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Monday, 15 September 2008
Page: 7321

Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (12:40 PM) —On 4 September when I was speaking on the AusLink (National Land Transport) Amendment Bill 2008, I referred to its three basic elements. I indicated the opposition’s keen support for the inclusion in the bill of continuing arrangements for the universally popular Roads to Recovery program. I also indicated that the opposition were supportive of the amendments proposed on the bill in relation to unincorporated areas to ensure that funding could be provided for road projects in those places. We also support the alterations to the definition of a ‘road’ contained in the bill to put beyond doubt that AusLink and other funding can be applied to roadside projects such as rest stops, parking bays and decoupling facilities.

I also referred to the somewhat curious reference by the minister in his second reading speech to funding for electronic monitoring systems. He referred to it in the speech but there is no reference to it in the bill. I am hopeful that he will give the House an assurance that no changes will be made to the arrangements for electronic monitoring systems as a result of this legislation.

I was in the process of commenting on other elements of the minister’s second reading speech when my time was interrupted, so I want to go back to the minister’s second reading speech. Much of it had very little to do with what is actually in the bill. The minister took the opportunity to outline the government’s policy on the heavy vehicle safety and productivity package. This policy is really one of blackmail. The minister stated:

… the package is contingent on the passage of the enabling legislation for the 2007 Heavy Vehicle Charges Determination …

That legislation will authorise an increase in heavy vehicle registration fees announced by the minister at the same time as he trumpeted his safety package. The opposition rejected these increased charges in the other place in March this year. We did so because we understand that the heavy freight sector is already doing it tough with high interest rates and rising fuel bills. Moreover, all Australians are battling to meet their daily requirements in the face of increasing cost of living pressures. For the Rudd Labor government to slap higher taxes on trucks—and, in so doing, belt a small business sector and push up the cost for all Australians—seems to be a remarkable response. This is obviously going to increase the cost of most items sold in supermarkets around Australia because they are transported around the country by trucks.

How can a government look pensioners in the eye and tell them that they cannot raise pensions because they do not have the money when it is going to raise taxes on everything that pensioners buy? Pensioners will be in a worse position as a result of the proposals being put forward by this government. There will be higher taxes on everything that they buy. That will make it harder for pensioners to survive—yet there is a $20 billion plus budget surplus.

The opposition makes no apology in rejecting these higher charges. They are a tax grab which would keep on going up. Regular increases are proposed to be built on a road cost adjustment formula associated with road construction. These costs, such as steel and concrete, are skyrocketing so we can be sure that registrations will go up even more than the CPI. Moreover, the structure of these charges penalise productivity since they fall heavily on highly productive multi-combination vehicles such as B-doubles and B-triples. At the same time, the government wants to increase the effective rate of the diesel fuel excise on the road user charge. Specifically, the Rudd government seeks to increase the diesel excise from 19.633c per litre to 21c per litre and then regularly increase the rate on the same formula used for the heavy vehicle registration charge. In other words, the government is seeking to reintroduce the indexation of fuel excise, and at a higher rate than the CPI.

Members may recall that the indexation of fuel excise was introduced by the Keating government and abolished by the coalition in 2001. The government tried to quietly get the relevant regulation through the parliament earlier this year but fortunately the opposition rejected it on 14 May 2008. These measures are a tax grab. They are designed to raise government revenue by another $168 million per year. The fuel tax take to Labor states and territories will rise by $80 million and the increase in heavy vehicle charges will lift Labor’s tax grab by another $88 million. So let us not get too excited about the proposed $70 million safety package—it is simply robbing Peter to pay Paul a lot less. And do not get too excited about Labor’s claim that in 2007 the then coalition federal minister for transport supported the development of a new charges regime. The coalition has always believed that the heavy vehicle sector should pay its way but we do not support the reintroduction of the indexation of fuel excise. We also want a rational registration charge-setting regime that does not unfairly penalise the most efficient vehicle combinations.

