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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 3051

Dr JENSEN (Tangney) (10:38): I rise to speak on the Road Safety Remuneration Bill 2011. Before I get to the substance of my speech, I must say that the minister's speech was quite extraordinary in its oversimplification of something that is actually very difficult. He refers to this being the most dangerous industry in Australia. I accept that, but, if you are talking about the most dangerous industry in Australia, you must look at regulations to improve the safety in that industry. In the regulations in this bill, we are not talking about improved roads, we are not talking about improved training and we are not talking about mechanisms or technologies to reduce fatigue. No; it is that drivers need to be paid more and that that is going to fix it. Is that the solution to all of our problems? Is it the case that anywhere we have safety problems we simply increase the pay and that is going to fix the problems?

The bill continues a well-worn path by the Gillard government that involves further regulation, further bureaucracy and further red tape to arbitrarily benefit one sector at the expense of another. This bill seeks to establish a new Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, which will be afforded broad powers to investigate as well as set pay rates and conditions for any segment of the heavy vehicle industry. It seeks to bring about the imposition of mandatory minimum wages for employed and self-employed truck drivers, with the overarching expectation that this endeavour will result in an improvement in their work performances and, in effect, prevent future road fatalities.

The National Transport Commission report in 2008 concluded that there was a direct correlation between remuneration rates and safety. This conclusion was by default embraced by the government and the Transport Workers Union. Labor then drafted the bill we are now debating. However, critical and independent scrutiny by a number of industry representatives, truck drivers and small-business owners has brought this correlation into question. As members, we are obliged to question the veracity of these claims and the authority of the information upon which this bill is based. With many people in Tangney involved in the transport industry in one way or another, be it directly such as freight firms based in Canning Vale or light industrial businesses around Myaree who rely on the transport industry to ship product intrastate and around the world, this bill is set to significantly impact my electorate. I believe that without bringing the assumptions of this bill under strenuous scrutiny we would be remiss in our duties.

There is no denying that in many instances, across a wide range of professional industries, the more an individual earns the better their performance. This, however, is not the full story. I wish to make three key points. Firstly, the correlation between higher wages and improved performance only remains valid up to a point. If taken too far, it can just as well lead to complacency and lack of performance—exactly the opposite of the intention of this bill. For this reason, many economists tend to be sceptical of the minimum wage. They contend that it seeks to pay certain individuals a greater pay than should otherwise be paid based on skill, time and effort involved in performing certain tasks. Secondly, even if we were to agree that some vague correlation does exist between the quantity of wages and the quality of work in given circumstances, it remains to be proven that this correlation necessarily applies in the context of this bill.

Thirdly, in every other debate we have had in this chamber over the past year—and I note particularly the perennial carbon tax debate—this government has time and again emphasised the importance of getting the research right before deciding what direction to take with government legislation. It was this government that harped on about the evidence and the 'science' throughout the carbon tax debate as its foundation for a clean energy future. All inquiries conducted by committees from both houses, all the so-called experts in the field and all the reports and submissions received from a wide range of sources, organisations and academics apparently told us this was the correct path. So why should this bill be treated any differently?

It is well known that I have never been a fan of postulating arguments that make appeals to authority. While I concede that research may contain subjective elements and hold inherent limitations from the sample data utilised in the process, I agree that inquiries made into particular subjects nonetheless help us broaden our understanding of certain phenomena as well as helping contribute towards our arrival at an informed conclusion. Parliamentary debate must be based on empirical evidence to support all claims and assertions. Policy, bills and motions ought to be judged on the basis of their soundness of evidence, not simply by virtue of who devised them.

I wish to take a leaf out of the government's carbon tax book in relation to this bill and pay close attention to what the majority of experts are saying on this issue of road safety and remuneration. An inquiry by the House Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications into the bill referred on 24 November 2011 received 29 submissions. Only nine of these were supportive of the bill, of which three were academics and the other six—surprise, surprise!—were from individuals and organisations with union affiliations.

Whilst the correlation between the quantity of wages and quality of performance may not be as ubiquitous as it has been made out to be by the proponents of this bill, the correlation between unionist philosophies and the perennial demand for higher wages is far more compelling. The great irony is that the government's own regulatory impact statement on the bill questions the veracity of this correlation. I refer to page 4 of the statement:

Speed and fatigue are often identified as the primary cause for a crash but it is a much harder task to prove that drivers were speeding because of the manner or quantum of their remuneration.

