Apr 18, 2016

Road Safety Remuneration Repeal Bill 2016, Road Safety Remuneration Amendment (Protecting Owner Drivers) Bill 2016 – Second Reading

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (12:27): I rise to speak on the Road Safety Remuneration Repeal Bill 2016 and the Road Safety Remuneration Amendment (Protecting Owner Drivers) Bill 2016. Last month, 25 Australians died in traffic accidents that involved heavy vehicles. Last year, the death toll was in excess of 300 for accidents that involved heavy vehicles. That is more than double the number of people who sit in this House of Representatives—and that is just one year. No government serious about the welfare of Australians would accept this dreadful statistic without trying to do something about it. The Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, who just spoke, is correct in referring to some of the other programs that are about doing something about it that have bipartisan support—the Black Spots Program. The program that I introduced that is no longer a specific program—the heavy vehicle safety and productivity program—was about identifying areas for rest stops on highways right around the country. It is something that, as I drive down the Pacific Highway or the Hume and have a look at the new rest stops that have been built as a result of the conscious decision to include that as part of the economic stimulus program, I am very proud of.

The Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal was also a necessary component. The minister said, ‘Let’s not politicise this issue’, and yet to bring in this legislation today, when parliament sat for five weeks out of seven earlier this year during which this issue was not raised at all, says it all about the politicisation of this issue. This is unworthy legislation to be brought in during a special sitting that was not mentioned in any of the correspondence between the government and the Governor-General just weeks ago, when the Prime Minister made the absurd decision to prorogue the parliament and to pretend that this is the first day of a new parliament. I have been in this place for 20 years. You have first days of parliament after you have elections. Tony Abbott won an election in 2013; Malcolm Turnbull has not. The proroguing of the parliament and the pretence that this is somehow a new parliament with a new agenda is politicisation in the extreme.

To bring in this legislation does no credit to the minister or to anyone on that side of the chamber, because this tribunal has been in place since 2012. Those opposite have had three years to raise something about this tribunal and yet there has been nothing from them—no piece of legislation seeking to amend the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal or how it would operate, and no submission to the tribunal when it was deliberating on making this determination. There has been not a word from those opposite in the government. Yet now we have the ultimate politicisation of road safety and this issue.

Just last month I attended a breakfast function here in Canberra. I heard from a truck driver named John Waltis. He offered up a statistic that was so disturbing that it should concern every member of this House. He has attended the funerals of 52 truck drivers killed on the job. That is 52 families that have lost their breadwinner, their father, their mother, their sibling or their child. In a nation as big and prosperous as Australia, a nation that relies heavily on road freight, we have a responsibility as legislators to ensure that road safety is paramount when it comes to regulation of the industry. Death rates for the road transport industry are 12 times the average for the entire workforce.

Safety must not be a matter of political engagement. Yet today we are being asked by a desperate government to abolish the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, an organisation specifically established by the former Labor government to focus on road safety in the trucking industry. There is nothing deficient about the tribunal, but this government has made such a mess of running the country that it has decided to target this organisation as part of a cynical re-election campaign. Because of the government’s failures it cannot run on its record. Indeed, this is a government that has been in opposition for its entire three years. Now the latest expression of its opposition mentality and focus is to reject safe rates.

If you are opposed to safe rates, it must mean by definition that you somehow support unsafe rates. At the heart of this debate is that simple view. If you do not believe that there is a connection between pay rates and safety then by all means argue that, but you must argue it on the basis of evidence. Every study that has been done, including the 2008 report of the National Transport Commission, the Jaguar Consulting report of 2014 and the PricewaterhouseCoopers report released just months ago, has shown a clear link. The PwC report, for example, recognised at page 86 that commission orders reduce crash rates between 10 and 18 per cent. Common sense tells you that that is the case. If people are paid for eight hours to do a task that in reality takes 12 hours, corners will be cut and those cut corners endanger not just truck drivers but all road users. That is why this legislation demeans all those good people across the parliament who worked on these issues for so many years—people like Paul Neville and others who during the Howard government produced the House of Representatives landmark committee report Beyond the midnight oil.