The opposition calls upon the government to take seriously its rhetoric about helping working families. The opposition calls upon the Rudd government to stop the bullyboy blackmail tactics to get this tax grab through the parliament. The opposition asks the government to simply fund the safety measures for truckie’s without condition. Do not use the lives of truck drivers as a negotiating pawn. There is money available to the government to introduce these safety measures which they regard as important; they do not have to be tied to new taxation measures which will actually raise vastly more money than the government is proposing to spend on the package.

The opposition is also concerned about the way in which the heavy freight sector is regulated, particularly the longstanding inability of the states to agree on uniform vehicle laws. The states have been promising for years to unify the laws but they have not done so. Previous governments even tied certain funding to uniform regulations but progress has been slow. The government should not be giving new money to the states out of registration and fuel taxes unless the states guarantee that they will at the same time deliver harmonisation of the laws, as has been promised for decades. As an example, I refer to the heavy vehicle driver fatigue reforms agreed by the Australian Transport Council in February 2007. These laws are designed to provide a national standard for managing heavy vehicle driver fatigue. The coalition supports a national template providing for the consistent and safe management of fatigue by drivers of heavy vehicles. Late last year the Australian Transport Council approved the heavy vehicle driver fatigue national model legislation.

Of course, the regulation of the heavy vehicle sector is the responsibility of states and territories. They must pass the required heavy vehicle fatigue management laws and implement them. I understood that the states agreed that these should be uniform laws—but this is the beginning of the problem. Not all of the states and territories have decided to do so. New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia are implementing the new laws on 29 September. Tasmania and the Northern Territory plan to implement them later. The Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia are not going to implement them at all. Secondly, the participating states have made changes to the national model legislation. For example, under section 56 of the model law, a truck driver engaged in standard hours only has to carry a work diary if he or she drives more than 100 kilometres from their home base or has done so in the last 28 days. This means that a driver of a truck over 12 tonnes working a regular day delivering furniture around a regional centre should not have to worry about filling in the work diary. But in New South Wales or Tasmania every heavy truck operator must fill out the diary, even for local work. So the driver delivering furniture must waste time filling out paperwork and the drivers who transport containers around Botany Bay will simply have further red tape to deal with as well. It is inconsistent, it is irritating and it loses valuable business time.

Another example is the different treatment of short rest breaks. Under section 47 of the model law, a driver working standard hours must take a short break after 5¼ hours of work. A driver may make a defence against a breach of this provision if there was no suitable place of rest to be found and the driver found a rest stop within 45 minutes. In New South Wales or Victoria this is not a defence. This is in spite of the fact that a recent audit of 12,700 kilometres of Australia’s major highways found that the states and territories have largely failed to meet the National Transport Commission guidelines regarding the provision of rest stops. Surely it is not too much to ask the New South Wales and Victorian governments to be a little more flexible, as other states are prepared to be.

The third example of the haphazard way that the states have applied national fatigue management reforms is the inconsistent transitional arrangements. For Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, drivers who operate under the basic regulated hours of 12 hours driving plus two hours extra work have six months from 29 September to move to the new standard of 12 hours work in total. Not so in Victoria. In that state there will be no transitional arrangements for drivers on standard hours. As of 29 September, drivers in Victoria on standard hours will only be able to work 12 hours a day. What is more, this arrangement will apply to interstate drivers coming in from New South Wales and South Australia. Victoria’s insistence on pressing ahead, despite the transitional arrangements in other states, is a major concern, naturally, to interstate trucking operators. The national freight carriers have to manage not only the inconsistent application of the fatigue laws but also the inconsistent transitional arrangements.

Unfortunately, there are other bizarre consequences and inconsistencies in the treatment by states of national road freight. For example, Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland have designated road train routes that make it possible for trucks to pull highly efficient B-triples across those states. B-triples are highly efficient vehicle combinations; they are up to 30 per cent more productive than B-doubles. They also help to get trucks off our roads, since two B-triples are equivalent to five semitrailers. Unfortunately, New South Wales refuses to open up its road systems to these vehicles. In spite of the COAG decision in 2006 that the states and territories would establish a B-triple network, New South Wales simply refuses to recognise B-triples as a legitimate vehicle combination able to operate freely on road train routes. Victoria is not much better. It allows strictly limited B-triple use between Broadmeadows and Geelong, and then only for the trucks moving car components for the Ford Motor Company. Talk about a sweetheart deal! These odd policy decisions by New South Wales and Victoria mean that B-triple freight cannot take place on a national basis. This is in spite of the fact that the road freight task is expected to nearly double by 2020.

