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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 2921

Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (18:06): It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak on the Road Safety Remuneration Bill 2011, which is being debated cognately with the Road Safety (Consequential Amendments and Related Provisions) Bill 2011. At the heart of what we are debating here today is competition and how competition should be regulated. Competition is generally a beneficial thing. It improves quality, it generally makes firms more efficient and it provides benefits to consumers. Generally speaking competition is a fine thing. That is why we hear so many economists and so many politicians talking about it so often. You will often hear people singing its merits. But competition does have to be regulated appropriately. It is important in any game to have an umpire and a fair set of rules so that people play fairly.

We have known for some time that the transport industry does need special regulation if it is to be safe and, in particular, if people are to be treated appropriately and with dignity and if people are to be remunerated properly. This is because, although competition generally acts to have a positive effect on our economy, in this area it does not. The reason it generally does not act in a beneficial way in this industry is that we have a race to the bottom. That is what you get with competition in the transport industry. That is because we have two dominant players, Coles and Woolworths.

I had many dealings with Coles and Woolworths when I was in the retail union and in the retail industry. They are generally good employers. They have good sets of wages and conditions, particularly when you compare them to those of the rest of the world, but they are very tough on the people who deal with them. They are tough on suppliers and tough on people who sign contracts with them. I had some personal experience of this when I was a trolley collector. There was the same race to the bottom in trolley collection that we have seen in other areas of the retail business. Periodically, a contract would be put out for trolley collection services for Coles. In my case it was Coles Burnside, so I worked in a very well-to-do part of Adelaide. Contracts would be let and people would bid for those contracts, and it would simply come down to the price. That is what Coles looked for. There is not much of a quality issue in trolley collection: you either collect the trolleys or you do not. I was a young uni student at the time. What they generally compete on is wages. If there is not fair regulation of those wages then you will pretty soon find a race to the bottom. That is what happened in trolley collection in South Australia.

We had a situation where the Caretakers and Cleaners Award applied, because generally the company that did the cleaning of the store did the trolley collection. Then some bright spark discovered that, if you split those two services, you were no longer bound by the Caretakers and Cleaners Award. What pretty soon happened is that trolley collection in South Australia became award-free. I was employed under the Caretakers and Cleaners Award in 1994, getting something like 11 or 12 bucks an hour as a casual rate. My employer did not pay any overtime and he did not pay the penalty rates he was supposed to. That is why I joined the union at the time. We found that once those companies became award-free, once they did not feel even nominally obliged to pay the award rate, wages fell to $5 or $6 an hour—and they fell very quickly, almost overnight. So you had people earning $5 or $6 an hour collecting trolleys out the front of Coles and Woolies all over the state of South Australia. You still see this today. Fair Work Australia is to be commended on some of the underpayment matters they have dealt with since award protection has been extended to those workers yet again. So I have seen what happens in a race to the bottom situation with Coles and Woolworths. Again, I am not particularly seeking to demonise them. If someone stumps up a low contract price, they would be fools not to take it. But if, in that low contract price, you are building in unfairly low wages then that is something that the whole community should be concerned about.

We have seen this in the transport industry as well. It is an industry where you have owner-operators who do 60 per cent of the work and receive about 11 per cent of the income. We know that they are the people at the end of the chain, the people who get squeezed. Whenever people talk about efficiency or productivity in the transport industry, we know who is providing that. We know who has to work longer and work harder. There are not that many efficiency gains you can make in transport. At the end of the day you can squeeze the lemon only so hard. There are only so many costs you can reduce without starting to cut into your wages and other conditions at work. That is why we see that speed is a problem. It is not that drivers want to speed; it is that they have to to meet the conditions of their contract. It is not that they want to work long hours and be away from their friends and their families to do inordinate hours on the road; it is that they have to do long hours. It is not that they want to drive in a state of fatigue; it is because the contract requires them to. That is what this situation, this race to the bottom, generates. Of course no driver would voluntarily use illicit drugs. You would not want to think they would. It is the pressure they are put under, the economic and financial pressure, to meet payments on a truck, to meet the conditions of a contract and to try to get by in what is a cutthroat industry where someone is always going to try to cut in a little bit lower, push the envelope a bit harder, squeeze the lemon a bit tighter—or at least they think they can. Those are the sorts of tough conditions that will predominate in this industry if it is to be unregulated and if fair rules and a fair umpire are not to preside over it. We all have plenty of anecdotal stories, we have all heard them, about people who have bought trucks and have to pay banks, who have to meet the conditions of contracts and feel obligated because they are in so much debt—they are pursuing a legitimate dream that a lot of Australians have, which is to be their own boss and chart out their own economic future. It is hard to do that in an industry which is so cutthroat.

