House debates

Monday, 18 April 2016


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

4:28 pm

Photo of Clare O'NeilClare O'Neil (Hotham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

It is a real pleasure to be able to make a contribution to this discussion today, and it is a really important one. I note that it has been the practice in this debate so far to refer only tangentially to the legislation that is actually before the House, so I am going to take a pretty novel approach and talk about the bills that we are discussing today! They are really important bills that protect truck drivers in this country and protect all of us who share the road with people driving trucks.

I am aware that there is probably some confusion out there about exactly what it is that we are debating today, because a few weeks ago probably no-one outside of the trucking industry had ever heard of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. Certainly, we had not heard much from the federal government about it, even though the order that is under discussion today was made in December last year.

Just for the purposes of helping people understand what it is that we are discussing: this is a remuneration tribunal that was set up to set rates and terms of pay for truck drivers in our country. The reason that it was established was because there are extremely clear links between the rates and conditions that truck drivers work under and their safety practices on the road. I will talk a little about the very clear links and the clear evidence that we see from studies that have been done all over the world.

Some time ago this tribunal made a decision about rates of pay that owner-operators of trucking companies in this country have told us they are going to find it very difficult to implement. We are very happy to sit down and talk about how we can resolve that discussion. But, instead, four months after this decision was made by the tribunal the federal government has come really out of nowhere and said, 'Well, that's it—we're going to abolish this tribunal without any public discussion.' For that reason we are opposed to this measure. It is a complete overreaction to the order that was given by the tribunal. As I have said, the tribunal is actually a very important one; it performs a really important role in protecting drivers and in protecting all of us on the road.

One of the really essential features of living in such a big country with such a small population is that trucking is still a way that goods are moved around. It is just a fact of life for us in Australia. Anyone who is driving on the Hume Highway or on the south-eastern in the Murray Valley out in my neck of the woods in Melbourne is going to share that road with people who are doing long-haul driving and who are driving trucks that can cause serious damage if accidents happen.

We see the evidence of the additional danger in having a road system like this very clearly. If there is one thing that I want people to remember coming out of the discussion today, it is that truck drivers are 12 times more likely to die at work than ordinary Australians. This is actually the biggest death rate of any industry in this country. It is actually one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.

Something else that everyone should remember is that in last month alone 25 people died in trucking accidents. What is crucial to understand about this is that of those 25 people, many were not truck drivers. So, although this is called the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, and although it deals specifically with truck drivers, the reality is that this is a piece of legislation that protects all of us because we do share the roads with people who are truck drivers.

For all the reasons I have just described, this tribunal was set up in 2012. Its critical role is to set rates and conditions for truck drivers around this country. The reason that the tribunal was established is because, as I mentioned, there are extremely clear links between the rates of pay and the conditions for truck drivers and their safety on the road. In all these debates, the best thing for us to do is to go back to the evidence. I say to people who are interested in this issue: do not listen to those on the other side. Do not even listen to us when it comes to evidence; try to find an authoritative source. And we have a really good one. The Conversation website, which, as most would know, has as its core business checking facts that are used by politicians, has looked into this link between rates of pay and safety on the roads in recent weeks. What it has found—and I am quoting from the upshot of their review is:

… there is persuasive evidence of a connection between truck driver pay and safety.

The evidence that The Conversation considered when it looked at this critical question about the links between pay and road safety came from a series of studies that had been done in particular in Australia and in the US which, like Australia, is very dependent on trucks as a way to move goods around the country.

Some of the studies that have been done in Australia show very clearly that the amount and, in particular, the way that drivers are being paid significantly affects their sleepiness and, in addition, the speed at which they travel. That is a crucial issue for safety on the road. In fact, one study talked about different methods of paying truck drivers: when they are paid on a per trip basis, truck drivers drive 15 kilometres faster on average. That is a serious amount of speed that truck drivers are using to get around when they are using this type of payment system.

The Conversation looked at some international studies. One that I do want to mention is a pretty substantial American study that was done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. That study looked at long-haul drivers—so, drivers who were doing mainly interstate travel. They found that driver pay had a significant effect on safety on the job. And it was not just looking at things like the outcomes—for example, people being injured in accidents. It looked at the practices that those drivers had to adopt when they were not being paid enough to keep their families going. There were things like use of drugs to stay awake and to stay alert, undertaking excessive hours, speeding and working for longer than the safe number of hours. These were all things that were associated with lower rates of pay.

So there is some really good evidence out there about this question. Again, I would encourage those who are interested in understanding this issue a little more to have a look at The Conversation's review of this. But I would just make the point that all these studies show us something that is pretty simple and pretty logical, and that is that if people are not getting paid enough to make a living to support their families then they are going to have to do things that make their incomes higher. If the rates of pay for truck drivers are set too low for them to make a living using safe practices then people are more likely to use unsafe practices. That is just the logic of how this operates.

Just in thinking of what this is about: I talked a little about fatalities when I opened my discussion today, and this is absolutely about truck driver safety. But it is also about those of us who share the roads with people who are driving trucks. The reality is that all of us in this chamber have families and all of us represent people who use our roads. I know that as a parent I do not want to put children in a car knowing that we will be driving down the freeway next to someone who has had to adopt unsafe driving practices just so they can make a living. That is just completely inappropriate in a country like Australia, where we are so dependent on our roads as a means to get around.