There are plenty of other anomalies. One is the glacial take-up by particular states of the common higher mass limits for trucks with road friendly suspension. As far back as 1999, the states and territories agreed with the Commonwealth that Australia should develop approved routes for trucks with road friendly suspension. This is an important reform that would generate freight efficiencies worth hundreds of millions of dollars and would place Australia at the forefront of the world in pioneering and applying new developments in pavement friendly technologies. According to the reform, an approved road network for trucks fitted with state-of-the-art suspension systems would roll out as specific roads and bridges were protected.

In spite of Commonwealth funding being provided for this purpose, now, after nearly 10 years, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and areas of Queensland have developed an extensive approved road network for these types of trucks. But, ever since this initiative started, New South Wales has been blocking it by imposing unique and difficult regulations that effectively make it impossible for vehicles to qualify. New South Wales continues to refuse to publish its higher mass limit network or to open up in a transparent way its approval for vehicles to drive on it.

Another inefficient agony in our so-called national road freight system is the different treatment of widths of loads. For example, states cannot agree on a harmonised approach to minor overwidth loads, such as hay bales. Drought and even average seasons around the state generate significant movements of hay, including across state borders. In New South Wales, rigid semitrailers and B-doubles may be loaded to a width of only 2.83 metres. But, in next door Victoria, these trucks can be loaded to three metres. Beware the farmer in Victoria who dares load his truck with hay as wide as legally possible in that state and then drives across the border into New South Wales! Is he expected to cut a few inches off every hay bale? The laws are a nonsense and clearly need to be standardised. Containers that can be legally trucked in Queensland may be too long in New South Wales. Loads in New South Wales may be too high to move into Victoria.

The opposition supports the AusLink (National Land Transport) Amendment Bill 2008, but the government should not be providing any additional funding to the states unless the states deal with these issues of inconsistency of regulations. The states have been promising for years to fix this, but their progress has been appallingly slow. The opposition also notes the agreement by the Australian Transport Council, in July this year, to establish a single national system for heavy vehicle regulation and the adoption of a consistent approach to heavy vehicle licensing. The opposition supports this initiative, but let’s make it clear: this is not the first such commitment. The states have promised repeatedly and have failed to deliver. In spite of financial incentives, they do not respond. They expect compromises from the transport sector but they have not met their share of the deal made with the trucking industry. The trucking industry is prepared to respond to some of these issues, but it expects the governments to act responsibly as well. Instead, state governments consistently impose new burdens on the trucking sector without meeting their share of the burden.

No number of communiques and press statements change the fact that there appears to be foot-dragging and a fundamental lack of political will by certain non-federal jurisdictions to address this basic problem. It is time we had serious discussions about the slow and fragmented approach of some of the states and territories towards road freight reform. It seems extraordinary that, in this successful, modern and mobile country of the 21st century, those in the business of putting necessities on our supermarket shelves have to put up with this kind of irrational, irritating and inefficient nonsense.

I remind the Rudd government that ending the blame game is not code for friendly failure—or just giving up. The federal government cannot walk away from its task of driving the states to act responsibly. There should be no further concessions or additional financial grants to the states under higher fuel taxes and registration until there is clear and demonstrated approval of standardisation and harmonisation of state transport laws. If it is safe in one state, it is safe in another. If a container is okay to be hauled around the roads in one state, why is it inappropriate as soon as the truck crosses a border?

It is these sorts of anomalies that make us a laughing stock in other parts of the world. It is the rail gauge story repeated time and time again. But this is not last-century stuff. It is not 100-year-old stuff. It is happening today. The various states are simply unable to find the necessary common ground to institute laws which would enable our transport system and industries, particularly those in regional areas, to operate with a higher level of efficiency. The Labor government must stop rewarding the failure of the Labor states by giving them even more federal money. It must start placing rigorous conditions upon the states and point out that they too are part of Australia and they must contribute to this vital reform.