Feb 18, 2019

Ministerial Statements – Road Safety – Monday, 18 February 2019

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (16:31): I’m pleased to respond on behalf of the opposition to the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement regarding the inquiry into the National Road Safety Strategy 2011-20. I begin by acknowledging his personal commitment to improving road safety. He’s genuine, not just because he’s the transport minister, but it is a long-term commitment, as he said, arising out of his own experience. Of course, it is a fact that there would barely be an Australian who hasn’t been touched by trauma on our roads either directly or indirectly, which is why it requires a concerted effort by this parliament and, indeed, all parliaments, local government and the community to do what we can in our own way to make a difference.

The inquiry was called in 2017. Unfortunately, the targets that were established in the National Road Safety Strategy for the decade 2011-20 when I was the minister—and this was the internationally recognised decade of road safety—weren’t met. The target for reductions was 30 per cent. Instead, we’re on track to receive a 15 per cent reduction. While a 30 per cent reduction was an ambitious target, we should, as the minister said, always aim high. We should, though, review our progress and make changes where necessary. Of course the objective should be zero, but we need to acknowledge the fact that, for a range of reasons, somehow, after year upon year of decline in fatalities on our roads, we had a spike up just over the last few years. There’s a range of reasons, many of which were outlined by the minister of why that’s the case. The use of mobile phones, no doubt, is having an impact on our roads. I think there’s been, to some extent, some complacency. State governments ran effective awareness campaigns and perhaps that has dropped off. There was a view that, somehow, if we just kept doing what we were doing, it would continue to decline. But we need to respond, and that’s why I congratulate the government on initiating this inquiry in 2017 and the minister for making sure that not only was that inquiry received from the independent panel but we ensured that this whole parliament engaged as one. That’s what we should be doing, because public safety isn’t just about defence and our borders; it’s about the safety of the travelling public each and every day.

Road safety is, indeed, complex and difficult. Achieving improvements requires investment, perseverance and collaboration. Above all, it requires consistency and bipartisanship across the different levels of government, but we also need to engage the community in this process. Working together doesn’t necessarily preclude disagreement. We will disagree on some issues about infrastructure priorities. But we shouldn’t think for one second that what that means is that we have differences as to our objectives, because I believe that we do not. It does mean, though, that we should be prepared to discuss things based upon our consideration of the facts, but we should work together with goodwill and a sense of purpose. I’m certainly confident that the Deputy Prime Minister and myself can do that in this place.

The inquiry is a useful contribution to the road safety debate, particularly in the areas of improving data collection and the harmonising of governance between state jurisdictions. One of the things that we did in government was to move to single national transport regulators. We moved from 23 to three. We had a process, as well, of single licensing for heavy vehicles. In the long run, I’d say that state and territory governments need to acknowledge that their parochialism is just that and that it doesn’t actually have, in today’s world, as much relevance as it might have had in the less mobile world of the early 20th century. We should have single, national licences. We should have common laws so that people understand what the laws are in the different states. We should have common signage. We should do what we can to move to a national system. That’s not an infringement on state rights; it is just common sense that will make a positive difference. Again, I would call upon the state and territory ministers to put aside some of the parochialism that I have no doubt that the minister, when he has chaired the ministerial council, has had to deal with, just as I did.

We welcome the report and the 12 recommendations to improve road safety, leadership, governance, resourcing and accountability. We also welcome the fact that in response to the report, the government has commenced a road safety governance review to improve coordination between the various jurisdictions that have an influence on road safety regulation. It’s pleasing to hear of progress and continued improvements in data collection on traffic accidents and that we now have a national baseline to measure progress.

The report also outlines progress in the Australian Design Rules, in areas like electronic stability control for heavy vehicles and anti-lock braking systems for motorcycles, which are expected to save 850 lives and deliver net economic benefits that are worth more than $2.2 billion over the next 15 years. Today’s vehicles are so much safer than those of decades ago. The behaviour is also so different today. When my son was much younger, it used to always amaze me that when I got in the car and he was in the back with his friends, I’d say, ‘Have you got your seatbelts on?’ and before I could get the first two words out, they automatically had them on.

That cultural change from when I was his age and people would often drive-around without their seatbelts on, even when seatbelts were in cars, just as a matter of fact, is a major breakthrough, just as airbags and other measures have made such a difference. I’m all for a competitive motor vehicle industry where manufacturers compete to deliver the best and most popular products, but in the 21st century safety has to come before the factors that used to be there in terms of what colour a car was, how much sound made—all those considerations. Safety has to be first. And one of the things is that people are much more conscious now about those issues.

Of course, one of the things that has happened as a direct result is that many of the accidents that would have caused fatalities now just cause serious injury, because people survive. As the Deputy Prime Minister noted in his contribution, 37,000 people are hospitalised each year due to road trauma. That has a terrible impact on the individuals, their families and their friends, but it also is a loss to the national economy. This is an economic issue as well. This is waste of human life and potential, and we need to do much, much better.

