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Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Page: 2118

Mr TURNOUR (6:49 PM) —I rise to support the Interstate Road Transport Charge Amendment Bill 2008 and related bill. The bills enable a nationally agreed new heavy vehicle registration charge to be applied to heavy vehicles registered under the Australian government’s Federal Interstate Registration Scheme. These bills are the result of deliberations by COAG, the Council of Australian Governments, and were unanimously endorsed by all ministers at the Australian Transport Council meeting on 29 February 2008.

The Rudd government take economic reform very seriously and the Interstate Road Transport Charge Amendment Bill 2008 is a very important part of our ongoing plans to build a modern and prosperous Australia into the future. The Council of Australian Governments deliberated on this bill—and the issues facing the transport industry—and unanimously endorsed it. The bill forms part of a three-pronged strategy to improve fairness in the distribution of funding in relation to heavy vehicle use in our transport industry. Those three prongs are the heavy vehicle registration charge, a slight increase in the road user charge and a $70 million heavy vehicle safety and productivity package. So this bill forms part of an overall plan—and that is what we are about. We are about planning and building a stronger Australia and a stronger economy into the future.

I come from the electorate of Leichhardt. I am a proud citizen of Cairns and have a rural and country background. This evening I have heard members of the National Party banging on about their representation of rural and regional Australia. They are a dying breed in Queensland in terms of federal politics and the reality is that they are dying because they do not effectively represent rural and regional Australia. I am a proud member of the Australian Labor Party and I am working very hard to ensure that rural and regional Queensland are represented. We understand how important road transport is to Australia. It is particularly important to my local community of Cairns and my electorate of Leichhardt. Cairns, up there in tropical North Queensland, is a long way from Brisbane, from Sydney, from Melbourne and from other capital cities. We depend on the Bruce Highway. We depend on heavy vehicles to bring in the basics, whether it is food or basic materials such as nappies and medications. For the common things that everyday working families need we rely on the road transport system and the road transport network to deliver, and we understand how very important it is that we continue to build and support a strong economy and make sure the road transport network and heavy vehicles are actually operating effectively within this country.

Not only does the system bring in goods, though; we also export a lot of goods. I have heard the National Party members today talk about representing rural Australia. I am proudly from a country background and I know that a lot of bananas and a lot of mangoes come out of North Queensland. Heavy vehicles take them out. The road transport system is a very important part of dealing with that and ensuring that we support those local industries and those local communities.

The National Transport Commission estimated that, under the current system, there is an under-recovery of the cost of providing infrastructure to heavy vehicles in excess of $100 million per annum. So it was estimated not by the Labor Party, the National Party or the Liberal Party but by the National Transport Commission that, under the current system, we get an under-recovery of $100 million per annum. So there is need for reform, and we recognise that. The system unfairly places a heavier burden of cost recovery on small trucks at the expense of large vehicles. Effectively, small trucks are cross-subsidising the impact of large trucks on the road network.

In April 2007, the Council of Australian Governments directed that, as part of an overall transport reform package, Australian transport ministers should require the National Transport Commission to prepare a new heavy vehicle determination. In its determination, the National Transport Commission recommended a new set of registration charges that rebalance the relative contributions of the different heavy vehicle classes. This is a fairer system of allocating the cost of heavy vehicle transport—and it is no wonder that we are getting a fairer system under a Rudd Labor government.

Mr McGauran —What, because you’re giving us new taxes!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms S Bird)—Order! The member will restrain himself.

Mr TURNOUR —Successive governments, at both Commonwealth and state and territory levels, have supported the principle of cost recovery from heavy vehicles. Successive governments, at both the Commonwealth and state and territory levels, have supported the principle of cost recovery from the heavy vehicle industry for road construction and maintenance costs incurred through the collection of heavy vehicle charges. So successive governments, including the previous Howard government, have supported this approach.

In a speech given on 28 June 2007 entitled ‘The coalition government’s transport reform agenda’, the member for Lyne, then federal transport minister and Leader of The Nationals, said:

The National Transport Commission will develop a new heavy vehicle charges determination to be implemented from 1 July 2008.

The new determination will aim to recover the heavy vehicles’ allocated infrastructure costs in total and will also aim to remove cross-subsidisation across heavy vehicle classes.