This parliament has an obligation to at least address this very difficult issue. It is not an easy issue to deal with through laws or regulations. It is still something that is going to require individuals to avail themselves of the rights that we are giving them. It will still take a strong trade union movement in this industry to make sure that these important intentions of the federal parliament are actually implemented, because we all know that once these sorts of cultures predominate they tend to be very hard to stamp out.

We know the road toll in this country takes a very bitter toll on the community, and we know that politicians on all sides want to reduce that toll. We have been very successful in doing so through regulation, through laws on drink driving, laws about drug driving, laws about seatbelts and laws about speed. Many of the same arguments that are made against this law, spurious arguments, have been made about those initiatives, but we know that they lower the road toll and lower the cost to the community. That cost is something like $2.7 billion, so it is a huge cost. In my own state of South Australia, we have seen some terrible accidents. I remember one a few years ago—this is a pretty graphic example of what we are talking about here—where a truck ploughed into a couple of cars and the driver was found to have been taking methamphetamine, or some sort of amphetamine, which had been given to him in his pay packet. So, you got your pay envelope, and in your pay envelope were the pills that you took, presumably to stay awake on the road and to meet the competitive pressures of the contracts that you were under. We have had some graphic examples in South Australia. That was probably five or six years ago, maybe a bit longer, but it is a very graphic example for the House about the problems in this industry.

I have been lobbied on this a fair bit over the years by the Transport Workers Union, including by Ray Wyatt and others in my state, who put forward a pretty passionate case. The TWU are not backwards in coming forwards, as my mother used to say. But the strongest stories come from the owner-drivers themselves, from the blokes who do the job on the road. These people have to load at transport yards and often have to put up with very long lines at retail warehouses and they get frustrated at those long lines. They have to put up with delays on our roads and meet pretty tough contracts as well. They have always been the most compelling advocates, I think, of this law.

To conclude, competition must be regulated in certain instances so that we do not have a race to the bottom. A race to the bottom is perhaps the worst form of competition that you can have. It means that the externalities, which in this case are the terrible road toll and the health, safety, welfare and wages of truck drivers, are put at risk if we have competition. They are the things that are not priced in if we have this sort of cutthroat competition at the bottom end. So competition must be regulated, it must have fair rules and it must have a fair umpire. These bills, the details of which have been spoken about for the House's benefit so I will not go over them again, are important not just for the transport industry but also for the people who drive on the roads. We want our truck drivers to be fairly remunerated. We want those owner-drivers who are the most entrepreneurial of small businessmen to be fairly compensated for their time and labour and the risk they take in borrowing money to buy trucks and the like. It is a risky endeavour and they should be compensated appropriately. This bill does that.

I just say to those opposite, I remember a quote from an old union man who was interviewed in a documentary about Red Ted Theodore. This old union bloke, who had been Red Ted's campaign manager, said, 'The conservatives have only ever had one idea—feed the donkey less and whip him harder.' My enduring hope is that the conservative parties do not revisit the rules they had in the 1930s, but rather follow the civilised capitalism of Menzies, the civilised liberalism of Menzies that my grandfather loved so much. I did not always agree with my grandfather, but he was a civilised conservative and I live in hope that the other side can perhaps find it in their common sense to support this commonsense bill.