Aug 19, 2011

Premiers Must Not Be a Block on Road To Reform – Opinion – The Australian

The nation’s leading transport companies on Wednesday night delivered an open letter to the Australian Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers demanding they reach agreement at COAG today on the most important reform to their sector since Federation. They are seeking an end to 110 years of duplication, confusion, conflicting regulation and red tape that the nation’s truck drivers have been forced to comply with in the course of their daily business. What they are demanding is a decision to abandon state by state regimes in favour of a single national regulator, with one set of laws that will apply from Broome to Burnie to Bundaberg.

The letter from CEO of Linfox, Michael Byrne, the Managing Director of Toll Paul Little and the head of the Australian Logistics Council Michael Kilgariff was directed in particular at potential waverers among the political leaders: “…for leaders to vote against the concept as a whole would be a significant mistake.” It argued that support from the leaders for a single transport regulator would be an important indicator of the seriousness of their resolve to boost productivity, increase efficiency and safety and move towards a seamless national economy.

The proposal being put to COAG today extends beyond heavy road freight. It also includes single regulators for the maritime and rail sectors. These are also strongly supported by industry groups across their sectors. The need for this reform is stronger than ever with figures showing that cutting our transport regulators from 23 to three will boost national income by $30 billion over the next two decades. Talks between the Federal Government and the States and Territories have been underway for three years now. In May, transport ministers met in Alice Springs and signed up to this long overdue reform.

Transport regulations may not be sexy or at the top of the public agenda but those businesses that are forced to pay fresh fees and adjust to different rules each time they cross a border know that this is a critical microeconomic reform. It is system that has existed since the nation was federated in 1901 but has no place in a modern Australia.

It does not make sense that a hay farmer taking a load across the border from Victoria to NSW must stop and rearrange his load because in Victoria you can carry a load three metres wide, while in NSW it’s restricted to two.

It does not make sense that a cattle farmer transporting animals from Queensland to NSW must unload some or transfer them to a second vehicle to meet the lower mass limits in NSW. It is stressful for stock and adds up to $9 per head to freight costs.

Nor does it make sense that every time a fishing vessel crosses territorial waters between the Northern Territory and Queensland – and back again – each crew member’s qualifications must be freshly assessed and a fresh seaworthy certificate obtained.

Across the maritime sector alone, there are seven different regulators and 50 separate pieces of legislation. In the rail sector there are also seven regulators with 46 pieces of legislation including seven safety acts, nine occupational health and safety acts and seven dangerous goods acts. Heavy road freight users must work within nine different regulatory regimes.

While everyone knows about the madness of different sized rail gauges, the inconsistencies in the rail sector are far greater than that. For instance, in NSW a green over red signal means ‘caution’ and in Victoria green over red means ‘all clear’. A track worker moving from NSW to Victoria must get fresh accreditation and rail operators must undergo separate safety audits in each State.

A long distance truck driver travelling the busy Brisbane to Melbourne route must carry in his cabin road access permits from three states. NSW requires drivers to fill out a log book from the start of each journey. In Victoria it is required after 100 kilometres and in Queensland after 200 kilometres. When drivers rarely carried loads far from home base, these variations hardly mattered. But now, with drivers regularly crossing the nation, it is an unfair and unnecessary burden.

Replacing mountains of paperwork and multiple fees so that transport operators deal with one regulator only is clearly a saving for all. That’s why the $61 billion transport industry has been demanding this reform for years. To weigh it down with outdated rules from another age is wrong. This issue must be above politics. Australia’s State and Territory leaders must not miss the opportunity to advance this critical productivity reform.