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Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Page: 2136

Mrs HULL (8:15 PM) —It is a great pleasure to rise to speak on the Interstate Road Transport Charge Amendment Bill 2008 in the House this evening and to voice the concerns that I have for the industry that I have been involved with over several years—over many, many years as a matter of fact. I have several concerns about the impact that this bill will have on transport operators within the Riverina and the additional costs that will flow on to the consumers. Consumers and businesspeople throughout my electorate are already doing it very tough. The ongoing drought and the additional charges will make it all the more harder for these people. Many of these people own trucks. Many of these people, who have been suffering from drought and who have not had a crop in seven years, will be affected by the increase in these charges as well, and I just feel that it is all very unfair.

We know that rural and regional areas are especially dependent upon transport services, and it is these areas that will most certainly feel the pinch as costs flow on to them. My electorate has a lot of heavy vehicle usage, especially with four major national highways running through the electorate: the Hume Highway, the Sturt Highway, the Olympic Highway and the Newell Highway. In September 2007 statistics showed that about 7,000 vehicles, and in particular about 4,500 heavy vehicles, travelled over the Sheehan Bridge at Gundagai on a daily basis. We are now seeing the duplication of the Sheehan Bridge. Finally, after many years of lobbying, we now have the duplication of that bridge taking place, which obviously will see those movements and the freight task being increased because the road, particularly a duplicated highway from Melbourne through to Sydney, will be able to take more of the freight task than it does now. Information that I have obtained about traffic from the RTA website shows general traffic movements through the other three Riverina highways, and most of these are of significant heavy vehicles. The Olympic Way had an annual average daily traffic of 3,040 vehicles just at a very small area in The Rock. The Sturt Highway at Collingullie had an annual average daily traffic of 2,782 heavy vehicles in 2006 and the Newell Highway at Narrandera had an annual average daily traffic of over 1,200 vehicles.

The tax rise for the trucking and bus industries will mean an extra 1.3c per litre on fuel from January 2009 and an increase in registration charges for 69 per cent of the nation’s heaviest vehicles. This means that registration fees will in some cases go up by 227 per cent. The issue that I have with that is the fact that we are rewarding inefficiencies. It is in fact the B-doubles and the B-triples and other heavier vehicles that will be slugged with this tax. But the heavy, fixed-rig vehicles that tear up the highways and cause the most damage at intersections, traffic lights and other areas due to having a fixed rig are not going to have this tax imposed on them. I think it is very short-sighted of the government not to question this through the National Transport Commission.

We have sincerely opposed these increased charges and taxes. The states have been trying to impose these additional costs and additional registration fees for a very long time. When we opposed this last time we were able to win because if the Commonwealth stands up and is counted, if the Commonwealth minister stands up and says no to these increases in charges then the states capitulate. They did last time and they will capitulate again, because they do not want to be the bearer of bad tidings. The states do not want to be blamed for the bad news, whereas now the states can just turn around immediately and blame the Commonwealth because ‘they forced us to do it’. This is an NTC issue. So, undoubtedly, the Commonwealth will get the blame for this. I am indebted to the previous minister for transport, former Minister Truss, who is now the Leader of the Nationals, for having the courage to stand up against the states and against the recommendations from the NTC to oppose this in the last parliament.

We found that, in addition to the increase in these costs and the 1.37c increase in the excise, the trucking industry has already borne the brunt of many increases. It has borne the load of heavy fuel prices for so long now. It has absorbed most of those; it has not passed them on to the consumer. It is an industry that is valuable to the Australian people. In fact, it is an industry that is integral to the operation every day of the Australian people. I feel it is short-sighted and neglectful and a non-recognition of the thousands and thousands of working owners, operators, drivers and their families, because these are the people who are most impacted upon by this legislation. It is the people who, Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I purport to represent on a daily basis along with both sides of this House. They are working Australian families. They are doing their best to deliver to us every day what we require in our supermarkets, in our whitegoods and in our retail outlets.

Imagine what it would be like—and I have raised the ire of some people by suggesting this—if all trucks were to stop at Gundagai for a day. Let us see just how well we would cope in Australia without the good men and women of the trucking industry. They are good people. They are solid Australians doing a job. It is a dangerous job. It is a job that is required and it is something that the Australian people sincerely cannot do without. However, instead of giving them recognition, we slug them. We capitulate and kowtow to the states’ call for ‘more money, more money, more money’. This is what it is all about. It is a revenue raising exercise by the state governments for which the Commonwealth will be blamed. Mark my words: the Commonwealth will wear this issue.

