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Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Page: 2690

Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (19:14): I am pleased to speak on the Road Safety Remuneration Bill 2011 and cognate bill. If you had listened to the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and to a number of speakers from the other side of the chamber you would think that the bill before the House this evening is about one question and one question only: do we want to save lives on the road or do we not? Of course, if this bill were really about that simple question, then the decision for the House to make would be a very simple one, because everybody wants to save lives on the road. All sides of politics are united in wanting to make Australia's roads as safe as possible. As a number of speakers from all parties have pointed out in this debate, the issue affects not only those who work in the road transport sector driving heavy vehicles or other vehicles but everybody who uses the roads in Australia. That means, in essence, every Australian. So there is no question that the objective of improving road safety is one which is of paramount importance.

In this House we are not called upon to decide easy propositions. We are not called upon to say whether or not we are in favour of safer roads. We are called upon, as we consider this bill, to say whether we are persuaded that the measures in the bill will in fact assist in delivering safer roads. We are called upon to answer the question: are the measures in this bill effective for increasing road safety? If they are, and if no more cost-effective measures that deliver the same outcomes can be found, then of course it becomes a very easy decision for the House to make: we ought support the measures in this bill. But if that test is not satisfied it does not make sense to support this bill.

In the time available to me I will argue three points to the House. Firstly, notwithstanding its name, this is not a bill about road safety. This is a bill which establishes a complex new tribunal and gives it a broad range of powers, many of which may be exercised in circumstances where safety is not even considered by the tribunal. Secondly, I put to the House the proposition that the logic at the core of this bill—the logic that if you pay drivers more, if you mandate paying more to drivers, you will improve road safety—is not proven. The central proposition upon which this entire proposed legislative edifice rests is without substance. It is without foundation. It has not been proven.

Thirdly, I highlight the fact that there are other, better regulatory tools to deal with the objective of road safety, an objective in support of which all sides of politics are united and an objective which is of critical importance to those who work in the road transport sector and their families and to all users of the roads in Australia.

Let me turn therefore to the first proposition I am putting to the House this evening. Despite its name, this is not in essence a bill about road safety. Let us look at some of the provisions of this bill and see what it actually does. This bill establishes a new industrial tribunal with a very broad set of powers. The tribunal will have the power to make orders relating to remuneration and related conditions. It can do so, should it choose, entirely on its own initiative without the matter being initiated by drivers or employers or by large customers of drivers. Under section 27 of the bill those orders can deal with an extremely broad range of matters. They can deal with such matters as remuneration and employment conditions and with industry practices such as loading and unloading, waiting times, working hours, load limits, payment methods and payment periods. The terminology which the bill uses is to speak of a road safety remuneration order, but when you analyse the provisions of the bill you see that there is no requirement for such an order to have anything to do with road safety. For example, there is no requirement for the tribunal to be satisfied to any particular standard that the measures it is imposing will achieve a safety outcome. In other words, we have a tribunal that is vested with a very broad set of powers that it can exercise in relation to the road transport industry, very broadly defined. If the tribunal so chooses it could very well make orders that are predicated upon an argument in relation to safety, but there is no requirement on it to do that at all; it can make orders which it, in its discretion, considers appropriate. Of course, those orders can be made on the application of any parties, including unions and industrial associations, under section 32(2)(d) of the bill.

What we have is a proposed legislative apparatus under which a new tribunal is to be established. It will have very broad powers to set wages and other terms, not just of remuneration but on which a company engages a supplier, and to impose those terms, and it will be under no duty whatsoever to be satisfied in relation to safety. We are simply required to take it as an article of faith that the body will have regard to safety considerations. It goes without saying, because this is legislation introduced by a government which is very fond of administrative complexity and complex legal approaches, that a detailed regime has been established. A new tribunal has been created and given broad powers to make penalty orders. A president has been appointed and then there are to be two to four persons appointed to serve on the tribunal part time who have experience in workplace relations. We know what that means under this Gillard Labor government. We know what that is code for. And then there can be two to four persons with experience in the road transport industry. They are appointed for up to five years. There is a complex apparatus in this legislation to establish a new tribunal. We are told that it is to do with safety, but when you analyse the provisions you see that there is no necessary linkage at all. We are simply required to take it on trust that these extensive powers will be exercised having regard to the achievement of safety objectives.

That brings me to the second point I wish to make in the brief time available, which is to address the central theory upon which this legislative edifice is premised. The central theory underlying this legislation is that the problem of road safety in the road transport industry is a consequence primarily of the fact that drivers are forced to work in unsafe conditions as a result of either the basis upon which they as employees are remunerated as a means of pay or the basis upon which they as a supplier of services to an organisation receive payment. For example, we are told that drivers of heavy vehicles are forced to work to unrealistic schedules, that they are given time frames within which to travel from, say, Sydney to Brisbane and that when you factor in unloading times and all the other things that have to be done they are simply impossible to achieve without speeding. This is the kind of example which is given.

I do not doubt for a second—nobody on the coalition side does—that there are instances of reckless and dangerous behaviour in this industry, as there are in every industry. The question we need to turn our minds to is whether the remedies set out in this legislation are going to solve the problem. The core suggestion is that if drivers are paid more they will not speed. This makes no sense. The logic simply does not hang together. If you are a driver today who receives a certain payment and you drive in an unsafe manner, who is to say tomorrow that if you are paid more you will not take the extra payment and continue to drive in exactly the same way? The answer is that we just do not know. The burden of proof, which sits with the government to demonstrate that this is a sensible measure which can be expected to be effective in solving the problem it is designed to solve, has not been met.

Do not take my word for it, notwithstanding the fact that I am an objective and disinterested observer. Take the words from the regulatory impact statement prepared by the department. It says:

There is some research to suggest that the remuneration for drivers is a factor in safety outcomes, however data at this point in time is limited and being definitive around the causal link between rates and safety is difficult.

You could not have it put more clearly than that. There is no proven link that the relevant department was able to point to in preparing the regulatory impact statement to accompany this bill, which responsible parliamentarians need to consider as we weigh up the merits of this bill. When Mr Sheldon, the secretary of the Transport Workers' Union, came before the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications I asked him how we were to be satisfied that there was a causal linkage between the tribunal awarding drivers higher payments and a safer outcome. Mr Sheldon had this to say:

If you are a truck driver with a quarter of a million dollars of equipment and you are required to work excessive hours to be able to pay your bills, people decide to work it. If you have to work excessive hours to keep your job, people decide to work it.

It seems to me that if people are choosing to work particular hours now it has not been demonstrated to the satisfaction of the parliament that that is going to change if awards of changed remuneration are made.

The third point I want to make in the time that remains available to me is that there are other regulatory tools better suited to dealing with the urgent and important problem of road safety. Firstly, as we all know and as the House has been told many times in this debate, the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator starts in 2013. Under those arrangements, there will be national chain-of-responsibility provisions making companies directly responsible for the unsafe behaviour of their drivers. Secondly, the workplace health and safety model laws commenced in a number of Australian jurisdictions on 1 January this year impose a requirement to ensure workplace risks are as low as reasonably practical. To take a third example, in the state of New South Wales, should this legislation pass into law, it will be the fourth layer of regulation applying to driver fatigue.

The question before the House this evening is whether the mechanism in this legislation is likely to be effective in improving road safety. The House has not been provided with proof that the mechanism will have an effect and, for that reason, on this side of the House we are unpersuaded and we are not supporting these bills.