This legislation did not come from nowhere. We had hearings in this parliament in the lead-up to the creation of the tribunal, having proper consultation with industry, academics and experts. This was not something that was dreamed up. Indeed, the argument somehow that this is about the Transport Workers Union is so absurd that it shows no understanding of the industry. Members of the TWU who work for the big companies like Linfox and Toll organise their pay rates through enterprise bargaining between their union and their employer. This is for people who are outside of the industrial system, people who are owner-drivers, who are not in a position to negotiate in a collective bargaining forum and say that you cannot pay unsafe rates. That is the task of the tribunal—to make sure that you cannot have circumstances whereby people are put under pressure: ‘Do it for this rate or we will get someone else who will.’ It is similar to the opposition that we on this side of the House had to Work Choices legislation whereby an individual waiting to get a job could be told: ‘Do it for $3 an hour even though you should be paid $20 an hour. If not, the person behind you will do it for that amount,’ and destroy any ability for collective bargaining.

This is a government that is just determined to have scare campaigns about trade unions. This is the next step. We have had the Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation that will create a different set of laws for people who work in the construction sector from the rest of the workforce and here we have a cynical attempt—something that has not been argued for until the last couple of weeks in terms of looking for an election issue.

The former government did establish a tribunal, following the publication of a series of reports and following extensive—extensive—consultation. It was about stamping out practices like speeding, not taking rest stops and using amphetamines and other drugs to stay awake. There is no dispute that these facts are there, and they were accepted by an all-party committee that backed the creation of the tribunal.

Consider the evidence of a truckie named Andrew who told the New South Wales industrial commission that he was required to work so many hours that he would hallucinate while driving. Andrew said he once imagined he saw another truck doing a three-point turn on the highway up ahead and stopped. As traffic banked up behind him, another truckie radioed to ask why he had stopped in the middle of the road. There was no truck up ahead.

Another driver named Robert revealed in a 2011 survey that he had asked his boss for time off to have his tyres replaced in the name of safety. The boss refused. Not long after, he was driving along at 100 kilometres per hour with a full load when one of his tyres blew out. ‘It’s sheer luck no-one was killed,’ Robert said.

Before the creation of the tribunal, too many trucks were moving around the nation’s highways being driven by people forced by economic necessity to adopt practices that put their lives at risk—not just their lives but those of other road users. The tribunal provided orders that can include minimum pay levels; clear conditions for loading and unloading; waiting times; working hours; load limits; payment methods, payment periods and other means of reducing pay related pressures; and practices and incentives which contribute to unsafe work practices. The bottom line here is that truck drivers should be able to earn a decent living without having to risk their own lives or the lives of others. That is why we call them ‘safe rates’.

Key figures in the National Party clearly indicated that they knew where we were coming from when this legislation was carried. This is what New South Wales senator John Williams, a former truck driver, told the Senate on 20 March 2012:

We are talking about safe rates. We are talking about what truckies are paid, especially the contractors when they unload at Coles and Woolworths. I do not have a problem with what you are proposing.

Later on, on 16 March this year, Senator Williams said this in the Senate:

When the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal was put through this place when Labor was in government I did not have a lot of bad things to say about it because, as a former pig farmer, I know how Woolworths treated me. I know what the big end of town does to the small Aussie battlers, as I call them.

We have had a look at the expertise that is there about the connection between road safety and pay rates. Indeed, The Conversation had a look at these issues and asked Professor Michael Quinlan, the director of the Industrial Relations Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, to review the evidence, including the PwC report. Professor Quinlan found that drivers being paid per trip drove an average of 15 kilometres an hour faster than drivers on an hourly rate. Let me read his verdict. It says:

Albanese was correct. There is persuasive evidence of a connection between truck driver pay and safety.

I cannot fault The Conversation on its academic rigour. They also asked a US academic, Michael Belzer, an associate professor in economics at Wayne State University in Detroit, to review Mr Quinlan’s findings. He described Mr Quinlan’s report as an excellent summary of the issue and backed its findings.

This, today, is all about politics. The parliament exists to provide a venue for debate. Often we agree, but sometimes we do not. But what we should not be having a debate about is road safety. What we should have in terms of road safety is an absolute commitment from everyone in this parliament to do whatever they can to decrease the likelihood of deaths and accidents on our roads. That is why I will strongly oppose this legislation that has been brought forward in such extraordinary circumstances.