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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1338

Senator SHERRY (Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law) (6:22 PM) —in reply—I would normally thank members who have contributed to the debate on the Interstate Road Transport Charge Amendment Bill 2008 and the Road Transport Charges (Australian Capital Territory) Repeal Bill 2008, but unfortunately on this occasion, despite my generally courteous manner, I am not going to thank members opposite for their contributions.

In the descriptions of this legislation we have heard such terms as hypocritical, crazy, not fair and not right, and the last speaker said, ‘I do not comprehend how the Labor government believes the bills are a good thing and in the best interests of the country.’ What we have heard, frankly, is a set of speeches that represent some of the greatest hypocrisy and cant that I have heard in this chamber in the last 18 years, and I will explain why shortly. According to members of the now opposition, you would think the previous government had no role in developing this bill. In fact, it comes from the previous government. I will explain how it came—

Senator Boswell —But we never voted for it. We knocked it back and voted against it.

Senator SHERRY —Senator Boswell is getting himself in a lather and getting all red-faced. If he was so concerned about this issue, why didn’t he say this to his own leader last year? What we have today is a real example of how an opportunistic opposition that cannot adjust to opposition has really lost its way. The genesis of this package of legislation goes back to work touted and boasted about by the former Prime Minister, Mr Howard. He was the one who commenced this work, back in 2004, when with great fanfare he announced an energy white paper as the policy framework for ‘securing Australia’s energy future’. Mr Howard presumably signed off on it. The document said:

The transport sector has long argued that the current excise arrangements for heavy vehicles, defined as those with a gross vehicle mass of 4.5 tonnes or more, are inefficient and need reform. The government—

that is, the Liberal government—

has listened and will introduce reforms to remove inefficiencies and ensure the excise system plays a more positive role in supporting Australia’s transport task.

Mr Howard went on:

The existing partial excise applying to fuel used in heavy vehicles will be formally recognised and set as a non-hypothecated road user charge from 1 July 2006.

Mr Howard, the former Liberal Prime Minister, went on:

The value of the charge will be set in accordance with the National Transport Commission’s heavy vehicle charging determination process. This cooperative federal-state process—

Senator Boswell —Madam Acting Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order, regarding his honesty. It may be true that the Prime Minister did put those plans—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Kirk)—Senator Boswell, there is no point of order.

Senator Boswell —The coalition never once voted for these increases and rejected them on about five occasions.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There is no point of order.

Senator SHERRY —I acknowledge Senator Boswell’s intervention. He admits that Mr Howard led the charge to develop these bills that we are considering in the Senate today. Mr Howard, the former Liberal Prime Minister, went on:

The value of the charge will be set in accordance with the National Transport Commission’s heavy vehicle charging determination process. This cooperative federal-state process assesses the impact of heavy vehicles on road costs, and is used by the states and territories to set and adjust registration charges for these vehicles.

Mr Howard, the former Liberal Prime Minister, went on:

The excise-based charge will be adjusted annually in the way that the states and territories adjust registration fees. Changes to the charge will be made by varying the level of effective excise through adjustments in the level of the excise credit paid for fuel used in heavy vehicles.

This is Mr Howard, the former Liberal Prime Minister, outlying the basis of this legislation which you are now voting against. What monumental hypocrisy!

But the evidence gets even better, Senator Boswell—and I will get to a National Party minister in a moment. The 2006 Productivity Commission study into road and rail infrastructure pricing commissioned by the Howard government found underrecovery of infrastructure costs occurring in the heavy vehicle industry. In April 2007, COAG, led by the former Prime Minister, Mr Howard, required the ATC to devise new charges determinations that fully recovered costs from the heavy vehicle industry, ended cross-subsidisation between heavy vehicle classes and indexed charges to ensure costs continued to be recovered—which is exactly the content of the bill we are dealing with tonight. The National Transport Commission and the independent body devised a determination with these charges and commenced consultation with the industry in July 2007, when the now opposition was in government.

Here is a speech that was given on 28 June 2007 entitled ‘The coalition government’s transport reform agenda’—note: the previous government’s transport agenda—by the member for Lyne. Who is the member for Lyne? The former National Party minister Mr Vaile. The federal transport minister and Leader of the Nationals said:

The National Transport Commission will develop a new heavy vehicle charges determination to be implemented from 1 July 2008. The new determination will aim to recover the heavy vehicles’ allocated infrastructure costs in total and will also aim to remove cross-subsidisation across heavy vehicle classes.

That is exactly what we have in the bills being presented to the parliament tonight, outlined in principle by the former Prime Minister, Mr Howard, and endorsed in principle and commenced in detail by the former National Party leader, Mr Vaile. So what we have here in opposing this legislation is monumental hypocrisy from the now opposition.

It is disingenuous of the so-called coalition to oppose these bills. Previous governments—Labor and Liberal-National Party—have set the principles of cost recovery and established the process. In terms of impact on cost, let me remind the Senate that registration charges will be decreased for 25 per cent of the fleet who currently pay too much by any objective criteria. Senator Boswell might like to explain to those ‘struggling truckies’—as he refers to them—why 25 per cent of them will not have their fees decreased. Go and explain that, Senator Boswell, to people who are currently paying too much. They are paying too much and you want to prevent them having a reduction in their fees, which any reasonable and rational examination shows are too much. Go and explain that, Senator Boswell.

