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Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Page: 2683

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (18:46): I appreciate the opportunity to speak in relation to the Road Safety Remuneration Bill 2011 and cognate bill. I will note from the outset that the coalition has indicated it will be opposing the bills.

Before I raise my concerns about the bill itself, I want to make a couple of comments about what I consider to be a quite disappointing process that was undertaken in this place in the last sitting week. Debate started on this bill without waiting for the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications to table its report, and I think that is quite a serious insult to both the chair of the committee and all the members who served on that committee, because I know they have taken this matter very seriously. As a supplementary member of the committee for the purpose of the inquiry into this bill, I sat in on the public hearings and I want to thank all the committee members for the manner in which they conducted themselves during that hearing; I think it was handled very responsibly by the committee members. But I think that bringing on this debate in that last sitting week did reflect very poorly on the government. It goes to the core issue of trust, which is something that this government has trouble dealing with. If we cannot even trust the government to listen to the concerns of and evidence presented by submitters to the inquiry before the legislation is presented to the House, I am not sure why they would expect the people of Australia to trust them on any other issues either.

Moving to the substance of the debate, I would like to make a couple of observations and reinforce the comments that have been made by the Leader of the Nationals in relation to this issue. I do acknowledge that this is not a simple issue; it is a very complex debate and it does not lend itself to simple slogans. It also does not lend itself to some of the emotional arguments that have been put forward by those advocating on the other side of the issue in pretending that somehow they have an answer to this issue of road safety in the legislation that is before the House. I do take exception to some of the language that has been used and directed at members on this side, as if suggesting that any one of us does not strongly support the need to invest in road safety. I do not think there is a member in this chamber who is not concerned about the level of deaths and injuries in the heavy transport industry. And if it were possible with the stroke of a legislative pen to change all of that, to reduce the trauma on our roads, I would be the first to vote for it. But, on balance, I just do not believe they have made the case for the legislation that is before us here this evening.

As someone who has campaigned actively on road safety initiatives in my own electorate, in my role as the shadow parliamentary secretary for roads and regional transport and also as a local member advocating in particular for the need to upgrade the Princes Highway, it is an issue that I am very passionate about and I think there are members on both sides of the chamber who have a shared interest in this issue. In particular, members of the committee which inquired into this bill were deeply concerned about the level of deaths and injuries on our roads involving heavy vehicles. So, for the benefit of those opposite who have sought to lecture members on this side, I do not believe that either side of the House has a mortgage on compassion and empathy for those who have lost loved ones on our roads, and I think it does not reflect very well on those who have sought to score political points out of this debate.

There is a genuine, shared desire in this place to reduce the road toll, but I fear, as I said earlier, that this legislation is not the answer. It is unfortunate that it has been portrayed as some sort of Holy Grail or some sort of silver bullet for the issues we are faced with. I genuinely hope that, if this legislation does pass through the chamber here tonight and the reforms are introduced, that actually does lead to a reduction in accidents and fatalities, and I would be the first to congratulate the government if that were the case. I genuinely hope that it does achieve what they think it is going to achieve. I just fear that what it is actually going to do is to distract governments and industry from taking what I think is required: a more holistic approach to road safety.

So I am not suggesting there is not an issue with safety in the heavy transport industry, and I am not suggesting that fatigue management is not part of the problem. I just remain unconvinced that the government and those advocating for this legislation have been able to present a direct and causal relationship between pay rates and road safety. In essence what I am saying is: I am unconvinced that setting a minimum rate of pay will turn an unsafe truck driver into a safe truck driver.