Based on what I have said, of course the question is: why would the government want to abolish something like this? There is a complication that the industry and the government are going to need to deal with. I mentioned that the tribunal has made a decision that threatens the viability of some owner-operators. That is a very serious issue. Of course we do not want to have a tribunal that puts truck drivers out of work and that puts under threat businesses that have been going concerns for long periods of time. I respect the people who have come to Canberra to talk to us about this issue, who have seen generation upon generation of people in their families driving trucks and who see the order that was given by the tribunal as a threat to their livelihoods. There is a lot of sympathy for the people who are in that position, and Labor wants to talk with them and to represent them in this parliament. It is not, though, a good reason to abolish a tribunal. Tribunals make decisions all the time. Just because we do not like one of them or it is not suitable for the current commercial context, it does not mean that we abolish the tribunal.

What would a good government do in the face of such a challenge? I think a good government would sit down with the relevant parties—with the drivers, with the owner-operators, with the big trucking companies who, as it turned out in question time today, are also very concerned about this, and with the union representatives who represent many of these drivers—and discuss how it is that this can be managed. I do not think anyone wants to be bloody-minded about this. The point of this tribunal is of course not to threaten the viability of businesses; it is to try to make us safe on our roads. If the balance has not been got quite right there, let's address that situation. But it is not a reason to abolish this tribunal. This is a good piece of public policy that is based in really good evidence. We should support it and modify it if needs be, but I definitely do not believe that what has happened is grounds to abolish the tribunal altogether.

I think the reality that we face here is that the attempt to abolish the tribunal has been very reactionary and has really come out of nowhere from a decision that was made many months ago. Actually, in mid-last-year a question was asked of the Deputy Prime Minister about whether the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal would be abolished, and the government said, 'No, we're not going to go down that path; we don't think there will be public support for such a proposal.' I guess the question for us is why out of nowhere this has suddenly become such an urgent national priority. It is something the government was not talking about at all a couple of weeks ago, and suddenly they have people on the phone, trying to drum up protests and this sort of thing. Why would the government be doing this?

I think it is a really good example of the current situation that the government is in. What we see on the other side of the House from issue to issue is a government that is in search of a mission. I have to say as a member of parliament that it is staggering to me that a group of people who have worked their whole lives to be in a government just like this one get there and have no idea what they want to do with that political power. What has the member for Wentworth been doing for the last years that he has been a member of parliament but thinking about what he might do if he ever got to be Prime Minister? And yet we see that he gets into the role—probably a lifelong dream for him—and he is frozen. He cannot create an agenda. He cannot think of what his government should stand for. So we see him sadly—very sadly—grasping from issue to issue. Some of the journalists in the press gallery are calling this 'government by thought bubble' because from week to week the ogre against our economic growth in this country changes. We saw the tax mix at one stage be the big problem facing the country. Then we had the structure of the federation. We have had the union movement as the big issue. We have had tax burden on the middle class and then tax burden on companies. We need to get something resolved here.

One of the things that is really notable out there in my electorate at the moment—and I am sure other members of parliament are hearing this—is that, whether I am talking to people who are senior in business or people who are on a street corner who have come to talk to me about a local issue, they are all saying the same thing: they want leadership. It is almost a matter of 'just lead us somewhere, just in one direction, just for a few months, so we understand what this government is about'. Instead, from week to week we just get different stories and different sets of objectives from this Prime Minister and his Treasurer.

Politics is politics, so I am not going to get too upset about a piece of legislation coming before us that perhaps would not be prioritised under other circumstances, but I have to say one thing that I am finding very frustrating about the current situation. The country actually faces hugely significant problems that need the attention of the national parliament. We have an education system that is falling behind education systems around the world. For the first time in as long as we have known, children who are living in Australia right now are getting a lesser quality of education than children who are living in Shanghai. This is a crucial national problem and something on which the government has nothing to say.

We have a healthcare system that is under pressure form an ageing population. We have a standard of living in this country that has not improved for five years. These are problems that are worthy of recalling the national parliament, but we are all here, the whole House of Representatives and the whole Senate, and have gone through the charade of going into the Senate and hearing the Governor-General give another address—what an absolute farce this has been—and are doing it because the government just cannot think of anything better to do. It has brought us here to talk about pieces of legislation that for sure are important and raise issues that matter to many Australians; but, Deputy Speaker Kelly, if you think that the bills being debated in the upper house at the moment are the most important issues facing the country, that just shows how out of touch you are.

I am standing with Labor today. We will not be supporting the repeal of this tribunal. The reason we are not supporting the repeal of this tribunal—apart from the craven manner in which this has been done—is that this tribunal actually performs a crucially important role. It is called the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal because it is about road safety. It is about protecting truck drivers, who are 12 times more likely to die on the roads than Australians who work in other industries. It is about protecting you, Deputy Speaker, the people at home and me when I am on the road with my family. I do not want to be on those roads, thinking that I might be driving next to a truck driver who has had to work too-long hours, skip his breaks and use drugs, caffeine or other things to keep him awake just so he can make a living for himself and his family. It is not far, it is not good for road safety and it is not something that Labor will support.


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