The small three- and four-axle rigid heavy vehicles currently cross-subsidise B-doubles. That is a gross injustice. This legislation will bring an end to that injustice. The larger increases are for the fleet B-doubles because the principle is to recover costs of the vehicles on the roads. It might not be apparent to members in the Liberal-National Party that B-doubles cause greater harm to the roads and therefore there is a greater cost to the roads. Not even that logic has sunk into the particularly thick heads of members of the National Party. The impact will not be to bring more trucks onto the road; it will be to do exactly the opposite, Senator Boswell and members of the National Party. It will put road and rail on an equal footing. Hasn’t that got through to members of the National Party? Obviously not.

The opposition have said that the indexation arrangements will be higher than inflation. That is untrue—again. The principles involved in indexation were developed by Mr Vaile, the former head of the National Party, and the former Liberal Party Prime Minister Mr Howard. They are making an untrue claim. It is not indexed to inflation—that is not right. The indexation is linked to historical road funding. The National Party is wrong again.

The opposition have also claimed that the bills would force the Commonwealth to adopt charges forced on it by the states. That is nonsense. Why did the former Prime Minister Mr Howard sign off on this arrangement? Why did he think this was a reasonable approach? Were the members of the Liberal-National Party getting up and saying to the former Prime Minister, ‘Mr Howard, you’ve been dudded; Mr Vaile, you’ve been dudded by the states’? They did not say it. They are saying it now but they did not say it last year when they were in government. It is utter nonsense.

The previous government played the blame game against the states. They did not on this particular issue because it was their own proposal. So we have got a lot chest-beating from members of the Liberal-National Parties and lots of posturing in dealing with the states. It is nothing more than rhetoric. I know it is tough adjusting to opposition. I have been there myself; I know it is tough. But when you come into a chamber and oppose what you yourself initiated and developed when in government it is just a bit hypocritical.

In terms of the road user charge, this Labor government has made the decision to delay the increase in the road user charge to 1 January 2009. We have listened to industry and we have given them a chance to adjust—unlike the previous government. We have actually put back the operative date that was proposed by the previous government. The former Howard government were going to introduce this on 1 July 2008. They were actually going to be tougher than us. Now that they have moved to opposition they have suddenly discovered that they can no longer deliver on their own policy package.

The new charges will be supplemented by the Rudd Labor government’s $70 million heavy vehicle safety and productivity package, and that will ensure trials of new black box technologies that will facilitate better speed and fatigue management. Fatigue management is something that the National Party in particular need, given where they are headed. It will provide more heavy vehicle rest stops and bridge strengthening projects. The package has been warmly received by industry.

In 2007, 1,611 people died on the roads. Accidents involving heavy vehicles account for nearly 20 per cent of these deaths, with speed a factor in around 30 per cent and driver fatigue in up to 60 per cent of cases. The opposition has not referred to this particular element of the package at all. They have remained silent on this particular element that we have added.

There are two bills before the Senate. There is the Interstate Road Transport Charge Amendment Bill 2008, which adopts new national heavy vehicle charges for vehicles registered under the federal interstate registration scheme from 1 July 2008 and ensures federal charges are consistent with state and territory registration charges. There is also the Road Transport Charges (Australian Capital Territory) Repeal Bill 2008, which repeals the Road Transport Charges (Australian Capital Territory) Act 1993. This will allow the ACT government to introduce a new heavy vehicle registration charge into its own legislative arrangements in the same manner as the other states and territories. In total the bills deliver road transport reform requested by the Council of Australian Governments with broad agreement of industry. The reform was endorsed by the former Liberal-National Party government before they were defeated, was initiated by the former Liberal Prime Minister Mr Howard and was endorsed in detail with work starting under the former National Party leader Mr Vaile when he was transport minister. That is what we are dealing with here today.

The reform follows the self-evident principle that the heavy vehicle industry should pay its way for its share of infrastructure costs by government. I commend the bills to the Senate. We will be dividing on this legislation to show the rank hypocrisy of those opposite who come in and rant against this set of bills in a totally irrational and illogical manner—legislation that their own leadership developed when they were in government. We will expose that hypocrisy. There will be a vote. The other hypocrisy in all of this is of course that there will be a loss to revenue. As I have said, it is hard adjusting to opposition. I concede that. But what we have is this opposition opposing any cutbacks to the budget, anywhere, in any shape or form—except for a tree in Queensland. I will concede that there is one area where the Liberal-National Party have suggested we can save on the budget, and that is a tree in Queensland. That is their one positive suggestion to delivering savings in the budget.

Here we have a revenue measure which they themselves endorsed and ensured was developed in government, and they are opposing that. What fiscal irresponsibility! It is no wonder we have got 3.6 per cent inflation. They ignored that. It is no wonder we have got upward pressure on inflation, because, in that last year in particular, they lost total control of the budget process. What we have got here tonight is yet another contribution of a totally irresponsible approach to a budget process. This will cost revenue if they vote it down. It costs revenue. It is an unfair approach. We have got the monumental hypocrisy of the former government voting against their own legislation that they developed while in government. We are happy to see the vote on the record.

Question put:

That the bills be now read a second time.