So the then minister under the Howard government was moving to implement these sorts of reforms. We have the current opposition, led by the Leader of the National Party today in terms of this bill, basically now opposing this. We have heard that since the election the opposition does not really know where it stands. It does not know where it stands on this bill, effectively, and it does not know where it stands on the basic things that are important to working families, like industrial relations legislation and climate change. The contributions by those opposite to the debate on this bill today are another example of the opposition having lost its way and not understanding that working families, the Australian community, is looking for economic reform and leadership, and that is what the Rudd Labor government is providing. As I have said, the previous minister supported these reforms.

If we want to build a modern Australia equipped for the 21st century, we must continue with economic reform. We are a government that listens and responds to industry and the community. Prior to the introduction of this bill, the National Transport Commission undertook comprehensive consultations to inform its final recommendations. This also was begun under the previous minister, who actually had some direction in terms of transport reform. As a result of these consultations, the National Transport Commission made a number of changes in terms of its recommendations. The determination proposed by the National Transport Commission recommended a new set of registration charges that rebalanced the relative contribution of the different heavy vehicle classes. Under the determination recommended by the National Transport Commission, registration fees for 25 per cent of the nation’s 365,000 heavy vehicles will be cut, while the fees on 69 per cent of the fleet will rise by between one per cent and 10 per cent. So there will be some rise for 69 per cent, but that rise will be between one and 10 per cent—not the huge increases that we have heard about in contributions from the opposite side of the chamber.

Some larger increases are proposed for the six per cent of heavy vehicles that do not pay their fair share—because at the heart of our changes is ensuring that everybody pays their fair share. We do not want to see cross-subsidisation from small truck owners to large truck owners and B-doubles. Going to the heart of these reforms is making sure that we get people paying their fair share—making sure that, in terms of economic reform, we are seeing a user-pays approach and that proper decisions are made within our economy in terms of how we transport and move freight within Australia.

These new charges will result in larger trucks, the B-doubles and road trains, paying more in registration charges. But, to assist the industry to adjust, these increases will be phased in over three years—because we do listen and we recognise that reform takes time. We are going to allow for these changes to be phased in over three years, particularly for the larger trucks, the B-doubles and road trains, that will be impacted most heavily by these changes. These changes will also result in a reduction of charges for smaller trucks. No longer will owners of smaller trucks have to subsidise B-doubles and road trains. These changes better align charges to the impacts of those vehicles on our roads, so they better align the charging system into the future.

This determination will also increase the road user charge by a small amount—from 19.633c per litre to 21c per litre—indexed annually. But again, after consultation—because we are a government that listens to industry and to the community—we have decided to delay this increase until 1 January 2009. The previous minister’s plan, under the former government, proposed to bring it in on 1 July this year and not six months later, as we have decided to do because we recognise that we need to listen and we need to support industry as it takes on these reforms. This charge is not part of this bill before the House but a separation declaration under a tax act.

It is nice to see that the fact that we listen and respond to the community, to working families and to the trucking industry has been recognised by the Australian Trucking Association. In a media release dated 29 February 2008, entitled ‘Rudd government listens to trucking industry’, the CEO, Stuart St Clair, from the Australian Trucking Association said:

The trucking industry and working families will benefit from the Australian government’s decision to delay increasing the fuel tax paid by trucking operators ... Minister Albanese has listened to the industry and delivered a strong result for trucking operators and Australian families ...

That is exactly right. Mr St Clair has hit the nail on the head. We are delivering for working families and we are listening to the trucking industry. These reforms are needed, but we are implementing them in a way that ensures that we reduce the burden on the trucking industry. He goes on to say—and this is a very interesting quote from that media release—that the minister:

... inherited a proposal that the National Transport Commission developed under the previous government.

So we on this side of the House, the government, inherited a proposal developed by the previous minister, yet we have seen the opposition today running away from that position. They are running away from taking the serious economic reforms that are needed for this country so that we can grow and strengthen our economy and ensure that we meet the challenges of the 21st century. Even the previous minister understood that reform was needed. The Leader of the National Party, who started this debate today, has basically run away from that reform because the current opposition have lost their way. They do not know what they stand for and their reaction to this bill is another example of that.

