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Thursday, 14 August 2003
Page: 18627

Mr HATTON (9:58 AM) —This legislation is significant because it ties together current transport arrangements in which the state governments act together under the aegis of a bill that was originally put together in 1991, when we were last in power. This legislation comes before us now because when the original bill was put into place there was a sunset clause which indicated that this parliament should be required, 12 years after the first operation of the initial bill, to undertake a certain set of measures to look at future transport regulation provision.

I would like to go to the question of the original compact between the Commonwealth and the states and then take it a bit further. As indicated in, as usual, an excellent brief from the Parliamentary Library, this bill is about the incorporation of a new entity, the National Transport Commission, and about giving that commission a broader charter than the original National Road Transport Commission that was set up in 1991. The original bill allowed for a review and report process before the expiry of the 12-year period and before the sunset clause came into operation—so that when the original arrangements were put aside, future arrangements would be put in place. This government has rightly recognised the need for this kind of function to be in place, as a fundamental contribution to the safety of Australians in the transport industry and of those who are affected by the national transport industry in all of the states and territories of Australia.

In 1991 the key reason that the federal government moved to create the commission was the recognition that, across Australia's states and territories, there was a lack of uniformity in the regulation of transport vehicle operations, including vehicle standards, weights and dimensions. That lack of uniformity had been there for a considerable time. We know that that lack of uniformity was attractive to some people in the transport area because it included a lack of uniformity in registration costs. South Australia in particular was extremely popular as a place to register a vehicle, because you could do it at much lower rates than in New South Wales, for instance.

We know the dominant area of national transport usage runs, as it does in rail, along the eastern corridor—Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne. We know that there is a significant cross-Australia movement from Melbourne through South Australia to Western Australia and of course to Darwin. We know that those road movements from Darwin to South Australia and from Darwin to elsewhere are going to be impacted upon due to the fact that the rail link from Adelaide to Alice Springs is being extended to Darwin. We know that will impact on road transport. We also know that the total volume of transport from Darwin to other parts of Australia and from Perth to other parts of Australia is much smaller than that carried along the eastern seaboard, so the total impact is much greater on that eastern seaboard.

We also know and understand that a national government had to be prepared to address the significant problems that were embedded in what the states had experienced—but that was meant to be grappled with. It is not easy for a government to come up to the front line and say, `We recognise that these are significant differences and that in the greater national interest everyone will have to sit down and cooperate and get their act together with people of different parties at federal and state level.' This was, however, achieved, because it had been recognised that, while people working in the transport industry might save on registration costs by going to a state with lower costs—that might give them a short-term benefit—in fact it would impact on them, their business, their contracts, their costs and charges and the safety of everyone involved in transport. It was recognised—by those who were owner-operators but not union members as much as those who were members of the Transport Workers Union—that a national solution was needed.

In looking at those current operations, the states, the territories and the Commonwealth got together behind this original bill. What did it provide? It provided for the variations in regulations which impacted adversely on interstate transport operations to be codified. They needed to be regulated. We needed to have a common set of arrangements not only so that people could be certain of what would impact upon them when they travelled from New South Wales to Queensland or from New South Wales through to Victoria and South Australia—so that people would not be caught short by not complying with the state jurisdiction's demands—but also so that safety of operation would be a central focus in dealing with the problems that drivers encounter. If you have a commonality of treatment, you also have a commonality of purpose and approach.

We know that in all long-haul work Australia wide, there is a significant problem with people working longer hours than they should. Part and parcel of the regulation package which the previous Labor government put together in 1991 was a focus on the safety of those people involved in road transport and a demand that, whoever they were working for—either as private contractors or for companies—safety standards should be abided by. This government has recognised that over the last 12 years the states and the Commonwealth have worked together cooperatively to enhance the health and safety of people working in this industry. The commonality of regulations has been a boon not only to the individual operators but to the companies and Australians as a whole. Therefore, instead of knocking this over at the end of the sunset period, this is a question of re-endorsing the kind of approach that there can be Commonwealth activity in regulating what happens with national transport. I commend the government on recognising that when you do good work, it should be substantiated and that there is a valuable and vital role to play.

I will go a little further on this and say that over the last six years it has been recognised on both sides that a lot needs to be done for national transport. There have been some stuttering attempts to fix some of the core problems. But there are members of the coalition, in both the National Party and the Liberal Party, who recognise that reports brought down in this House—one by the member for Hinkler some parliaments ago—looking at the national transport needs of Australia have identified that significant amounts of money need to be expended to fix our core problems. About $600 million—it might be a bit more now—needed to be expended to fix the fundamental problems in rail transport.

We have seen some stuttering attempts and announcements recently that these problems might be addressed. The almost completed link to Darwin was not part of the considerations of that report, as far as I understand it. The key elements of that report go to the question of how you get rail freight running along the eastern seaboard and how you do it more effectively, in a modern way, to make up for the serious difficulties that are currently encountered. One problem is that we do not have a dedicated freight line running right up and down the eastern seaboard. That is evident in Sydney. When freight hits Sydney, it hits the normal passenger network. It cannot effectively and efficiently be dealt with in Sydney; it cannot move through Sydney to Brisbane or Melbourne or on to Perth because of delays within the Sydney system.

This government has not addressed the great challenge of how to deal with national rail freight efficiently and effectively. It demands not only a dedicated freight line and a way of unclogging movement through Sydney but also cooperation with the states, owners and companies in the transport area to fix up old infrastructure problems that were not addressed when National Rail controlled the whole show.

