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Thursday, 17 October 1985
Page: 1436


Senator ROBERTSON(5.45) —I, like Senator Colston, welcome this legislation because it tackles a problem which has been with us for too long. That is not the only reason, of course, that I welcome it, because it is also of particular relevance to the Northern Territory. As honourable senators will appreciate, there is a good deal of road transport within the Territory and between the Territory and the States. It is unfortunate that we do not have a railway north of Alice Springs, so we are dependent upon road transport a great deal.


Senator Hill —You need a change of government.


Senator ROBERTSON —We have been waiting since 1911, Senator. Perhaps we might have to wait a little longer.


Senator Hill —We thought we were making some progress, though, before Labor was elected.


Senator ROBERTSON —We thought we had when the previous Government offered us one, but that fell through at the time of the election. Of course, as has been indicated by others, we have some problems with shipping. The Australian National Line has a problem. State ships from Western Australia also have a problem. The problem is, of course, that there is so little back loading from the Northern Territory. This means that there is an increase in costs and makes the running of ANL ships and the constant running of the State ships uneconomical.

The problems that have been observed over the years in the Northern Territory have been many and they have been brought to my attention by the owner-drivers of the Northern Territory and also by those who are in the business of operating. The first one is the fact that drivers are forced to drive for long hours. There is a number of reasons for this. The owner-drivers, of course, have to meet commitments. They find that they have to drive for long hours to make money so that they can repay the commitments on their gear. The drivers who are driving for operators are being pressured to drive for long hours so that the profits stay up. This has had the unfortunate effect in the Northern Territory that some of the drivers have had recourse to drugs. This in itself poses not only a danger to the health of the driver but also to road safety. I am pleased to see that road safety is one of the main features of the Interstate Road Transport Bill 1985.

I recall visiting a station in the Northern Territory when a large road train arrived with a gate attached to the bull bar. The owner of the station asked: `What happened with the gate?' The truck driver said: `What gate?' It was clear that he had been under the influence of drugs. I am not talking about hard drugs, but those which enable a driver to keep operating. He had not noticed that he had driven through the boundary gate-a fairly substantial piece of fencing-and had carried it into the station on the bull bar. This is very important because a man who will drive through a gate in that way will also perhaps drive into another vehicle on the road or put himself or others in danger. Some drivers have said to me that they rely on the noise of the stones from the verge of the road to wake them up when they are driving. As the vehicle wanders off the road, the stones come up, hit the mudguards and wake the driver. Quite clearly, this sort of situation is not good enough and it is one which is addressed in the Bill.

Another problem that has been raised with me by owner-drivers in that over the years they have been held to ransom by some of the forwarding companies in regard to the buying of fuel, tyres and other equipment and the arranging of insurance. Some of the operators have required the owner-drivers to arrange their purchases through the forwarding companies. If they do not do so, they do not get work. The third problem that has been mentioned to me is road safety. Senator Colston has already referred to road safety and I do not need to dwell on it.

The fourth problem that has been raised with me is the matter of the return to the owner-driver. The Scrutiny of Bills Alert Digest, 85/167, in regard to the low returns to owner-drivers, states:

One recent survey estimated their return to be $4.64 per hour in 1982-83. The pressure on operators has increased in recent years as their return remained constant while prices increased. As an example, it has been calculated that of the total charge of $8.00 for contract users (or $41.55 for casual users) for the transport of a 10 kg parcel from Sydney to Melbourne the long distance owner driver will receive 63c. The majority of the return ($5.92 at contract rates or $39.47 at casual rates) goes to the freight forwarders.

So it is not surprising that the owner-drivers have complained about the poor returns to them and the difficulties they have in operating. The next problem that I have seen personally-I did not need to have it reported to me-is the damage caused to roads by heavy vehicles. I am pleased to see that this matter has also been addressed in one of the Bills. Again, this is of particular interest to people in the Northern Territory. I am sorry to see that Senator Hill has left the chamber because I am sure he could have influenced the Government of South Australia to give some attention to the condition of the road to the State border.