A further outcome of our deliberations and our consultation is—and I touched on it earlier—the fact that we need to improve safety in the heavy vehicle industry, and we also need to improve productivity. After these consultations the minister included in the determinations a $70 million four-year heavy vehicle safety and productivity package that will fund three components: trials of technologies that electronically monitor a truck driver’s work hours and vehicle speed; the construction of more heavy vehicle rest stops and decoupling areas along our highways and the outskirts of our major cities to assist truck drivers’ rest; and bridge-strengthening projects and upgrades to linkages between existing AusLink freight routes, enabling access to those roads by more productive, heavy vehicles. So we have listened, and we are introducing a $70 million safety and productivity package.

This commitment is critical to improving road safety in Australia. The National Road Safety Strategy targeted a 40 per cent reduction in road deaths by 2010. This is unlikely to be achieved, which is disappointing, and I know that is part of the reason the minister responded with this package. We are determined to work on improving road safety; this plan is part of our commitment to work in partnership with the states and territories and with the Australian Trucking Association and truck drivers. About one in five road deaths involves heavy vehicles, with speed a factor in around 30 per cent of these crashes and driver fatigue in up to 60 per cent of them. We need to tackle speeding and fatigue within the heavy vehicle industry if we are to reduce the road toll. So we do take this seriously, and components of this package will allow us to trial some new technologies in reducing speeding and fatigue and also to provide truck drivers with new facilities, allowing them to rest and take a break when they need to. These are very important reforms and very important components of our overall plan in terms of delivering for working families and the trucking industry in this country.

The third component of this package deals with productivity. I have heard some of the contributions from members of the National Party this evening on this bill, where they talked about Labor not understanding productivity. They should understand that under their 11½—close on 12—years of government, productivity effectively declined to the point that in the year to the December quarter we had zero per cent productivity growth. This is below the long-term trend of 2.4 per cent—that is a fact. On the other side of the chamber they can bang on about productivity, but productivity is at zero per cent at the moment. We have got inflation at 16-year highs, the second highest interest rates in the world and productivity at zero per cent, and there is no plan from the opposition for the future of the Australian economy. This bill is part of our package to strengthen Australia and to build a stronger Australian economy into the future, because increasing productivity is the key to growing and strengthening the Australian economy. Our plan provides for targeted investment which will open up more roads to heavy vehicles, freeing up the movement of freight and easing congestion. So the third component of that $70 million plan—the bridge strengthening and connecting of our road transport network—is about improving productivity within the Australian economy by allowing our road transport and freight to be more effectively connected and to more efficiently and effectively move freight around this country. The government will consult with industry and the state and territory governments to determine the best combination of projects for the use of this $70 million, because we do listen and respond not only to industry but to the community and working families. We take productivity seriously. That is why we will be investing in infrastructure and the education revolution.

I want to take the opportunity in my closing remarks to pick up on the statements made about productivity. If we are serious about tackling the problems with productivity then we need to make sure that we invest effectively in our infrastructure and in skills in this country. That is why bills like this, which ensure that we get a fair distribution of the costs of road infrastructure to heavy vehicles, are part of an overall plan. That plan involves Infrastructure Australia auditing and ensuring that we have a plan for future investment in our road, rail and port infrastructure and involves our education revolution to tackle the skills crisis. Productivity has reached zero per cent in this country; we need a plan to tackle that and to ensure that we build a strong economy that meets the challenges that confront us in the 21st century.

In closing, I commend this legislation to the House. I believe it is a good reform that was supported, effectively, by the previous government. The current opposition do not really have a position on a whole range of different areas. This legislation is just another example. They are effectively talking about productivity and talking about the fact that it might impact on grocery prices. I will take up that point very quickly in my last few minutes and mention the regulatory statement underpinning this. The Australian Trucking Association indicated in their submissions that this legislation will have negligible impact on grocery prices. In fact, I understand that 30c a week was the Australian Trucking Association estimate in terms of grocery prices, and I think that between 7c and 17c on a $100 basket of groceries was the assessment in the regulatory assessment of this legislation. So it is not going to impact on grocery prices. It is going to provide economic reform going forward to ensure that we build a strong economy and that we deliver for working families, for the trucking industry and for the broader community.