. 
The transport minister and the Transport Workers Union say these bills will improve safety in the road transport industry, claiming the support of Linfox, 'other good companies'—as the minister termed them, and the Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association to back up their argument. The purported link between pay rates and safety outcomes has been heavily questioned by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Australian Industry Group, Australian Logistics Council, New South Wales branch of the Australian Trucking Association and the Toll Group. The Australian Livestock Markets Association is opposed to these bills because the legislation will cover its members for services which they provide gratuitously but, if these bills are enacted, they will stop doing or will have to impose a charge for. 
In his 1 March media conference, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations—also known as the minister for trade union empowerment—said: 

It isn't good enough, and this country is smart enough to prevent a set of circumstances where drivers are rushing to fulfil unrealistic deadlines, they're perhaps required not to be paid for waiting time. They get very low rates of pay—some are around the order of $30,000 a year, which is barely the minimum wage in Australia. Sometimes, in order to meet the very tough deadlines, they have to take illicit substances. We think we can make safer roads for our drivers and their families, but we also believe that safer rates mean safer roads for all Australians. 

Truck drivers do not have to take illicit substances. Some might choose to do so, and that is indeed unfortunate and dangerous for themselves and other road users. But the minister used very emotive language to push his message which does not paint an entirely accurate picture of the real situation. To suggest truck drivers get, as he put it, 'very low rates of pay' is perhaps using too broad a brush. Those earning only $30,000 per annum would, I suggest, be working only very casually, certainly not full-time, which was the inference the minister was making. 

These bills have been criticised on a number of fronts. No connection has been made between pay rates and road safety. These bills establish another bureaucracy and will mean more red tape for businesses already bound by some of the most stringent and complex regulation in the country. These bills undermine the concept of an independent contractor. The bills' definition of road transport is way too broad. What area of the transport sector will the legislation, if passed, reach? The bills undermine other legislation being developed, including the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator and national occupational health and safety laws. The scope of road safety remuneration orders is also too broad. 

These bills will generate additional confusion in the industry as, constitutionally, they will cover only 80 per cent of employee drivers and 60 per cent of owner operators. I note the member for Ryan spoke of the need for additional road funding to promote road safety. She is, of course, very correct. Governments serious about road safety ought to be doing more to improve roads and I call on federal Labor to do just that. The member for Gippsland wrote to transport companies within his electorate to canvass their views about these bills. They expressed their fears about the costs of such measures as well as doubts about the real reasons behind the moves. Freight-carrying companies in the Riverina share these genuine concerns about costs and hidden agendas. 

The member for Wakefield spoke of drivers having to speed to meet what he called cutthroat competitive deadlines. With the point-to-point average speed cameras for heavy vehicles and fixed and mobile radar these days, such drivers will not last long in the heavy vehicle industry. These bills will no doubt carry a hefty wage hike for small trucking firms and the like. These companies are already finding their bottom lines stretched to the limit, particularly in regional Australia. Last year's live cattle export fiasco hit the transport industry in western and northern Australia hard, and the carbon tax from 1 July will make another severe dent in profit margins. As with much of its legislation, the government wants to push these bills through so that they are functioning by 1 July 2012. Given the limited number of parliamentary sitting weeks before that date, the government is again rushing through legislation and failing to appropriately assess the concerns of industry.

Cristy Houghton