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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 2350

Senator FISHER (South Australia) (21:23): Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President, and I will attempt to keep my comments short so that others have time to speak tonight. At the outset I want to defer to the obvious experience in the industry which some in this chamber have and also those associated with the industry who are in the gallery. Whilst we in the coalition have significant reservations about this bill, I also want to make it very clear that nothing that we say or do is intended to in any way take away from the pain and distress suffered by families of those who have been affected by injuries or fatalities on the road and in this industry.

A convenient starting point is Senator Sterle's pride in his achievements after having sought for many years safe and sustainable rates for the trucking industry. For our side of the chamber, that is the nub of the problem. Whilst one injury is one too many and one fatality is one too many, safe and sustainable rates are not necessarily the same for each and every person driving a truck on the road in this country. One man's or one woman's sustainable rates are not necessarily another man's or another woman's sustainable rates. That is one of the reasons why we do query strongly the link that is supposed to exist or what the government says exists between what this bill is supposed to do and safety on our roads.

But, first of all, on a matter of principle: over the years in the lead-up to today's passage of the bill to effectively abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the clear call from industry and the clear answer from this Labor government was that there should be one set of laws for all workers, regardless of their industry. You do not need to look very far to find evidence of that. The member for Blair, Mr Neumann, in August 2009 said in the House:

The truth is that the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry was … to ensure that the salary and conditions of those hardworking men and women in the building and construction industry would find themselves subject to a different rule of law than any other worker in any other industry.

He went on to say:

I have a fundamental belief that whether you live in Palm Beach, Perth, the Torres Strait or Tasmania, there should be one law for all.

Around the same time, unionist Ark Tribe was on trial in the Adelaide Magistrate's Court for alleged breach of the law on building sites. He was strongly supported by rallies from day to day, depending on when his court appearances were. On one of those days, as was reported in the Weekend Australian on 31 October 2009:

About 300 people rallied in support of Mr Tribe under scorching sun in a central Adelaide Park yesterday as he appeared before the Adelaide Magistrates Court.

He was cheered into court by workers chanting: 'One law for all'.

That was the measuring stick. That was what then mattered. Again, on 28 September 2010, a press release issued by the ACTU about the ABCC said:

The ABCC has wasted millions of dollars while health and safety in the industry has not improved. There should be one set of laws for all workers regardless of the industry they work in.

There is no qualification to any of these comments. It is clear from members of government, from members of peak union body, from workers in the streets that they were saying, in the context of the building industry but without constraining those comments to the building industry, that there should be one set of laws for all workers.

The government dominated Senate committee inquiry into the building industry bill of course saw the writing on the wall, knowing that this Labor government wanted, around much the same time as abolishing the ABCC, to introduce this bill to cater specially for the road transport industry, as well as a bill to increase special protections for those in the textile and clothing sector which I think this chamber will deal with tomorrow. The government has had the building industry bill this week knowing that it had another couple of new sets of laws that were not about one set of laws for all workers but about creating very different and specific sets of laws for workers in the road transport sector and the textile sector. So the members on the government committee saw fit to say—and this is my description of their conclusion; I am not quoting them—that they supported 'as a general principle' one set of laws for all workers, therefore they watered down their previously absolute commitment to one set of laws for all workers regardless of industry or circumstances to a general principle in most circumstances. That paved the way, of course, for this bill we are now considering and for the textile bill that will follow later. The then Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Evans, in November last year was reported, when talking about this bill, as saying that the government wanted to create this tribunal to set pay rates in the trucking industry because of the circumstances of owner-drivers. He was quoted as saying that similar moves were not planned in other industries. He was also quoted as saying:

The government has only ever intervened to protect vulnerable workers at the risk of exploitation. TCF outworkers and owner-drivers are the two groups that meet this test.

It ought to be no surprise that the coalition as a matter of general principle is prepared to consider specific laws for specific industries but also that the building and construction industry remains one of those sectors with vulnerable workers who are subjected to exploitative terms and conditions and subjected to thuggery and lawlessness on building sites. The message from us to this government is: please make it so you can lie straight in bed at night. Without taking away from the principles behind this bill, I suggest that this government cannot.

As to our concern about the need to know that there is some sort of an established link between safety on our roads and the provisions of this bill, we are at a loss. We can see that the government is relying on what is now a four-year-old National Transport Commission report which did conclude that there is a link between heavy vehicle payments and poor safety performance, but it simply accepted the proposition then that higher rates of pay would lead to lower accident rates. That is where we just do not get it. While we may not have the experience that some members opposite have in the industry—and we clearly do not have the experience that some in the gallery have—we are nonetheless equipped to query that supposedly basic proposition that higher rates of pay will somehow miraculously lead to lower accident rates.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Shorten, was quoted in the Financial Review on 20 March this year as saying:

Paying truck drivers for previously unpaid unloading times could address the road toll by removing incentives to drive for excessive hours.

That is a pretty long bow. Is the minister seriously suggesting that paying truck drivers for that which they were not paid before—and that is in many cases unloading times—will fix the road toll just like that? Please! The fact that truck drivers may well be entitled to be paid for currently unpaid work unloading vehicles is a separate issue. It is a workplace relations issue and it is on that basis that it should be dealt with, not as part of a bill and the creation of a specialist tribunal that is supposedly aiming at creating safer roads.

The government has not been able to explain—and, with respect, senators opposite have not yet explained—how paying truck drivers more will result in fewer road accidents. Despite our sympathy for the exploitation and the unpaid work which we have acknowledged does take place, we have not seen empirically illustrated by members opposite, or in any other place or way, how paying more will mean safer roads. For example, at what precise uniform pay point, if any, will the four gentlemen in the gallery and every truckie on the road decide to get more sleep rather than drive more hours? At what precise pay point, if any, will every truckie on the road decide to try to avoid every other risk which they take daily when driving on our roads? How will more pay for each and every one of our truckies, including the good gentlemen in the gallery, stop accidents which are caused by other users on the road but which just so happen to involve a truck? I do not see it, and I am really sorry that I do not get it. It is on that basis that we are concerned about the ability of this bill to deliver the outcomes that the government says it will.

I am drawing to a close so that Senator Furner can make some comments. We are also very disappointed at the truncated debate. We are very disappointed that the Senate rejected the motion of Senator Abetz to refer this bill to a Senate committee, because there are very important questions which we should be able to ask and which may indeed have benefited the government's quest in the establishment of this tribunal. For example, there are very important questions about how these safer rates are going to be determined. What process will be used? Will they be individual, truckie per truckie? Will they be individual trucking company per trucking company? Will they be state based? Will they be on some sort of group basis? Will it be, as Minister Albanese reportedly said on 23 November 2011 in the Financial Review, that the changes will ensure a level playing field by giving participants a forum to complain about 'cowboys who try to undercut and put in unreasonable conditions upon truck drivers who might be desperate to get that job'? What does it mean that this tribunal will be able to do? What powers will it be able to exercise in attempting to come to an outcome? Will the outcome be, for example, sectorally based or will it be, as a spokeswoman for Minister Albanese said, 'The system was designed for sectoral determinations but this does not exclude individual companies making an application to the tribunal for determination'?

We deserve to have had answers to those questions and others like them. So do the Australian people. We are disappointed that we did not get that opportunity.

Thank you for allowing me to contribute tonight.