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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 2336

Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (20:22): The proposition that remuneration equates to safety is flawed. It has no basis in fact. Yet this flawed and unsubstantiated thinking is the basis on which the Greens-ALP alliance comes before this place advocating for the Road Safety Remuneration Bill 2012 and the Road Safety Remuneration Bill (Consequential Amendments and Related Provisions) Bill 2012.

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Senator Abetz, you are entitled to be heard in silence. Senators not participating in the chamber, leave silently, please.

Senator ABETZ: It is ironic that we are discussing a proposal for a separate authority with a separate set of laws for the road transport sector when the ALP's vehement opposition to the Australian building and construction commission was based on the so-called principle that we need one set of laws for all. So a special authority for the building and construction sector is described as unconscionable and unprincipled and it is said that it should be abolished, and so the gaggle of ex-union bosses and their Green alliance partners voted. Yet here we are, just two hours later, with the same gaggle voting for a separate authority with separate laws for the road transport sector. All of a sudden a separate authority and separate laws are good. It is principled and it needs to be implemented! This forked-tongued approach to public policy, disappointing as it is, should not surprise. It is in tune with promising that there will be no carbon tax and then implementing it.

Let's talk about the carbon tax and its impact on road safety. Labor senators may laugh. Senator Sterle may take a fit in his seat—I do not know what he is doing—but let me remind Labor senators of some quotes. It has been said:

Under the carbon tax, drivers will be forced to do longer hours, sweat their trucks further, have less maintenance, and that means more deaths.

And it has been said that changes in fuel tax credits and excise levels 'will result in more truck driver deaths and related harm unless drivers can fully recover their costs'. The quote goes on:

Truck drivers are approaching the union and asking how they can ensure the tax will not just be another hit on running costs that they won’t be compensated for. I reckon that’s a pretty good question.

Isn't it amazing? The Labor senators have now gone quiet because they recognise the person who said all these things: none other than the national secretary of the Transport Workers Union, Mr Tony Sheldon. He was deliberately linking the carbon tax with the possibility of more deaths on our roads for the road transport sector. That is what Mr Sheldon said on Ten News on 11 July 2011. So here we have it. We know, courtesy of the national secretary of the Transport Workers Union, that if you genuinely wish to reduce road deaths then you would repeal the carbon tax.

Senator Jacinta Collins: No, he didn't say that.

Senator ABETZ: What he said, Senator, was:

Under the carbon tax, drivers will be forced to do longer hours, sweat their trucks further, have less maintenance, and that means more deaths.

Whether Senator Collins likes it or not, that is what a current trade union boss has said. So we know, courtesy of the national secretary of the Transport Workers Union, that if you genuinely wish to reduce road deaths then you would repeal the carbon tax. But, the carbon tax having been foisted on the road transport sector, the Transport Workers Union clearly flexed its muscle and demanded this legislation as their price to go quiet on the carbon tax, as they unconscionably have.

The carbon tax, which was going to cost truckies' lives according to Mr Sheldon, all of a sudden is no longer an issue, because the Transport Workers Union has been bought off with a separate, expensive tribunal—a tribunal which can issue road safety remuneration orders with respect to remuneration and related conditions on its own initiative if it is in relation to a matter identified in its work program or, at its discretion, on application from an industry participant or an industrial association with respect to something that is, or is capable of being, included in the tribunal's work plan. The road safety remuneration orders will—get a load of this!—override a Fair Work Australia award or agreement if the order is more beneficial than the Fair Work Australia document—either award or agreement. What a huge vote of no confidence in Ms Gillard's Fair Work Australia regime. The regime that was going to cover all workers and deliver justice for all workers is, all of a sudden, not good enough. We now need another body to override the decisions and determinations of Fair Work Australia to get a better outcome for the Transport Workers Union, who have been so very badly dudded in relation to the carbon tax. This, of course, is all being done in the name of reducing road fatalities involving the road transport sector.

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, a figure that, I am sure, is sobering for all of us. For articulated trucks, that actually represented a decrease by an average of 3.5 per cent per year over the three years to June 2011. For heavy rigid trucks, it was a decrease by an average of 14.7 per cent per year over the three years to June 2011. So we are actually seeing a reduction in road fatalities involving the road transport sector in raw figures and percentage terms, in circumstances when the road freight task of this nation has been increasing exponentially. As we have been getting even more and more trucks on our roads, one would anticipate on the law of averages that the accident rate and, as a result, the fatality rate might increase. But no: as the freight task has grown and there are ever more trucks on the road before, the rate of fatalities has in fact decreased.

Interestingly, it is clear that the attempt to link road safety and remuneration rates and conditions for truck drivers assumes that the overwhelming majority of road accidents are actually the fault of the heavy vehicle driver. That is false and does a great disservice to those truck drivers. NatRoad makes the point that research by the New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority concludes that the heavy vehicle driver is at fault in only 31 per cent of fatal crashes involving a heavy vehicle. They go on to say that it cannot be expected that driver remuneration will have any bearing on the remaining 69 per cent of fatal heavy vehicle crashes. The bill, even if it does all it alleges it will do, will do nothing to address the causes of the other 69 per cent of crashes. That in itself exposes the myth and the cynical use of road safety for this particular piece of legislation. That is because well over two-thirds of the crashes and fatalities of which we speak—indeed, 69 per cent—are not related to the truck or the heavy rigid vehicle in any way, shape or form. Yet somehow, miraculously, if we are to pass this legislation then we will get rid of these very unfortunate and regrettable fatalities. There is no logical basis to link remuneration with road safety. Indeed, we have seen an ever decreasing rate of fatalities involving trucks as the road haulage task has been ever increasing.

