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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 3062

Mr SHORTEN (MaribyrnongMinister for Financial Services and Superannuation and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) (11:31): I rise to close the debate on the Road Safety Remuneration Bill 2011 and the Road Safety Remuneration (Consequential and Related Provisions) Bill 2011. Safe rates, as this bill has been termed more informally, are about safe roads, so it is important that our parliament supports the passage of these much-needed laws to make our roads and our families safer. I thank the Leader of the House for the considerable contribution he made to the development of this legislation. Some opposite have claimed that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations leading these bills through the debate in this place is some form of grand industrial conspiracy. They ought to stop looking under their beds and start looking under the roads of Australia.

Let me be clear: this legislation is about safety in a unique workplace. Every one of us on this side of the House and throughout the broader community shares a strong resolve to improve road safety for truck drivers, their families and all Australian road users. It is a very stark contrast to compare our desire to act in this cause with the disappointing state of affairs opposite, where coalition members have argued that there is no link between safe rates and safe roads. I know that not all of those opposite are entirely happy with the position being adopted by the coalition.

The Leader of the House in his role as Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and my predecessors in the workplace relations portfolio have worked collaboratively with key stakeholders in the industry to bring about these important reforms for the road transport industry. I also take this opportunity to thank the other members who have contributed significantly over the years to progress this important and long-overdue national issue, particularly the committee members responsible for the parliamentary report Beyond the midnight oil: managing fatigue in transport and the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications, which recently reported on the road safety remuneration bills. In particular, I wish to thank the member for Hinkler, who was involved in both inquiries and said during the recent inquiry into the bills:

We have had a series of inquiries going back 10 or 11 years now, one of which I chaired, where we felt that the limits had already at that time been pushed to a point where drivers were not receiving fair reward … Just to say that you do not think there has been any evidence and that there has been a small decrease in the number of heavy vehicle road fatalities—I do not think that establishes anything.

Last, but certainly not least, it is important to recognise the members of the community who have advocated so strongly for these reforms. Last week, organised through the Transport Workers Union of Australia, I met with wives and mothers and friends and families, the bereaved of truck drivers and bystanders who have lost their lives as a result of the overwhelming demand to drive further and faster to make ends meet. That is the purpose of these bills: to keep truck drivers safe and to keep our roads safe for all Australians so that everyone can get home safely to their families at the end of their shift.

Road accidents involving heavy vehicles cost our economy an estimated $2.7 billion annually. That is important, but we cannot begin to measure the painful cost carried by the victims' loved ones. It is immeasurable. The bills should be understood as achieving two things. They are a measured and informed response to a significant body of Australian and international research that links pay and pay related conditions to safety outcomes for truck drivers. They are the culmination of decades of research, along with substantial government consultation with stakeholders and the general public, which indicates that the road safety remuneration bills will significantly improve safety and fairness for truck drivers.

Specifically, these bills are the government's response to the recommendations made in the National Transport Commission's landmark 2008 report Safe payments: addressing the underlying causes of unsafe practices in the road transport industry and the 2010 'Safe Rates, Safe Roads' directions paper. Our road transport industry employs over 246,000 Australians, and with 25 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2008-09 this industry has a casualty rate 10 times higher than the average for all industries. In addition, around 250 people are killed and more than a thousand suffer serious injuries on our roads each year in accidents involving trucks. Australian truck drivers have been pushed to the limit. Some have been pressured to cut corners on safety and maintenance, some to speed in order to make unfair and unrealistic deadlines, sometimes even taking illicit substances to keep them awake to get to destinations on time, putting their lives and the lives of other Australian road users on the line just to make a decent living and repay their debts and make ends meet. These bills will help reduce these illegal and unsafe practices.

Despite the significant contribution that the road transport industry makes to the Australian economy, a national approach to safety issues that addresses conditions in the industry, particularly for owner-drivers, has not been taken into account to date. As I have said, our transport industry is an integral part of the Australian economy, accounting for over 1.7 per cent of Australia's total gross domestic product. It is an industry that keeps Australia moving, making sure that supermarket shelves and petrol bowsers are filled and that building products are on site. And it is an industry that is growing. The road freight task is increasing at an annual rate of 5.6 per cent and is forecast to continue growing.

Our Gillard government is committed to doing all that is necessary to sustain the long-term viability of the road transport industry, but we do not believe that productivity has to be at the expense of ensuring that truck drivers, whether employees or self-employed, have a safe and fair workplace. We believe this legislation will help reduce the high turnover of truckies out of the industry, and more experienced drivers are typically safer drivers.

This government also recognises the important role played in the economy by small businesses, particularly owner-drivers, who make up 60 per cent of the road transport industry. We respect owner-drivers who choose to be independent contractors and operate as small businesses. We understand that owner-drivers and small fleets provide flexibility for businesses to meet the increasing demand for the delivery of goods, particularly in rural and regional areas. Yet we also know that almost 30 in every 100 owner-drivers are paid below award rates, with many unable to recover the cost of operating their vehicle. These bills establish a system that will assist road transport industry small businesses, while ensuring that owner-drivers maintain their status as independent contractors.

