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Thursday, 17 October 1985
Page: 1434

Senator HILL(5.37) —I wish to speak briefly on the Interstate Road Transport Bill 1985 and the Interstate Road Transport Charge Bill 1985. As has been said by previous speakers, the Bills concern a major industry in Australia-an industry that plays a vital part in our economic well-being and an industry which I think it is fair to say has been somewhat troubled over the years. I am standing here today principally to express the concerns of part of my constituency in South Australia-a large number of the truck drivers, owners and small businessmen in this field who are genuinely concerned about the legislation going through the chamber today. They are not concerned with the report of the May Road Freight Industry Inquiry, which they have in the past endorsed, and they are not concerned about the package as a whole. When some time ago they learnt of and studied the package-we have heard today that the Minister for Transport (Mr Peter Morris) has had various meetings throughout Australia to explain the package to the trucking industry-they saw merit in the package and indicated support.

Of course that package is not what appears in the Bills today; they are only a very small part of the package. The operators find in the Bills that apart from provisions dealing with safety, which the industry welcomes, the balance of the legislation seems to be largely to their economic detriment. I am speaking particularly about the imposition of an interstate registration fee at a level which people in the industry do not know. All they know is that after the legislation is passed, sometime in the future, if complementary State legislation is passed-I will speak about that later-they will have imposed upon them an interstate registration fee. As we know, intrastate registration fees exist at the moment, and I think they average out at around $1,500. An interstate fee is not imposed.

This Bill proposes such a fee and provides two ways in which it can be determined. It can be either a fixed fee or a fee based on the mileage of the vehicle. The truck drivers do not know, as I said, what the fee will be. They fear that it might be a very large sum of money. The Minister for Transport said in his speech that the matter had been referred to the Inter-State Commission for advice on an appropriate fee for repair of roads, the maintenance of roads, resulting from damage by this industry. That Commission is to report to the Minister. It is not due to report until April of next year. The Minister may or may not adopt the report. He may determine another fee on his own initiative. The industry is being asked to endorse this Bill today and it does not know what fee will be imposed upon it. That causes it major concern.

It is simply not good enough to adopt the Australian Democrats' position that they will allow this Bill to be passed today and then watch with interest to see what fee is imposed through regulation. If they do not like it, presumably, they will issue Press releases saying that they do not like it or take some other ineffective action of that kind. Of course, what the truck drivers are saying-those in my State certainly are-is that there is no need to pass this Bill today. It can be deferred while the Government consults with industry and with the States, while the States' complementary legislation is drawn and while the Inter-State Commission continues with its inquiry and reports back to the Government. Then the Government can introduce into the chamber a comprehensive package which will indicate what the fee is to be. If that were the situation truck drivers would have much more faith and comfort in what is being introduced. But, of course, the Government has determined not to go down that road. It has determined, rather to introduce a half package today; that is, the mechanics for the introduction of a new registration fee, a new tax upon this industry.

The truck drivers in South Australia who have been attending public meetings-I attended one a week or so ago and I understand that further meetings were held in the south-east of South Australia last night and today-are not complaining about a fee which is the equivalent of an intrastate registration fee. They accept that because of section 92 of the Constitution and a whole series of cases, which you know well, Mr Acting Deputy President, such is not the case at the moment, and we do not have an interstate licensing fee. They can understand that there is some merit in lining up the industry on both an instrastate and an interstate basis. If they had some assurance that the fee was going to be only that charged for intrastate registrations they would be much comforted, but they do not get any form of guarantee of that in this Bill.

They are concerned, I suppose, at the alternative method of fee calculation, a calculation on the basis of mileage, because that reminds them of the old road tax which they had to pay some years ago and which, as you, Mr Acting Deputy President, and other senators would know, in effect forced many out of business. They are afraid that once the new electronic black boxes are introduced into their vehicles there will be a perfect mechanism for governments in the future to go down the path that was followed once before on a State basis; that is require payment of a road tax calculated on mileage. They say that that is what this Bill is really all about. They say that in providing an alternative method the Government is reintroducing the concept of a road tax, a tax which they say they simply cannot afford.

The Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills, as was mentioned in a speech earlier today, has expressed concern to the Senate about this mechanism for determining fees-a mechanism that requires fees to be implemented by regulation. It has been said, particularly by Senator Archer, that there is no need for haste in this matter. We do not know the attitude of the States. I think it is a matter of regret that in the Minister's speech in the other place and so far today we have not heard the attitude of the States. Where are they with their so-called complementary legislation? Are the States agreeing with the package?

In particular, what are the States saying about that part of the package which will force up the costs of railway transport upon which those in this industry are placing so much reliance? I remind you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that the package which the industry was sold and which the industry endorsed encompassed the proposition that rail freight rates would be forced up on a more accurate cost recovery basis. The trucking industry, not surprisingly, looking to its own interests, saw that this would make its cost recovery more economical, and it bought the package on that basis.

But is that going to happen? Senator Archer in his speech earlier today referred to the situation in Tasmania. Will rail freight costs in Tasmania go up, as has been promised to the truckies in this total package, to facilitate their economic well-being? One must wonder. I think the trucking industry is entitled to learn from this debate what is the attitude of Australian National and what is the attitude of the States which still control their own rail systems. What is going to happen, for example, in Queensland? Can the trucking industry be told with certainty that the Queensland Government will put up the costs of rail transport in order to make the trucking industry more viable? It has not been said by this Government, and I suspect that this Government does not know the answer but suspects that, in the world of real politics, that simply will not happen. If that does not happen the whole package will collapse and the support for the total package that this Government was able to win from the trucking industry will not have been well founded. In fact, I do not think it is unreasonable to say that the truck drivers will have been misled.

If it is said that that is not so, that the package should be treated as a total package, why is this Government not prepared to introduce it into the Parliament on that basis? When it has the agreement of the States and Australian National, why is it not prepared to do it that way? Why has it, rather, introduced today simply the mechanism for the imposition of the new registration fees? That is why the truck drivers and members of the trucking industry who have been ringing Senator Vigor and me today are really concerned and worried. All they see coming out of the legislation before this chamber at the moment is the imposition of further fees and taxes upon their industry, upon their livelihood, which is tough enough as it is.

What are they saying? They are saying: `Hold the legislation. Show us that the total package can be implemented'. There is no hurry. The Inter-State Commission, as I said, is not to report until April of next year. I say to the Government: Just hold the package back. Do not push the legislation through the Senate today. One must wonder why it is the wish of the Government to do so. One suspects that it is because the trucking industry is only now becoming aware of the potential cost to it of these Bills. The truck drivers are saying that if the Government were genuine it would be prepared to hold this legislation back until it could present to the industry legislation which implements the total package rather than simply that part which imposes new fees and taxes on the industry.

That is what will be proposed in the amendment to be moved in the Committee stage by Senator Archer-the coalition amendment calling on the Government to delay the progress of this Bill until there is proper consultation with the industry and complete and proper consultation with the States in order that the trucking industry that I and others here represent may see that the package will be implemented as a whole and to the industry's benefit, rather than simply to its detriment. That is the call we make to the Government today and which we intend to make in the Committee stage. We do not believe it is too much to ask. We would have thought that the Democrats would be prepared to support us, because Senator Vigor today listed a series of concerns about the Bills. They should agree that the trucking industry is concerned about the Bills.

We heard Senator Archer begin to list the number of ambiguities in the Bill that could be rectified if there were sufficient time. He mentioned in particular the broad description of general safety standards. What are they? Why cannot the industry be given details of them at this stage? What is the urgency when the Government knows that nothing further can be done until well into next year, in any event? In those circumstances why are the Australian Democrats not prepared to support this delay while a proper consultative process takes place? I do not know whether it is because, as Senator Colston said, the Government has indicated it will support the Democrats' amendment, and on that basis the Democrats can claim that they have had a small victory and are prepared to support this Bill to the detriment of the industry. I can only say that we are particularly disappointed that the Australian Democrats will not support us, after we have heard a speech by Senator Vigor which I would have thought would very much justify a delay in the progress of this legislation.