In the context of this debate we need to be mindful of the scale of the problem, and those opposite have rightfully raised their concerns in relation to that. But, according to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, during the 12 months to the end of June 2011, 185 people died from crashes involving articulated and heavy rigid trucks. That is a tragic result. There is not a member in this place who does not have some concerns about the safety of the heavy vehicle drivers and other road users. But it needs to be noted that for articulated trucks this was a decrease on average of 3.5 per cent per year over the three years to June 2011, and for heavy rigid trucks a decrease by an average of 14.7 per cent per year over the same period. So it is unfair to suggest that there has not been some progress, and I give credit to governments in all jurisdictions which have been involved in introducing a range of other initiatives which are now in place and showing some positive results, even without this legislation that the government is determined to introduce. So, at a time when the freight task has actually grown in this country and there are more trucks than ever on our roads every day of the week, we have actually seen an improvement in those accident statistics. That is not again to suggest for a second that we should drop our guard or in any way seek to diminish the tragic fact that 185 people lost their lives during that period.

Everyone in this place, members of parliament in other jurisdictions, police officers, trucking company executives, unions and industry associations are working with good intentions to reduce the road toll in the heavy vehicle transport sector, but the key question is: will the legislation that we are debating tonight actually deliver the result that is being attributed to it? I fear that it will not. Others have noted and, given that the minister is in the chamber, I think it is appropriate for me also to note the fact that the minister for industrial relations now has carriage of the bill before the parliament, which I fear indicates where this issue is heading—that this is more about industrial relations than road safety. This is not in any way to ridicule the role of the Transport Workers Union in this issue. I was present when its members gave evidence to the committee and I have no doubt that they are genuine in their desire to reduce the road toll in their industry. It is not about seeking to ridicule the TWU in that regard. I think their submission was well constructed and their position was well argued at the public hearing, but I still think it lacked the critical evidence which directly linked so-called safe rates with road safety. There are reasons why members on this side have expressed their concern that this is more about industrial relations and a power grab by the TWU under the guise of road safety. Yes, I do accept that the TWU cares very deeply about road safety—but so do members on this side of the House. It is important that in this debate we be very rational and objective about that and not use emotional gimmicks to try and vilify one side as opposed to the other.

The bill establishes the new Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, which is to be given broad powers to investigate and set the pay rates I have referred to and conditions for any segment in the heavy vehicle industry. Other members have gone through how the tribunal operates and I am not going to spend much time looking at that this evening. The bill covers the broadly defined road transport industry, which includes the road transport and distribution industry, long distance operations, the cash in transit industry, the waste management industry and all road transport drivers, including independent contractors. The tribunal will have very broad responsibilities. It must prepare an annual work plan with a view to making a road safety remuneration order and, in doing so, must consult with the industry.

I do accept that members opposite have indicated there has been a lot of consultation in relation to this issue. It is not that anyone could suggest this has come out of a clear blue sky; this has been debated for many years. I am not one of those who are suggesting there has not been consultation, but I do still have a concern about the evidence that has been claimed to be irrefutable proof of the link between safe rates and road safety. I am still concerned that the link has not been established. The crux of the issues that we are dealing with is the setting of a safe rate. I had the opportunity to participate in the inquiry. I read all of the submissions to the inquiry and heard the evidence that was submitted to the committee and I also took the opportunity to meet with four of the biggest trucking transport operators and seek their feedback. It is unfortunate that we do not hear enough from people on the ground in an issue like this. We had about 27 submissions to this inquiry. I was given the opportunity to write to the transport companies in my electorate, and four of them contacted me very quickly afterwards and raised their concerns in relation to the issues that the bill presents. I really wish they had had the opportunity to present to the committee, but it was only a short inquiry and the hearings were held in Canberra. What they told me was very compelling evidence from people actually on the ground who are directly involved in the industry on a daily basis and who are working every day to keep their drivers safe on the road. They are not the cowboy operators who often get vilified on our current affairs type programs on television. They are people who have a long history in the industry and they have a very proud involvement in working with their employees to improve safety outcomes in the workplace. Two of the employers I am talking about received Australia Day honours for their work in the transport industry. They are very reputable people who are working very hard in our community and doing a great job. They told me that the biggest road safety issue of all was the road environment itself.