To those who have raised concerns that these bills will increase the regulatory burden for all those involved in the road transport industry, let me be very clear. This legislation has been carefully developed to reinforce the benefits of other reforms, including those achieved by both industry and governments. These reforms include fatigue, chain of responsibility and work health and safety laws and complementing the role of the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator. Let me be clear. There is no way this new approach will ever cost the transport industry anything approaching the cost of the current carnage in lives.

Under these bills, the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal will be tasked to inquire into sectors, issues and practices within the road transport industry and, where appropriate, determine mandatory minimum rates of pay and related conditions for employed and self-employed drivers. These rates will ensure that truck drivers do not need to meet gruelling schedules just to make ends meet and will allow for safer driving practices by these drivers.

The government acknowledges that unpaid waiting times are a particular problem for both employees and owner-drivers in the road transport industry. The tribunal will therefore also have the power to investigate unpaid waiting times and intervene where the issue is found to affect safety outcomes. Road safety remuneration orders made by the tribunal will be in addition to any existing rights employed drivers have under other industrial instruments and owner-drivers have under their contracts for service.

To industry members who have expressed concern over the powers of the tribunal, let me assure you that the tribunal's approach will be evidence based and research focused. No orders will be made unless there is an identifiable link between pay or pay related conditions and on-road safety outcomes for that sector or sectors of the industry. If a road safety remuneration order would not result in safer driving, the tribunal does not have to make a determination for that sector, but, if it would make a difference, action can be taken.

With the approach taken by this government, the tribunal might have regard to a number of issues, which include the need to apply fair, reasonable and enforceable standards in the road transport industry to ensure the safety and fair treatment of road transport drivers; the likely impact of any order on the viability of business involved in the road transport industry; the special circumstances of areas that are particularly reliant on the road transport industry, such as rural, regional and other isolated areas; the likely impact of any order on the national economy and the movement of freight across the nation; and the need to minimise the compliance burden on the road transport industry.

Australia's road transport industry is not a single, monolithic entity, and our legislation is not designed to be a one-size-fits-all regulation. We have drivers who are couriers and drivers who drive short distances and long distances as well as drivers who transport livestock around our country. I am indebted to the member for New England for his advice on these next few paragraphs. These drivers have a general and specific regulation governing operations. Livestock transporters are subject to strict regulation on fatigue management and the welfare of the animals that they are transporting. For example, they may be required to make stops to unload and spell animals which might be stressed, ill or agitated. Heavy penalties apply to operators who operate outside these rules.

We respect those members of the road transport industry who drive safely, operate fairly and take care of other drivers on the road. The Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal will have regard to the requirements of particular sectors of the industry. The transport of live animals is completely different from the courier sector and would require a different, distinct approach. Our key policy intent here is to ensure that there are sector-appropriate terms and conditions determined by the tribunal to enhance safety outcomes for drivers and safety outcomes for all of us who use Australia's roads.

Orders can only be made after the tribunal considers a range of factors, which include the likely impact of any order on the viability of the relevant businesses. No order will be made without the opportunity for stakeholders to be heard about their particular needs and operations. For example, in relation to the transport of livestock, a driver's ability to stick to a strict schedule may be impacted by things like, and not limited to, the vast distances travelled in the larger states, such as in outback New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia, which may require one or two spellings for the drivers to comply with existing laws to manage driver fatigue and to preserve the welfare of the animals—which is considered, appropriately, to be of paramount importance—or the location of saleyards mainly in major rural centres and the indispensable role they play in allowing livestock to be unloaded safely for the welfare of the travelling stock.

However, of course these are not matters which would be relevant to an order for waste management drivers or courier drivers. Our bills do not conflate these matters and force parties into arrangements that are unrelated to their operations. The tribunal will be empowered to resolve disputes between drivers, their hirers or employers, and participants in the road transport industry supply chain about remuneration and related conditions, insofar as they provide incentives to work in an unsafe manner. The tribunal will deal with a dispute as it considers appropriate, including either by mediation or conciliation or by making a recommendation or expressing an opinion—or indeed it could be with arbitration, with the consent of the parties.

I foreshadow that I will move some amendments to this bill on behalf of the government. In the main, these amendments will clarify the tribunal's role in approving collective agreements under part 3 of the bill and ensuring that conduct by drivers and their hirers when negotiating giving effect to these agreements will not breach competition laws.

It is important to remember that owner-drivers are often forced to accept work at the going rate or to have no work at all. Drivers are often at the bottom of a long contracting chain and have little commercial ability, little commercial bargaining power, to demand rates or set work schedules that enable them to perform their work safely and legally. The Gillard government, this government, firmly believes that these bills will improve the safety of truck drivers, bystanders, all of us and our families—all of us who use Australia's roads.

I thank all the members who have participated in this debate. I thank the House for support for this important legislation, which I commend to the House.

The SPEAKER: The question before the chair is that this bill be now read a second time.

Bill read a second time.