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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 2295

Mr MITCHELL (McEwen) (13:20): It is a pleasure to speak on these road safety remuneration bills. The member for Wright spoke very interestingly about the different organisations that he has spoken to. The only people he has never spoken to are the people in the trucks—the people who get out there every day. He sits there and says, 'Well, the best thing government can do is to get their hands out of the industry's pocket.' What he does not say is that a lot of those costs are state based. Registration is not federal but state. He forgets that. I know, through my 15 years in the transport industry, just how important this legislation is. Nothing could be more important than ensuring that people get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Anyone who has been involved in the transport industry, dealing with the owner-drivers—the people who are running on the smell of an oily rag trying to scratch a living—knows just how important it is that we ensure that owner-drivers and drivers are paid fairly. What we heard clearly from the previous speaker, though, is that the opposition do not agree with a minimum rate of pay. Underlying this is a return to Work Choices. They reckon the only way that businesses can make money is to cut wages for people scratching a living for their family. They want to take fair pay away from people just so the fat cats in the transport industry can sit back and reap the rewards.

This is not just about ensuring that owner-drivers and drivers get a safe rate of pay but about ensuring their safety on our roads. It is a critical and vital issue for all Australians, including truck drivers, their families and the wider community. Sadly, as the Transport Workers Union has told us, around 330 people are killed on our roads each year. Think about that. It is an alarming statistic that almost every day a family will lose a loved one on the road when all they were doing was trying to scratch out a living. More than 1,000 people will suffer serious injuries on our roads each day in accidents involving trucks. Although the road death toll is falling, there is still more to be done. We cannot stand by and watch these accidents happen.

This bill establishes the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, whose objectives are to promote safety and fairness in the transport industry. It is that word 'fairness' that those opposite do not understand. The bills will see that truck drivers are reasonably paid for the work they do, and will get rid of the economic issues that force drivers to take unacceptable risks on the road. It is pretty easy to sit over there on that side of the House in your suit and say: 'Drivers shouldn't have to speed. They shouldn't overload their trucks, drive excessive hours or cut back on vehicle maintenance'. But the reality is that many are forced to do so in trying to make a living.

Mr Hunt: That is exactly what the union said about the carbon tax.

Mr MITCHELL: The Member for Flinders, it is the height of hypocrisy for you to talk about the carbon tax. Read your thesis again! I am pretty sure that no-one on that side of the House would know the high costs associated with keeping a rig on the road—I am sure the member for Flinders would struggle with the word tyre let alone know the price of one—such as the cost of fuel and spare parts, costs that are required to keep these small businesses on the road—and they are small businesses. For example, and to educate the member for Flinders, a cleanskin 10.00x20, which probably means absolutely nothing to him, would set you back $550. Think about how easy it is to get a puncture when you are putting around the roads in your car, running from cafe to cafe. Then think about the guys who are running up and down the road doing 2,000 miles per day: they could have 28 of those tyres on their truck and tyre combo.

A universal joint can set you back $600. They can break pretty easily—one mistake and they can pop out. When you think that some people are only earning a bare minimum of around $800 to do a Melbourne-Sydney run, one universal joint going will destroy your chances of making any money. That does not include the cost of fuel and everything else. Let us not get into the cost of diffs and engines and gearboxes. It is a very expensive industry to be in. It is one where you have to work hard and work long hours just to make a quid.

The Gillard government has been working on this legislation for some time. You think back on the processes that have gone into getting to this point. We released the Safe rates, safe roads direction paper in 2010 and called for public submissions. The Safe Rates Advisory Group was established in December 2009 and since then the industry has been consulted every step of the way. The road safety remuneration system will complement existing and new initiatives in the road transport industry, such as the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator. The Gillard government is committed to improving safety outcomes for truck drivers while ensuring the long-term viability of the road transport industry. The nation's roads are shared by all Australians and it is in everyone's interest to ensure better safety on our roads.

We know that in collisions with trucks most deaths involve drivers or passengers in other vehicles. I have attended many accidents over the years, as a tow truck driver and as a CERT member, and they are very difficult to deal with. They are messy, there is the cost of human life, which you can never put a price on, and there is also the pain that the emergency services have to deal with in cleaning up the mess that is left, whether that is from a car versus a truck or a truck into a tree, which is the most common accident. These accidents happen because people are going over their regulated hours just trying to make ends meet. Accidents take many hours to clean up and leave huge scars on the landscapes, let alone the huge scars in the hearts of the families involved. It is something that never leaves you. I can still vividly picture some of the accidents I have been to that happened 20 years ago. These drivers are not just truck drivers, they are also husbands, fathers and brothers. We have a moral responsibility to ensure that people get a fair day's pay and to ensure that they are not pushing themselves over just make a living.

This government recognises the important role that our drivers play in the road transport industry. Small businesses make up around 60 per cent of the road transport industry. I heard earlier the comments by the Leader of the Nationals, who just did not seem to get that owner-drivers are small businesses. He just did not seem to be able to comprehend that. Although 60 per cent of operators in the transport industry are small businesses, they only makes up about 11 per cent of the income. That is a small proportion: 11 per cent of the income earned in the industry. Truck driving continues to be the industry with the highest incidence of fatal injuries. Those fatalities and injuries cost the community an estimated $2.7 billion in 2010 alone.