I fear that governments of all political persuasions—I am not suggesting it is governments of only one political persuasion—have conveniently focused their road safety endeavours more on the legislative and regulation side of the equation, on enforcement and advertising campaigns and things like double demerit points on long weekends, as their mechanism for tackling the road toll because it has saved them from having to spend all the money that is required to improve the safety of the road environment. I am not saying that those measures are not useful in themselves; but I believe that governments have used those tools to virtually blame the travelling public for the fact that we have such severe road trauma in our community and have dodged their responsibility to invest in the road environment to meet the demands of modern vehicles.

It was interesting that the first thing the road transport operators in my electorate raised with me was the safety of the road environment. They did not use the words 'holistic approach to road safety', but that is what they are talking about. They are talking about the complete picture rather than picking out one part of the jigsaw and pretending we have got an answer for it. What I have said to this government, to the previous Labor government in Victoria and to the current Victorian coalition government is that we need to build safer roads to meet the demands of the larger vehicles that are using our roads today—not just the heavy vehicles in the commercial sector but the large recreational vehicles which are on the road. In addition we need to invest more in the provision of decent rest areas and decent facilities for the travelling public and the heavy vehicle sector. It is very hard to expect a transport operator to just pull over and get a bad night's sleep on the side of the road. We have to provide decent facilities for them to actually get some rest when they are resting. The government could do a lot more work in that area. I congratulate the Leader of the Nationals for the work he has done in that area to promote those issues in the broader community.

Time is against me in going through all the issues that people from my electorate raised in relation to this legislation, but I would like to draw attention to one operator who made a submission to the inquiry, Mr Ross Ingram from Bonaccord Freightlines. In his submission he pointed out that governments need to take a long-term view, particularly in relation to roads and bridges, and not just have the piecemeal planning we have seen in the past. He made the point:

All future roads and bridges should be constructed to accommodate two trailer and one truck combinations.

He went on to highlight some of the areas that need to be upgraded on his regular route. But he also pointed out:

The Federal Government needs to plan more for the future of the Transport Industry - Setting high level strategic goals, using Education not litigation, and have a long term vision.

The final point he made was:

Industry needs one set of rules to comply with, not seven and it needs to be simple to understand, and written in language that is easy to interpret. Currently, what is law in one state for size of vans, weight distribution and log books, can be different in another state.

You really cannot beat feedback from people on the ground who are dealing with this issue on a daily basis. My local operators have also raised with me concerns about safety and the difficulty for them in attracting younger drivers to the profession. They told me that they are under pressure from the mining industry. They have a lot of older and more experienced drivers who are moving out of the industry and in regional areas they have an ageing workforce, which presents them with some long-term challenges.

The point I am making is that this is an extraordinarily complex issue. We cannot pretend that we have a silver bullet or Holy Grail that will suddenly turn around the accident and fatality rates in the heavy transport sector. My concern is that we already have a very heavily regulated heavy vehicle transport industry, and at the moment there are already extensive provisions in place to deal with transport operators who flout the laws. If anything, there is a concern among many transport operators and the drivers themselves that relatively minor breaches, perhaps a logbook omission or an innocent mistake, are penalised very heavily. That again puts pressure on them financially. So we cannot look at this as just a single issue of so-called safe rates and pretend that we will solve all the problems in terms of road accidents and trauma in the heavy vehicle sector.

I fear that this proposed legislation is going to add just another level of red tape to the heavy vehicle industry. This industry is already subject to numerous other regulations and legislation at both state and federal level, some of it quite inconsistent. The bill will add further complexity to what is an already bureaucratic area and will not achieve its goals in relation to road safety. Rather than making life more difficult for the heavy vehicle sector we need to be focusing on more consistent regulations across state borders, improving the safety of the road environment itself and enforcing the laws we already have to control some of these rogue operators who endanger themselves and other road users. I thank the House. (Time expired)