Some fundamental things need to be done. The member for Hinkler's report underlined the fact that, if you spent your money on addressing the key nodal problems of overhead passes, repairing bridges, ensuring that there were extended lay-bys so that trains could move aside to allow other trains—whether freight or passenger—to move past, you could rejuvenate our system and make it operable.

That is significant because the kind of regulation involved in this bill—which goes to the commonality of usages, charges and so on—also goes to the question of how we look at national transport as a whole. Is it just the responsibility of the Commonwealth? No. Is it just the responsibility of the individual states? No. The only fundamentally successful platform we can lay is one where cooperation is embedded in the entire process. This was evident in what was put together in 1991. It has been evident that the regulatory regime that that has encompassed has been successfully operating for the past 12 years. It means that state, territory and Commonwealth governments can cooperate not only in relation to the National Transport Commission but also to fix the key unaddressed problems with our national infrastructure.

A fundamental problem, when we are dealing with the question of road infrastructure, is the national highway. When in office, Labor expended $5,000 million on ensuring that the national highway was really a national highway—that is, that it covered the whole of Australia so people could move from one part to another on a tarred surface and the nation could be bound together. There are different priorities in different governments, and the coalition have put their money into the Pacific Highway. They have addressed, fundamentally, state road concerns, not national road concerns. They have done that for their own purposes. I know how dear to the hearts of certain members that expenditure has been over time.

I would argue that there is a higher question here, and you need to look not just at short-term approaches to try to get electoral effects in seats associated with this highway. If you look at the Commonwealth point and purpose, you will see that a national road system was a major and significant accomplishment of the last government. The next Labor government, under our current shadow minister, has a plan for fixing those national problems which are centred on Sydney. Labor has announced an integrated plan to fix the fundamental problems in the Sydney road, rail, air and sea network which will address those problems in a manner where the state and federal governments work cooperatively. Everyone who is part of the Sydney transport system and lives with it knows those problems need a great deal of addressing.

The one thing that the Commonwealth government have done is to eventually agree to the orbital road in Sydney. That has been a long time coming. The financial support for that will be based on the users, people in Western Sydney, paying a high toll to have that facility. People in the transport area will pay the money that it takes to get through Sydney because currently there is a great deal of delay when trucks go through from the south to the north of Sydney, or the reverse. The orbital road will make a significant difference to the ease of use of transport through the city.

The clogging in the rail area has not been fixed or addressed. The government have made some stuttering attempts to say they will do a bit about it, but there is not much that is integrated or highly regulated about their approach. It is episodic, it is ad hoc, it tends to be election driven and it tends to be off-key. Often they look at purely state concerns, rather than national concerns that bind together the Commonwealth, states and territories—as encompassed in this bill.

At this juncture I want to underline the fact that Labor has an extremely proud history in government as a party that is willing to address the difficult problems. It is very easy to try to address the simple ones and to try to belt out a bit of rhetoric and beat the drum over issues that do not demand much of a government. But you need imagination, vision, determination, commitment and a pragmatic approach to fixing fundamental infrastructure problems. You need the willingness to belt your head against the wall to get state ministers around the table to agree to a common set of purposes and a common set of approaches in addressing these difficult issues.

The core of Labor's approach, demonstrated in our last 13 years in government, is expressed in the continuation of our work in this bill. If what we had done had been so wrong the government, at the end of the 12-year period, in looking at this and determining to review may have said, `This isn't going to go anywhere; there's not much that's very good in this. We've been forced to have a 12-year period, but let's go back to the market and let individuals simply choose the approach they are going to take to regulation. Let's have a federation where the states should be as free as individuals to determine what their road haulage charges are, what their insurance charges are, what taxes and imposts they should make, what safety regulations they should have and what other determinants they should have.'

If you follow Liberal philosophy, that is how it should run. That is what they mostly argue should happen here. But there is a giant corrective in the approach we have taken which the coalition have had to acknowledge: one, that it works and, two, that there is a great national and public interest that is addressed by that commonality of standards and approach. It makes national transport run well and run effectively if you do it in cooperation and you do not have a laissez faire attitude towards these issues.

Labor strongly endorses cooperative development at the state and federal levels no matter how hard that is to achieve. As that has been re-endorsed here, in what is an extension of the work we have done by putting it onto a broader canvas, we have called for, as the shadow minister has indicated, a commitment—we know we will get a commitment on the part of the next Labor government, but we do not have a commitment on the part of the coalition—to address the fundamental key problems of transport infrastructure and the difficult unyielding problems that exist because it is not a big project that looks flashy and can be talked about from one end of the country to the other.

The inland rail proposal, because it is a private proposal, has been whipped up from one end of Australia to the other, but it is a proposal that is dependent on two things: one, the Commonwealth giving a total guarantee that it will underwrite any cost if that project happens to fail; and, two, the Commonwealth underwriting a series of connections to ports such as Gladstone and so on. We have seen no movement forward, except rhetorically, in relation to that proposal because it is fundamentally not sustainable. People in country Australia have been promised an easy way out of these problems, but they have not been told the truth about what the fundamental difficulties of it are and the fact that the Commonwealth is not going to sign under the line.

We need a re-endorsement of a commitment to a national approach to our national problems. We need a re-endorsement of the Commonwealth's central role in bringing together disparate state interests and directing them towards fixing our national transport problems. In terms of safety conditions, regulations and how they have been bound together, we have had 12 years of positive experience of how that has worked out and we have had an endorsement by the coalition of Labor's approach in government. We have had an endorsement of the fact that if you do it cooperatively you can also do it in the national interest. I commend the bill to the chamber. (Time expired)