Jan 21, 2013

Uniform transport laws bring a nation into line – Opinion – The Australian

Few people reading this over breakfast will have put much thought into how the juice, bread and cereal reached their table. But getting it from the farm to the table depends on a remarkable process called logistics. It comes down to precision timing and connections and an army of truck drivers who criss-cross the nation, often alone, bar a large silent companion in the form of a foot high ring-binder of compliance and registration papers.

Federation might be Sir Henry Parkes’ enduring legacy, but the benefits of a unified nation have been slow to translate into practical outcomes for transport operators. For at least a century, at times it seems like passing between the two Koreas would take less paperwork. The vast array of State, Territory and Commonwealth laws and regulations are confusing, sometimes contradictory and always expensive. They have grown like a parasite over the decades covering everything from axle weight loads, fatigue log books, vehicle widths and even the placement and angle of registration plates.

Pity the livestock carrier hoping to carry stock from a farm in Queensland to an abattoir in NSW. He can load 66 cattle in Queensland but carry only 60 into NSW. Rather than dump six at the border, the practical outcome is that the minimum number are carried, meaning productivity is hampered and more trucks are forced onto the highways to make up the difference. It’s a similar crazy tale carrying hay bales between Victoria and NSW where wider loads are allowed on Victoria roads so that haulage operators must reduce and rearrange loads, employing more trucks to do the same job.

Try carrying wine between vineyards straddling the western districts of NSW and Victoria. The most efficient vehicle for the job would be a road train and while that’s fine in NSW, just across the border it’s illegal.  The big truck operators say that staying across the variations and paperwork requires a team of staff. But with 85 per cent of truck operators being small family-run enterprises, keeping up with the rules in every State is an enormous burden. When stopped by compliance inspectors for a spot check, frustrated drivers must dissect their giant folder to find the right document.

You’d think a national set of rules for the rail industry would have been settled as the Federation documents were being inked. Yet not only were we bequeathed rail lines of varying gauges, each State set about producing their own firm rules with apparent isolation from their neighbouring jurisdiction. For example, in Victoria a red over green signal means there’s a train in front, in NSW the identical signal means there’s a train behind. A rail track worker wanting to shift his family from Bendigo to Albury must get fresh accreditation, while drivers need separate licences depending on the State they’re going through. For the driver of the Indian Pacific, crossing the nation requires navigation of complex regulations.

After several years of intense effort by political leaders and transport operators, the end to this bureaucratic madness is in sight. This week, with the exclusion of Western Australia which is yet to sign up, the new National Heavy Vehicle Regulator will open for business in Brisbane. That means that every vehicle over 4.5 tonnes will be subject to identical rules – one set of laws, one set of registration and compliance papers, one log book and an end to myriad pieces of red tape that have hung like a giant weight around the neck of the trucking industry for 112 years. Importantly, there will be one clear road map showing what size vehicles can use which roads. No longer will the mostly family-run trucking operators be burdened by the cost and confusion of contradictory rules that have beset them for generations.

It’s a similar story for rail. This week, Adelaide will become home to Australia’s first National Rail Safety Regulator.  In the future, every train driver and worker in the country will follow one clear set of signalling systems, one compliance approach and pay one annual accreditation fee. South Australia, NSW, ACT, Tasmania and the Northern Territory are the first to sign up to the new regulatory system. The other States will follow by the end of the year. In March, a single regulator for the maritime sector will also come into being. It will finally remove imaginary borders on our coastal waters and the mountain of red tape that is faced each day by commercial shipping operators.

With duplication across the transport sector costing us $2.4 billion this year, it is hard to overemphasise the productivity benefits of these reforms. Collectively, the introduction of the three single national regulators will boost national income by $30 billion over the next 20 years. The current Federal Government is rebuilding one-third of the rail freight network, and our investment in new and better roads is double that of the Howard Government. The introduction of national regulators helps ensure the Australian taxpayer gets value for this unprecedented level of investment, generating savings along the supply chain that can be passed on to the consumer.

The transport industry is one of our biggest and is worth $61 billion to the Australian economy. Drivers and operators have been crying out for this reform for decades. It is one step further towards a national seamless economy. It’s been a long time coming but Federation has finally caught up with national transportation.