It continues:

Data at this point in time is limited and being definitive around the causal link between rates and safety is difficult.

In their submissions to the House committee the Australian Logistics Council and the Australian Industry Group also indicate their scepticism of the correlation between road safety and remuneration. The same stance is held by the Independent Contractors Association; the National Road Transport Operators Association, NatRoad; and Toll Group.

Interestingly, in their submissions on the analysis of the impact of higher rates of pay and conditions, NatRoad arrive at the conclusion that increased pay may actually result in decreased safety outcomes for the lowest paid drivers. Their submission explains that it is generally agreed that workers will for a time increase their labour availability in response to higher wages because the higher rewards will generally increase their incentive to work. NatRoad argue that this is particularly true for the lowest paid workers:

These workers are likely to increase, rather than decrease, their labour availability in response to a Road Safety Remuneration Order which marginally improved remuneration levels for these workers …

However, after a time, this behaviour will change, as the Ai Group confirms:

Even if a causal connection between remuneration and unsafe practices is presumed to exist it does not follow that establishing higher minimum rates or prohibiting certain methods of payment will result in drivers changing their unsafe practices. Rather, if it is accepted that an individual's on road behaviour is influenced by the quantum of their remuneration it is conceivable that increased rates may further incentivise individuals to engage in behaviour such as the working of excessive hours in order to reap greater rewards.

It is evident that the link between road safety and remuneration rates and conditions for truck drivers assumes that the overwhelming majority of road accidents are the fault of the heavy vehicle driver. NatRoad reference research by the New South Wales road transport authority that concludes heavy vehicle drivers are at fault in only 31 per cent of fatal crashes involving a heavy vehicle. They go on to state:

It cannot be expected that driver remuneration will have any bearing on the remaining 69% of fatal heavy vehicle crashes.

The coalition believes that this bill has limitations and will do nothing to address the causes of crashes caused by 'the other road user'.

There is little doubt that this bill is another instance of ideological welfare manifested as a concerted effort on the part of the Labor Party to legislate further bureaucracy and red tape for the business sector. The assumed correlation between the quantity of wages and quality of performance assumes that the limitations of the sample data acquired by the research conducted by the government somehow adequately represent the majority of cases. We cannot be certain of this at all.

Another emerging problem is the way the road transport industry has been defined within the context of this debate. Reports conducted by the National Transport Commission and the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations dealt closely with issues facing long-haul heavy vehicle transit and argued in favour of improving conditions in this part of the heavy vehicle industry. However, this bill defines the road transport industry in incredibly broad terms. The bill captures independent contractors and employees in long-haul and short-haul industry, couriers, the cash-in-transit industry and the waste management industry. Much of this coverage was not contemplated when developing this bill. The Post Office Agents Association in their submission to the House inquiry stated:

It seems unlikely that the Bill would improve road safety for Mail Contractors.

The consultation process leading up to the introduction of the bill did not allow scope to seek representation on this expanded definition of road transport industry or give the tribunal the power to deal with postal contractors, as well as long-haul drivers, as well as waste management drivers.

Similarly, concerns have been raised about the scope of the tribunal. In particular the bill allows for the tribunal to make an order with respect to a participant in the supply chain and also with respect to 'remuneration and other related conditions'. The Civil Contractors Federation have raised concerns that civil contractors could incur responsibilities to third parties they do not directly hire, such as drivers acquired through a pool operator, or over whom they have no direct control. They believe this situation is highly unsatisfactory and as such should not be supported. The Australian Logistics Council opposes the bill but believes an amendment should be accepted to limit the scope of the tribunal's orders purely to remuneration. The tribunal is given very broad powers to determine how a truck should be loaded or unloaded as well as other areas intended to be covered by the NHVR.

The coalition is in favour of a multifaceted, holistic approach to improving road safety in the heavy vehicle industry. This will include better roads, awareness programs, education initiatives, industry codes of conduct, the construction of more rest stops and passing lanes, and looking at ways to use new technologies to improve road safety. The coalition does not believe this bill meets these ideals.