I was also pleased to see the level and degree of consultation before the package and the legislation were drawn up. Some criticism was raised initially and Senator Hill raised some further criticism tonight. I am surprised at this. I will draw attention to that a little later, because it seems to me that there has been every endeavour to make contact with all of those involved and there has been every attempt to have consultation. I am pleased to see the level of agreement which has been reached. A great deal of the credit for this should be given to the Minister for Transport, the Hon. Peter Morris, and his Department. The Minister stated:

I cannot recall any other transport initiative which has generated and maintained such a degree of goodwill and co-operation between Federal, State and Territory Governments and all sectors of the industry.

It is also interesting to note that an article in the Australian of 17 October had a headline which read, `Industry welcomes Morris package' and referred to the way in which the industry has welcomed it.

I do not want to cover material which has already been covered by Senator Colston and others, but I would like to look at two aspects briefly, so that we can perhaps secure the passage of the legislation this evening. I refer briefly to the treatment of individuals and road safety implications. The legislation that we are debating is an integral part of the fast-track reform package and is based on the report of the National Road Freight Industry Inquiry. It is interesting to see that the package has been unanimously endorsed by the Australian Transport Advisory Council. I mentioned earlier that I was surprised that Senator Hill said there had not been sufficient consultation. Since the establishment of the National Road Freight Industry Inquiry two years ago, the constant contact between the Department and the industry and the comments which have been made by the Minister and by the newspaper-which obviously would have referred to the industry before it issued a headline such as `Industry welcomes Morris package'-clearly there has been broad support for this package, which is very pleasing to see. It is also interesting, and I think of merit, to note that the legislation will be proclaimed only when the States and Territories have made substantial progress with their parts of the fast-track package. The legislation provides for the registration of interstate vehicles and the licensing of operators but only, of course, to complement the schemes which will be introduced by the States and the Territories.

Let there be no doubt that road safety is the only basis on which operator licences can be lost. It is unfortunate that some people have suggested that licences can be lost for other reasons. Special provision is made for all administrative decisions to be appealable to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Interstate vehicle operators licences can be removed only by a court. At its heart, the introduction of operator licensing is designed to improve the protection available to individual truck drivers, particularly those who are owner-drivers. Owner-drivers under current conditions end up having to carry a full responsibility for road safety violations, even where business pressure is being imposed by others. Operator licencing will ensure that those operators who call the shots will have to accept responsibility for their actions.

The legislation calls for standard monitoring devices to be introduced. This is most essential because quite clearly the information on vehicle speed and the hours of driving can be obtained only from these sorts of devices. The legislation provides that the supplying of this information may be required. That is absolutely essential. Clearly, the Federal Government has paid particular attention to ensure that the rights of the individual are respected by the legislation. The Government would not proceed on any other basis. The legislation ensures a fairer deal for the owner-driver and other grass-roots operators who are trying to do the right thing. Those with the interests of the industry at heart will be better off if the legislation plays its part in weeding out what we might call the shonks.

I have just a few words to say on road safety. I have indicated that in the Northern Territory this is particularly important because of the long distances travelled and the state of some of the roads. Interstate road transport legislation is a concrete expression of the Federal Government's commitment to assist State governments in reforming the road freight industry. For too long these deep-seated problems have been crying out for action but have been left to fester. The fast-track reform package for the road freight industry has a substantial impact on improving road safety. Of course, most of the safety recommendations made by the National Road Freight Industry Inquiry impinge on State and Territory government responsibilities. That is why I indicated earlier that the legislation will not be proclaimed until there has been this sort of discussion.

My colleague Senator Colston spoke about driver licensing-the requirement for truck drivers to gain experience on smaller trucks before driving the big rigs. This will have a great advantage in road safety. People will not be able to pass a simple test, buy a large rig and put themselves on the road where they may be a danger to other people. Senator Colston also spoke of the removal of the speed differential between trucks and other vehicles and the effect that will have.

In conclusion, I welcome the legislation and congratulate the Minister. The legislation will improve road safety. It will improve the lot of the owner-drivers. I believe it will lead to a more efficient industry and I think it has particular advantage for those of us in the Northern Territory because of the remoteness of our area and the long distances which have to be travelled. I commend the Bills to the Senate.