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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1327

Senator HUTCHINS (5:29 PM) —I am a bit surprised by the contribution of Senator Scullion. In relation to how this legislation got to this place, Senator Scullion may not be aware that in 2006 or 2007 the then coalition Treasurer, Peter Costello, referred the whole issue of heavy vehicle charges to the Productivity Commission. As a result of this course, last year your then federal leader, Mr Vaile, put heavy vehicle charges on the agenda of the Council of Australian Governments. As a result of taking that path, the National Transport Council was then advised to prepare a new heavy vehicle charges regime. This all happened while your party was in power. If you had won the last election, these charges would be being introduced today.

Senator Scullion —No, they wouldn’t be.

Senator HUTCHINS —They would be. We got to this point because your government put it on the agenda—not this government; your government. I find it very interesting that you say that you would not have done it, because you put it on the agenda, you put it through the bodies that make the recommendations and the council that your minister was the chairman of put it through. So do not mislead anybody who may be listening to this broadcast that the coalition would not be acting in the same way. The various bodies, from the Productivity Commission to the National Transport Council to COAG, all had undoubtedly reasonable cases put to them to make the decision that they did.

As a result of the changes, 25 per cent of the transport fleet in the country will get a decrease. For 69 per cent of the fleet, there will be a small increase. The remaining five per cent get a significant increase. However, the previous government was going to introduce these charges on and from 1 July this year. The decision made by this government was to introduce the road user charges from 1 January next year and to phase them in over three years. That is what this government is doing. Let us get it right: for 25 per cent of the transport fleet there will be a decrease; for 69 per cent there will be a small increase; and for five per cent there will be a heavy increase indeed.

In that period, one of the things that was recognised by the ministers was the fact that safety and transport are inextricably bound. On 29 February this year, the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Anthony Albanese, announced a $70 million heavy vehicle safety and productivity plan. My old union—Senator Sterle’s old union—has been subject to a bit of controversy in the last few days. One of the things that the Transport Workers Union has been very serious about for some time is making sure that heavy vehicle drivers—and small vehicle drivers as well—are able to operate in a safe environment. Senator Sterle and I know the pressures that truck drivers are under. One of the things that the TWU has done in New South Wales, and which it wants to launch nationally, is to make sure that chain of responsibility legislation is in place.

As my colleague and I know, and as I want people to understand, people put goods on vehicles to get them from A to B. Ultimately, the people responsible for that are the driver and the transport operator. What we know actually happens is that vehicles are expected to get from A to B in unrealistic times. Vehicles are also overloaded. The unrealistic times and the overloading are unsafe. The unrealistic times mean that they speed or they spend too long in the cabin of the vehicle. That means—and this has been proven—that they use illegal drugs to make themselves stay awake. That is why I welcomed the announcement by the minister on 29 February this year. That will take on that problem.

I go back to what I was saying earlier about the chain of responsibility. Up until this point, what happened was that the driver and the transport operator were responsible. But now their client and the person at the other end who wants something delivered earlier than is possible are being held accountable in New South Wales. They are not going to be let off the hook, as they have been for many years. If a big retailer says, ‘We want that vehicle out of Western Sydney and into Coffs Harbour, we want it there in about three or four hours and if you can’t do it that’s not my problem,’ then under New South Wales awards it is that big retailer’s problem if there is an accident. They can no longer just wash their hands of it and say, ‘It’s not my problem.’ They are now held accountable because they are in the chain. That chain of responsibility is important, because that is where the difficulties have been occurring. The transport operator—the owner of the truck—is undoubtedly held accountable. So is the driver. But so now are the clients.

The union has been pushing for this to become national so that no-one can wipe their hands and say that it is not their problem, that they are not responsible and that it is the truck driver’s fault or the truck owner’s fault. No, it is their fault, because they are the ones who said that it must be got here in unrealistic times. That has been a campaign by that organisation for some time. There were, across Australia in 2006 and 2007, 228 fatalities in the heavy transport sector. In New South Wales, there were 1,000 injuries last year in road transport. It is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. Legislation to make sure that drivers and owners are looked after by the authorities is very important. The TWU has been pursuing the issue of the chain of responsibility. As a result, there will be fewer deaths on the road of drivers and of other road users.

I also want to comment on some of the strange beliefs held by some of the senators who spoke yesterday on the Infrastructure Australia Bill 2008. Those of us who have followed and been involved in the transport industry for most of our lives know very well that there is not a conflict between road and rail. Road and rail are integrated and the companies are almost the same. There is not the competition there that some people simplistically think there is—road versus rail. And it is not a matter of getting it off the road and onto a railway and the congestion problems would be solved and it would be safer. As you may be aware, a number of rail lines and companies have been privatised over the past few years and some of those companies have actually been bought by large transport companies which have had to divest themselves into two separate boards, like Toll and Asciano.

So it is not an issue of competing modes of transport. In fact, here in Canberra only a few weeks ago, the Australian Logistics Council held its annual conference at which all the users of transport met to work out more effective means of maritime, air, road and rail transport. Often the same companies are involved in the same areas from that chain of responsibility or supply chain. So it is simplistic to think that it is just a matter of road versus rail, as some of the senators said yesterday.

No-one likes to pay more than they have to. It will be up to the various authorities to ensure that any decreases in fuel and transport fleet costs are passed on to consumers. The vehicles I am referring to are the rigid vehicles, the smaller vehicles that do a lot of the transport tasks in cities and regional Australia. Undoubtedly the heavier vehicles will face significant increases over three years from 1 January next year. But a lot of the freight tasks are in the smaller areas. If rigid vehicles have their registration costs decreased, the government should ensure that those savings are passed on to consumers—and, undoubtedly, we would argue that the increases should be balanced against each other. This is a result of initiatives of the previous government, and I am sure the previous government would be implementing those charges that are before the Senate now if they had won government.