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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7885

Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (10:03 AM) —The Road Transport Reform (Dangerous Goods) Repeal Bill 2009 repeals the Road Transport Reform (Dangerous Goods) Act 1995. This will allow the Australian Capital Territory to enact its own legislation, based on the Commonwealth model legislation and the associated updated Australian Dangerous Goods Code. This bill is part of the change in approach taken up by the former coalition government and continued by the Rudd government to this range of regulatory reform.

Up to the late 1990s, the Commonwealth commonly pursued regulatory transport reform with the states and territories using template legislation. The Commonwealth would pass legislation for application in the Australian Capital Territory and that legislation would be copied by the other states and territories as a way to establish national legislative consistency in transport. This approach was increasingly criticised and, following a 2001 review of the National Road Transport Commission Act 1991, the Council of Australian Governments decided on a different approach. This new approach to transport regulatory reform was made formal in the 2003 Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Road, Rail and Intermodal Transport. This agreement at clause 14.1 agreed that there was a need:

... to maintain a ‘single reference point’ for Agreed Reforms that take the form of Model Legislation or Road Transport Legislation, in order to promote and maintain a uniform or nationally consistent regulatory and operating environment.

In practice, this means that the Commonwealth develops model legislation, with no legal effect in itself, for implementation in other jurisdictions. The model legislation is drafted for the Commonwealth by a new entity, the National Transport Commission. According to clause 14.5, legislation passed by the Commonwealth on behalf of the ACT was to be repealed as soon as practicable.

The Road Transport Reform (Dangerous Goods) Act 1995 is one such piece of legislation. It was passed by the Commonwealth for application in the ACT to regulate the transport of dangerous goods by road in that territory and to provide a national code to be adopted by the states and the Northern Territory. The legislation has been superseded by the National Transport Commission (Model Legislation—Transport of Dangerous Goods by Road or Rail) Regulations 2007, promulgated by the former Minister for Transport and Regional Services, Mark Vaile, on 26 September 2007.

The states and territories are progressively applying this model legislation, developed by the former coalition government, via their own legislative processes. New South Wales introduced its own law based on the model legislation in June 2008 and most of the other states have followed with comparable regulations. The ACT cannot implement the model legislation until the Commonwealth repeals the Road Transport Reform (Dangerous Goods) Act 1995. The repeal will come into effect on a day to be fixed by proclamation to coincide with the passage of legislation by the ACT government. The opposition is satisfied that this bill is a necessary piece of housekeeping and it applies the approach to regulatory reform implemented by the former coalition government and therefore the bill deserves, and will receive, our support.

Unfortunately, the effort that the new Labor government is making in its own right to address uniform transport regulation, a fundamental matter of economic reform, is far more disappointing. The Productivity Commission has estimated that the cost to Australia’s GDP of conflicting transport regulations is $2.4 billion. The National Transport Commission in 2006 found that after one decade of effort to pursue regulatory reform only one third of the ‘oversize’ and ‘overmass’ provisions that apply to heavy vehicles have been implemented in a nationally consistent way. I have mentioned in this place before some baffling examples of regulatory transport inconsistencies. For example, a truck operator carrying hay bales and loaded to its maximum allowable three metre width in Victoria will be overwidth in New South Wales, where the maximum width is 2.83 metres. So the farmer or truck operator in Victoria who loads his truck with hay as wide as is legally possible in Victoria is not able to drive into New South Wales without cutting a few inches off all of the hay bales.

The coalition has also mentioned the failure by the states to take up in a uniform way the heavy vehicle driver fatigue reforms, agreed by the Australian Transport Council in early 2007 and rolled out from September 2008. Tasmania and the Northern Territory have not yet applied the fatigue reforms and Western Australia has never had any plans to implement them at all.

It is also astounding that New South Wales and Victoria, which have applied the reforms from 29 September last year, have introduced variations. These include differences between Victoria and New South Wales in logbook requirements and in defence provisions, should a breach of the fatigue regulations occur. The opposition is also concerned about variations between the states in opening up their roads to the highly efficient B-triple vehicle combinations. In spite of agreements to do so, New South Wales refuses to make a serious effort to open its road system to these vehicles. Victoria is also lagging, only allowing B-triple use between Broadmeadows and Geelong for vehicles carrying Ford parts. It is quite ridiculous. If it is safe for a form of vehicle to carry one particular type of freight, why could it not also be used also for others?

I also refer to the recent study put out by the Australian Logistics Council. This study released earlier this year looks at the transport regulation inconsistencies in the Sunraysia-Riverland region, a food bowl area that adjoins the borders of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. This study notes that transport operators have spent nearly $250 million in higher mass limit equipment on higher productivity trucks—trucks that generate between nine and 13 per cent increases in payloads. Unfortunately, the failure of the New South Wales government to implement the higher mass limit reforms agreed to by the Australian Transport Council in the year 2000 has made it difficult for truck operators to realise on this investment and has added to the costs of fleets operating across the South Australian and Victorian borders into New South Wales.