So what is the government's response? Through research, we have found that improved driver remuneration leads to increased safety outcomes. How? By taking away the stresses, and this is what the opposition does not get, of worrying about how you are going to make ends meet. This leads to better health, improved driver concentration and better road safety for all of us. There is evidence showing that many incidents in the industry result from speeding or fatigue. That is why the Gillard government is committed to improving the safety outcomes for truck drivers while ensuring the long-term viability of the road industry.

Australian truck drivers work hard to make a living. The Gillard government wants to support measures that ensure pay and related conditions encourage drivers to drive safely, manage their hours and maintain their vehicles. That will have a wider benefit for everyone in the community by making our roads safer. The measures contained in this bill are a targeted response to reducing crashes and fatalities involving trucks. The government is seeking to ensure that remuneration related conditions of truck drivers do not lead to financial incentives to drive when tired or to speed or, as in many cases, to attempt to simply break even. The unique circumstances of owner-drivers have long been recognised through regulation in a number of states. As far back as 1979 inquiries have recommended specific regulation for owner-drivers.

In 2008 the National Transport Commission report, Safe payments: addressing the underlying causes of unsafe practices in the road transport industry, found that there was a strong link between payment rates and methods for owner-drivers and employees, that those methods created an incentive to drive unsafely and that this resulted in poor safety outcomes on our roads. In the National Transport Commission's review, economic factors were found to create an incentive for drivers to speed, work long hours and use illicit substances.

The NTC report recommended that this link be addressed through regulatory intervention at the national level by the establishment of a tribunal. Transport ministers then agreed that there was a case for investigating a whole-of-government regulatory approach to address this issue. To assist in responding to the NTC report, the then minister for workplace relations established the Safe Rates Advisory Group, which included industry and safety experts. This group developed a directions paper and recommended that a tribunal be established to deal with safety and pay issues for both employees and owner-drivers as set out in the NTC's review.

The directions paper was released in November 2010 for a three-month public consultation period. The submissions received expressed various views, with some strongly supporting a tribunal and others preferring a voluntary model. The SRAG met again in October and early November 2011 and feedback received at these meetings has been considered in the development of this bill. This bill is the result of extensive independent examination of the underlying causes of unsafe driving practices in the road transport industry and lengthy consultations with key industry stakeholders.

The Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal will be empowered to inquire into issues and practices within the road transport industry and, where appropriate, determine mandatory minimum rates of pay and related conditions for employed and self-employed drivers. The tribunal will comprise both members of Fair Work Australia and expert members with qualifications relevant to the road transport industry.

The bill complements existing federal legislation such as the Fair Work Act 2009 and the Independent Contractors Act 2006, plus current state based schemes dealing with owner-driver contracts and proposed state based heavy vehicle laws. Where the tribunal determines that a sector of the industry has poor safety outcomes, the tribunal will be able to make road safety orders to improve the on-road safety outcomes for drivers operating in that sector.

This is important because I know from all my years in the industry how owner-drivers get squeezed on their rates. It becomes a Dutch auction where you will go to driver A and say, 'I'll pay you $1,200 if you do a Melbourne-Sydney leg,' and he agrees. Then you go to driver B and say: 'He'll do it for $1,200 but I need it cheaper. Will you do it for $1,100?' It just screws its way down and down, so no-one makes any money. Then, once you finally get to Sydney after five hours of sitting at the docks or whatever waiting to be loaded and then heading up the road, risking life and limb on the roads, you have to go through that process again or else you will come back empty. Coming back from Sydney with an empty load you will have easily used 300 or 400 litres of fuel, and that will come out of your pocket. So you lose all the money that you made on the way up. And that is without what I said earlier about things like getting a puncture or breaking a windscreen. It is this stuff that they do not seem to understand. They seem to sit there and think: 'The only way we can make our roads safer is if the bosses make more money. Don't worry about truck drivers or the owner-drivers. As long as the bosses make money, the industry is well.' We come to a utopia of Liberal Party DNA. The fact of the matter is that you need to have people earning a fair rate to ensure that when they get on the road they are not sitting there worrying about things, taking shortcuts, speeding and overloading but are actually doing their job, which they can do extremely well.

I do not think anyone over there has actually sat in a truck and done trips from Melbourne to Brisbane or Melbourne to Adelaide. When you head up the Hume Highway on a Melbourne to Sydney run it is pretty boring once you have done it 10 or 11 times. Once you have done it 50 or 100 times, the road seems to go forever and you can just about pick out every tree along the way. You need to have concentration on the road with all the animals, cars and everything else. I have seen friends of mine involved in accidents where drivers have gone to sleep and crossed the road in front of a truck. I have seen it happen quite a few times. The most important thing when you are driving a truck is not having to be worrying about where your next dollar is coming from and not worrying if you have enough money to make the repayments on the truck or the trailer or the house or that you have enough money on the table so that your family can be fed.

These are the things that matter to people every day of the week when they get in those trucks and drive up and down the highway. We have a moral obligation to ensure that they get fair pay for doing fair work. I do not think anyone should argue against ensuring that when people go to work every day they can work in a safe manner and can be sure that they will get the pay that they deserve for the miles they travel and the effort they put in to keep Australia on the move. (Time expired)