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Thursday, 30 September 1993
Page: 1506

Senator O'CHEE (1.27 p.m.) —Mr Acting Deputy President, as you well know, the road transport industry is in many respects the lifeblood of this nation. That is especially clear to those of us who come from the less populous states, such as the Northern Territory from where the minister comes, which are large in area but small in population. It is clear to those who come from Western Australia, like my good friend Senator Panizza, who frequently speaks on road transport issues and who I understand is following me in this debate.

  We understand the importance of having a road transport regime in terms of regulation which works, which is responsive to the methods of the industry and, importantly, which is responsive to the needs of the consumers of that industry. Of course, the consumers of road transport industry services are the businesses, be they large or small, which are at the end of the transport routes. It is important from the point of view of this nation's wellbeing that we reduce as much as possible our road transport costs.

  It is also generally accepted, particularly by the industry itself, that there is some necessity for uniformity in road transport regulations. I know that some of the proposed uniformities have been a matter of much contention across the floor of this chamber. Senator Collins will recall as well as I do the arguments we had in 1990 and 1991 in relation to the road transport charges and the proposed fees that were set out in that. The Road Transport Reform (Vehicles and Traffic) Bill does not really touch on the charges, but sets out to make it possible to create a uniform set of road regulations which have been agreed to by the states. The intention is that those uniform regulations would be adopted in modules in relation to particular areas.

  Those of us in the coalition have looked at the matter very carefully. In our party room there was careful consideration of this because of the concerns of a number of states. For example, Western Australia is not endorsing the heads of agreement which have been put together and are the basis of the bill which is brought before the chamber today.

  I note that the Minister for Transport in Western Australia, the Hon. Eric Charlton, wrote on 31 August to the National Road Transport Commission advising that Western Australia's position was not `derived from any desire to undermine the national reform process or obligations arising from the heads of government agreements'. He did point out, however, that Western Australia's position was different because `the geography and demography of this state are sufficiently different to warrant, on occasion, different transport solutions from the rest of the country'. I think that is a viewpoint that is reflected by many of the other states. I know that in South Australia there was concern about implementation of all of the proposals and, similarly, in Tasmania and New South Wales.

  What I am saying is that this proposal will be agreed to by the opposition but we note that there is still far from unanimity amongst the states, and these are matters that will have to be worked through. We cannot have a situation arise where uniformity becomes all important and the needs and interests of the states are subjugated to that. For example, in Queensland we have a system of volumetric loading—as you well know, Mr Acting Deputy President, being a Liberal Party senator from Queensland. Volumetric loading is important, particularly in the livestock industry. The ability to load one or two decks of cattle on the truck and get the truck away is very useful. It makes the transport industry much more efficient and it reduces the transport cost to the consumers of the services, namely, the beef cattle industry.

  At the moment we need to keep transport costs down in the beef cattle industry because the prices themselves are low. It would be a nonsensical position if uniformity in road regulations meant that Queensland could not keep volumetric loading, because the roads, the conditions and the needs of the industries all suit volumetric loading. A lot of work has been done on that and it has worked very well.

  I know that in Queensland at the moment the government is reviewing some of the consequences of volumetric loading. You would be interested to know, Mr Acting Deputy President, that as a consequence of taking away the gross vehicle mass restrictions through volumetric loading, the tare weight of some of the stock crates has gone up immensely. So there are now vehicles and trailers that have a very large tare weight.   It is my understanding from the road transport forum that one of the things the state government is looking at is restricting the tare weight, but not the gross weight, of those stock crates. We are finding that some stock crates are built basically around a very large RSJ—a reinforced steel joist—and as a consequence are very hard to destroy. However, they are putting immense weight on the roads.  That was not the intention of volumetric loading. Obviously, this is something that will be addressed in the future.

  I know this is going to cause a little bit of concern and angst in the industry because many people have invested in these stock crates; and they are a substantial investment. Four or five years ago when I was involved in the manufacture of stock crates, we were selling a stock crate for something like $60,000. Obviously, the cost is higher these days. But if the tare weight of those stock crates can be reduced, obviously my position, the position of the National Party and the position of the industry would be that there would have to be a transitional period. What we are saying is that we do not want uniformity to swamp the advances that are being made in some states and we do not want uniformity to be an excuse to make the industry less responsive.

  I know that New South Wales is also grappling with the issue of volumetric loading. I know that agreement has not been reached yet in New South Wales. But, if New South Wales decides to adopt this measure, it may take it on a different basis from Queensland. That is because the geography of New South Wales is different. Its main transport routes are much hillier than those of Queensland. There are particular difficulties in terms of the loading of vehicles which have to be addressed.

  In Queensland we sometimes think that our roads are not particularly satisfactory, and many of them are not. However, having taken a trip recently along the Newell Highway, I know that there are many other roads in this country that are not as good as we would hope, and particular safety issues arise as a result of that. Again, safety issues have to be taken into consideration when regulations are being put into place, and that is why I believe that much more needs to be done in terms of getting uniform road regulations. The peak body of the road transport industry, the road transport forum, has been very supportive of uniform regulations and there are very good reasons why they should be implemented.

  A transport operator in Queensland, having equipment that is lawful in Queensland, may have difficulties when he goes over the border into another state. Nobody in the industry sees any benefit in regulations restricting the right or the ability of operators to ply their trade in more than one state. That is something we have to look at, particularly as in many industries now there is a lot of interstate movement of road freight. In the livestock industry there has been a lot of interstate movement of road freight in the last 12 months because cattle have been taken from Queensland to areas as far away as the Murrumbidgee to be put on agistment. So these are not theoretical issues but very real issues which go to the right of people in the road transport industry to earn a decent living.

  I want to go through some of the bits and pieces of the legislation. In division 2, clauses 15, 16 and 17 relate to emergency powers, application orders and exemptions. The first two are subject to termination by the ministerial council whereas the latter is not. This will remain under the control of state ministers, I understand. I note that Senator Collins is nodding and I thank him for that. That is the way it should be. The road transport forum does not quite agree with this because it sees it as compromising the integrity of the system. But I think that even the road transport industry has to accept the fact that particular circumstances will arise from time to time and will have to be catered for and they may vary from state to state.

  Ultimately, the development of a national approach has to involve making judgments that are determined by the national interest. We have a difficult situation because the interests of individual states have to be balanced against the interests of the nation as a whole. The states have a lot of work to do. We all hope that a productive exchange will arise from this and that we will find productive and innovative solutions. I think the minister would agree that innovation will solve many of the problems. Rather than thinking in standard and established ways, maybe we need to look at different methods, in the same way as the road transport industry itself has looked at different methods of getting around problems, such as different combinations of rig and so on, to ensure that the vehicles that operate on particular routes are the ones best suited for the job, ones that give higher efficiency and ultimately better benefits to the consumers.

  In agreeing to the passage of this bill, the National and Liberal parties recognise the concerns of the individual states and of some transport operators. We recognise that regional circumstances and requirements must be taken into consideration and must not be ridden roughshod over. However, the politics of the national interest and ultimately the interest of the road transport industry have led us to agree to this bill. But we believe that we have an obligation to the industry, as we have always supported the industry in the past, to express its concerns and viewpoints in the course of this debate. I have nothing more to say other than that we hope there will be continued cooperation between the states, the federal government and the road transport industry and that the consequence of this legislation will be of benefit to all concerned—the consumers and the operators.