Let's turn to the issue of red tape. The heavy vehicle industry is already subject to numerous regulations and legislation relating to driver safety, at both a state and a national level. These include independent contractor legislation, workplace health and safety legislation and the soon-to-be-implemented national heavy vehicle regulator. NatRoad points out:

There are existing laws that apply to wages, conditions, contracting arrangements, road use, vehicle standards, fatigue, speed, mass, dimension, loading, substance abuse, record keeping as well as general workplace health and safety obligations.

This bill will add further complexity to an already bureaucratic area. In New South Wales, for example, the bill will be the fourth layer of regulation for driver fatigue.

Senator Sterle interjecting

Senator ABETZ: It looks as though Senator Sterle, yet again, is suffering from fatigue, although he is not driving anything anywhere, least of all his own career.

Senator Sterle: I'm sick of listening to your crap.

Senator ABETZ: What a charming individual. These ex-trade union officials cannot help themselves, can they, really.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Boyce ): Senator Abetz, please address your statements to the chair. Senator Sterle, I did not hear you clearly but please be careful about the language that you are using.

Senator Sterle: I'll save it for outside, Madam Deputy Chair.


Senator Abetz: The sort of language we just heard from Senator Sterle is the great intellectual height to which they soar when they cannot deal with the issues and the facts that are being laid on the table before them. Do they seek to dispute the facts from the relevant bureaus? Do they seek to dispute the statistics? Of course they do not, because they cannot. So what do they do? They descend into the gutter and use the sort of language that we were just subjected to from Senator Sterle.

Senator Sterle: I've got more. I'll just save them for outside.

Senator Abetz: He interjects and tells us he has got more. I have no doubt that that senator across there would have more of that sort of language. That he is proud of it is just, quite frankly, astounding. But let us not be too distracted from that which is before us, and that is the huge layer of red tape that will be imposed over the sector for no discernible road safety benefit or dividend.

The bills would also erode the concept of an independent contractor, something that the trade union bosses are so very desperate to do. They see every independent contractor as somebody who is aspirational, somebody who wants to be their own boss, somebody who wants to move ahead in the world, and they would like to see them as an employee subject to the dictates of a trade union boss. These bills would also cover, regrettably, independent contractors, who are currently outside the jurisdiction of the Fair Work Act. In doing so, the bills will create a new class of employment relationship that is neither employer-employee nor a hirer-independent contractor. This will remove the independence of owner-drivers and will significantly reduce their autonomy.

The Independent Contractors Association argues that the actions of a small number of dangerous drivers who are already breaking existing laws is being used as a justification for making owner-drivers subject to provisions similar to those in the Fair Work Act. The Civil Contractors Federation argues that a consequence of issuing road safety remuneration orders to owner-drivers would be the setting of a floor price or benchmark which may not take into account the individual specifications of a particular job. An operator who has 10 years experience in a particular type of cartage would be rewarded the same as an operator who has little or no experience. This point is picked up the Independent Contractors Association, which argues that the price fixing element will reduce competition, increase prices and lead to a less efficient and less effective transport sector within our nation.

By reducing the autonomy independence of owner-operators, the bills will have a significant impact on the state of employment relations in our nation. We will for the first time have a new type of employment relationship whereby independent contractors in the heavy vehicle sector are treated differently to independent contractors in any other industry. Indeed, if we go through the coverage of the bills we note that they will only cover approximately 80 per cent of employees and 60 per cent of owner-drivers because of the constitutional limitations on the bills. It is the same as Labor's so-called claim in relation to small business tax deductions and the lower rate of tax, which only applies to companies and not to the 70 per cent of small businesses that are partnerships or sole traders.

In dealing with the definition of the road transport industry, it is interesting that even a body such as the Post Office Agents Association in their submission to the House inquiry—

Senator Sterle: Them grubs.

Senator ABETZ: And Senator Sterle has another outburst.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Boyce ): Senator Abetz, ignore the interjections, please.

Senator ABETZ: These are individual business—

Senator Sterle: Touched a nerve, have I?

Senator ABETZ: You have, Senator Sterle. Senator Sterle has touched a nerve with his interjection. This constant denigration of small businesspeople by the likes of Senator Sterle does get under my skin because I have no difficulty in seeking to champion their cause and no difficulty in championing the cause of the Post Office Agents Association which was outlined in their submission to the House inquiry. They stated, 'It seems unlikely that the bill would improve road safety for mail contractors.' And yet they could well be caught by this bill. What a ridiculous situation to observe: mail contractors are now in the same situation as the long haulage truck drivers.

We as a coalition believe that there is an alternative. 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, building more rest stops and passing lanes, and looking at ways to use technologies to improve road safety. The New South Wales branch of the ATA noted in their submission to the House inquiry that mandatory safe driving plans for long haul drivers, GPS tracking devices, full compliance with work health and safety regulations and fatigue and speed laws, as well as the adoption of suitable industry codes of practice, are the best ways of delivering enhanced safety and fairness across the road transport industry.

The Australian Logistics Council also notes the success of voluntary industry codes and the national chain of responsibility and fatigue management requirements that will be contained in the NHVR. The coalition in principle supports all of those initiatives and sees them as a more viable way of improving road safety in the heavy vehicle industry. The coalition opposes these bills, realising that the bills, while dressed up as road safety bills, are in fact another grab for power by trade union bosses. (Time expired)