There are three things that you can do: infrastructure and better roads, better design and regulations, and personal behaviour. Every report I’ve seen on road safety—and I’ve read a lot of them over the years—comes down to those three factors. When it comes to better roads, there have been substantial improvements. I’m very proud of the increased investment that we put into the Pacific Highway and Bruce Highway and the completion of the Hume Highway. I will never forget having a meeting in my office with Wayne Sachs, the chief ambulance officer from Gympie. When I asked for the figures for my department, Cooroy to Curra was by far the most dangerous part of the Bruce Highway. Mr Sachs, an ambo of many years standing, sat in my office and just pleaded for support for the upgrade of the Cooroy to Curra section. He had been to so many fatal accidents. I was very pleased to go to the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, of course, and the then Treasurer, Wayne Swan, who were both very familiar, coming from Nambour, with that section of the highway. We got it done in terms of it beginning and some being completed on our watch. Other parts were completed and were very important. I’m very proud, when I drive up the Pacific Highway, to see the difference that it made.

As the Deputy Prime Minister knows, because we have discussed it, my name Anthony comes from my young cousin, who was killed on the Pacific Highway, just before I was born, at Halfway Creek. Certainly safer roads make an enormous difference. I’ve always felt a responsibility to leave a legacy when it comes to those issues.

At the end of last year, the Deputy Prime Minister and I had a chat and I think it’s the way that parliament should work. We spoke about the Princes Highway. I’d been down the South coast and met with the editors of the newspapers who’d run a campaign—Fix It Now—on Princes Highway. The South Coast Register, the Milton Ulladulla Times, the Shoalhaven & Nowra News, and the Kiama Independent had run an effective campaign advancing the interests of their communities and serving the public interests. One of the things that arose out of that was something that doesn’t happen that often. In no context, with no urging from the parliament, we put out a joint statement. There should be more of that across the parliament, in my view. And we’ve committed to bipartisanship on that issue to see what we can do. Historically, the truth is it’s not part of the national highway. Therefore, historically, governments of both persuasions at the national level haven’t invested large amounts in the Princes Highway. That’s the truth. But there’s a clear case for us to do so, and to do so in a bipartisan way.

In recent times there has been an area of disagreement, which is the area of heavy vehicles and safe rates. The safe rates issue was pursued by me as a minister, and it arose out of a bipartisan report of the parliament from an inquiry chaired by the late Paul Neville, the former member for Hinkler—someone who had the respect of everyone in this parliament. He was a very genuine guy and a very committed representative of his electorate. The fact is that when the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal was abolished and not replaced by anything—the system was left to the market—it left a gap in road safety. Whilst the market can achieve many things as a signal, one thing that characterises the free market is that it has no conscience. If a truck driver is placed under pressure to drive too long or to bid for work against a competitor and undercut them to get the work, it leads to bad practice, in terms of speeding or the use of drugs in order to stay awake, and it has an impact on our roads. I would like the issue of heavy vehicle safety and safe rates to be progressed in the future and I hope that it can be. I raise this issue in the spirit that it’s intended, which I’m sure the Deputy Prime Minister knows. We need to address that issue, because I don’t think at the moment we’re doing enough in that area.

As the minister said, one thing about regional highways is that regional Australians are overwhelmingly overrepresented when it comes to victims of road trauma. That’s why, whoever is in government, we can’t have a circumstance whereby we look at the political pendulum to determine road funding. We need to look at where the investment is needed. The Black Spot Program is very effective. The Heavy Vehicle Safety Initiative is very effective. We need to make sure that the people who are delivering the programs actually get the investment done when the investment has been allocated, rather than having underinvestment and underspend in those areas.

We need always to take the opportunity to look to the future, and I congratulate the government on establishing the Office of Future Transport Technologies. It’s very important that we look at the impacts that electric vehicles and driverless cars are going to have on road safety. There are a range of other issues that we need to address when it comes to road safety as well. I’m very concerned about the increased number of fatalities and incidents involving cyclists on our roads. There has also been a significant increase in the number of pedestrians who are either killed or injured on our roads. I wonder whether part of that is the impact of mobiles—people just walking out when they’re distracted—but certainly it is a very worrying trend indeed.

When it comes to moving forward, I was very pleased that at the ALP national conference, held in Adelaide last December, we committed to the establishment of a national office of road safety. I acknowledge that the minister is looking at that as well and raised it as part of his statement. I think it is very important that there be a dedicated unit within the department to look at best practice research, data collection and what the next 10-year National Road Safety Strategy, to commence in 2021, should look like. Looking at the relationship between the different levels of government, law enforcement, motoring organisations, experts and research bodies—bringing in all the relevant stakeholders—is also very important. For all of us in a country like Australia, with our vast distances and a relatively small population for the size of our continent, roads are going to continue to be important into the future. With road safety, I want to see a return to a decline in road fatalities. I note that, in the last year, there was a reversed upward trend. I pledge, on behalf of Labor, to work with the government and have a bipartisan approach on these issues.