These are just a few examples of what is a serious problem of economic inefficiency in Australia. What is the government doing about it? The opposition notes with interest the September 2008 decision by the Council of Australian Governments to ask the Australian Transport Council to prepare a regulatory impact statement for a national framework for regulation, registration and licensing of heavy vehicles. This was part of a decision by the Australian Transport Council to establish a single regulatory body to administer Australia’s national heavy vehicle laws and to develop a uniform national approach to such matters as driver competency and training, heavy vehicle licences and a uniform body of national heavy vehicle laws. These are worthwhile objectives and have the coalition’s support. However, certain questions remain unanswered. When will these worthwhile aims be realised? The regulatory impact statement issued in December last year proposed that the national heavy vehicle regulator be operational by the end of 2012. The joint communique of the Australian Transport Council issued on 22 May this year states that the national heavy vehicle regulator is to be up and running in 2013. So in just this short period the government has already slipped the timetable by a year.

It is obvious that the government wants to keep these fundamental transport reforms at a comfortable time in the future, because it simply cannot answer the hard questions these reforms involve. For example, on what basis will the national heavy vehicle regulator be established? What will be its powers? How will it deal with the recalcitrant states and territories that refuse to consider the national interest and insist on peeling off from national standards? How will such a body deal with existing state laws and regulations? Will this scheme involve the referral of powers by the states to the Commonwealth? Is the Commonwealth contemplating such a course? Most importantly, are the states? These are all very relevant questions. We do know, since the opposition raised these questions in Senate estimates earlier this year, that the government as yet has no clue what the answers to those key questions are. How, indeed, the government could commit to regulatory reform of this nature when they have no idea how it is actually going to work is beyond me.

The opposition acknowledges that the establishment of a national transport regulator to build a consistent and uniform framework in which a key industry may operate is an overdue and necessary reform. The opposition is also aware of the naive and bland assurances offered by the Labor Party to the Australian people during the last election. They said the vexed problems of our federation would all be dealt with simply by cooperating with one another. All the Labor governments would get together in a giant love-in and all of these sorts of problems would be solved. Unfortunately, the history of transport reform in Australia demonstrates the foolishness of this answer. Love-in federalism will not be enough; hard decisions have to be made and state Labor mates need to be confronted with the imperative nature of dealing with some of these issues.

We know that Labor are good at some things. They are good at creating a $315 billion debt and a massive liability for every Australian. We know Labor are good at trashing programs aimed at regional Australia and turning them into election funds in urban areas. Of course, in that regard I am referring particularly to the Nation Building Program off-network projects for roads. It is no longer directed at rural Australian roads, which are so important in the freight transport task around the nation. In fact, they have shovelled 82 per cent of the funds available under this program, over half a billion dollars, into marginal Labor seats—a gigantic slush fund. So we know Labor are good at shifting money into those sorts of funds.

We now know that they are looking again—as Labor always do—at a range of new taxes. This morning, for the first time, the veil has been lifted from a proposal to increase fuel excise by 10c a litre. Again, this will place an enormous burden on the road transport industry. Increased costs of doing business in Australia reduce the competitiveness of Australian industry, which seeks to make contact with overseas markets and to meet the competition from other parts of the world. Another mass increase in taxes—bearing in mind fuel excise already raises $13 billion a year for the government—simply cannot be afforded.

Labor’s proposal to increase the tax by 10c a litre would also be devastating for regional people. Country people, who have to travel hundreds of kilometres perhaps to visit their doctor on dirt roads, will be paying massive new fuel taxes under this proposal, whereas city people, who can visit their doctor just around the corner, will be paying very little in extra taxes. If you have to travel a couple of hundred kilometres into town to buy groceries, why should you be paying massive extra taxation compared with somebody who has a grocery store on every corner? Why should people travelling on dirt roads have to pay massive extra taxes—allegedly to upgrade the road system—when they in fact are not getting that money spent in their areas?

I call on the government to immediately reject the concept of a 10c increase in excise. If the government do not reject it, we can only assume that this government will follow the same route as the Keating government, which promised before the election that they would not increase fuel excise but immediately after the election introduced the biggest fuel excise increase in our nation’s history. It is clear that this government are intending to follow the same route.

This is the history of the Labor government. They are good at making some of these promises but, when it comes to actually delivering, the story is often different. They need to convince the nation that the government are capable of making the difficult decisions to deal with transport reform. This legislation is an important step in seeking to eliminate some of the differences in legislation between the various states, but it is a very small step. It is a step that we certainly welcome and will support; however, the really big and difficult decisions to establish a seamless and efficient road transport industry are still being pushed off into the distance. Very, very little progress has been made. The anomalies remain. All the promises about the goodwill there would be between the Rudd Labor government and the states have simply failed to deliver action in this very important area. Frankly, I doubt that the government have the courage or the skill to actually deliver common national road transport laws around the nation, and this costly burden of inefficiency will rest upon the sector for a very long time.