We have heard about the reviews and the studies that the government is doing currently and about one in particular, the ACCC inquiry to bring down the cost of groceries. Today we heard at the dispatch box from the government what the inquiry into the cost of food and groceries would reveal and how it was out there and operational—all because a government cares about the cost of living, of food and groceries, to the average daily consumer! I cannot understand how you would be concerned, on the one hand, about the rising cost of food and groceries and, on the other hand, allow the states and territories to dictate the terms and to push up those prices. There is no way that those prices cannot be pushed up by this decision. So how does one reconcile what is being done by the right hand with what is being done by the left hand under these circumstances? It is a very disappointing day to be speaking on this bill.

With these increases, even the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Mr Albanese, has admitted that grocery prices are set to rise and they will impact on the family grocery budget by around 32c per week. But I say that it is not going to be 32c per week; it is probably going to be 32c per item, because eventually owner-operator transport drivers and trucking institutes will have to decide to bite the bullet and recoup the losses that they have been experiencing and absorbing over a long period of time. They are undergoing significant pressures.

Owners of transport companies in rural and regional Australia are unable to get skilled drivers and skilled workers. We have a skills shortage. Not only that; the states have imposed on them an enormous chain of command of occupational health and safety that is absolutely ridiculous. Everybody wants to ensure their workers are safe on the job, but what is being imposed upon New South Wales operators is an absolute disgrace. You have an industry that is already in crisis. It is an industry that does a magnificent job for the Australian people—which obviously is not recognised on the government side of the House, where there is a lack of desire to represent those fabulous trucking industry people who, each day of the week, make Australia operational. That we have this issue here this evening to debate and discuss, I guess, means that there is no longer recognition of what small businesses, particularly transport operators, are providing to the Australian people.

The Australian Trucking Association argued that the proposal for increased charges should be rejected completely. It also wanted to ensure that indexation did not increase the charges on the industry above what the industry should be paying. There has to be a clear understanding of what the industry is paying. I think there is a view out there that the Australian transport industry is not paying its way on highways and byways—and, in fact, that is incorrect. That has always been an incorrect assumption. Stuart St Clair, chairman of the ATA, is quoted in a media release of 5 February 2008, just after the most recent interest rate rise, as saying:

The Government has a five point plan to fight inflation and keep interest rates down, but it will be a while before it takes effect. By rejecting the NTC’s plan, the Government could take immediate action to keep some of the pressure off working families.

That is the truth. It would keep pressure off working families that happen to be owner-operators or people involved in the trucking industry.

Along with this imposition of costs and this slap in the face for the Australian trucking industry, I have another problem. Where the Transport Workers Union is in this, I have no idea. Where Tony Sheldon sits in amongst all of this, I have no idea. I for one believed that he was one man who really did seek to ensure that the rights of operators were paramount, particularly those of contract drivers. In fact, I have stood side by side with the TWU in support of the best interests of contractors and their drivers. I am aghast to think that nowhere have I seen anything that is said to be looking at supporting the very people that the TWU should be supporting.

I also have concerns about Labor’s plan to commit, between now and 2013, to only half the spending by the coalition government for road and rail. I am very pleased to see the member for Eden-Monaro in the House while I speak. The member for Eden-Monaro has been quoted in my local press as saying that the withdrawal of funding for Gocup Road was because there was no consultation with the states—that the Commonwealth just came in and put up $11 million. That is not true.

Dr Kelly —You’ve betrayed the bush.

Mrs HULL —The member for Eden-Monaro has been misled. There was consultation with the state government. The state government was actively aware of what was going on with Gocup and it actively supported it.

Dr Kelly —It was never going to happen.

Mrs HULL —Indeed, the state government guaranteed Visy Industries that, if the Commonwealth government would come on board and pay the money toward Gocup Road, it would most certainly come on board.

Dr Kelly interjecting

Mrs HULL —Madam Deputy Speaker, am I not entitled to speak without continual interjection?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—The member for Riverina has the call.

Mrs HULL —Thank you very much. The fact is that we have had consultation with the state and the state is very well aware of this issue.

Debate interrupted.