Tuesday, 28 March 2006
With the introduction this week of the government’s extreme industrial relations laws it is timely to look at the trucking industry, where small operators are facing a severe crisis. At the last election the government revealed that it would introduce laws covering independent contractors. It is transparent that such laws may be aimed at undermining what current support small truck owner-operators are able to access through the union movement. It is almost a certainty that laws to this end would decimate small operators, who are already struggling to remain viable in a fiercely competitive and increasingly deregulated industry.
The industry estimates that currently 300 operators go out of business every week, in 99 per cent of cases due to financial problems. But this is not an issue confined to the industry. The impact of the crisis these small operators are facing is felt throughout families and communities, particularly in rural and remote areas with a heavy reliance on the long-haul trucking industry. Many trucking families are living on overdrafts in circumstances of poverty and severe financial stress. The results are high divorce rates and family breakdown, an understandable scenario when you consider that many of these owner-operators work more than 70 hours, and sometimes up to 100 hours, per week.
Having said that, there is much that can be done to ease the burden of these owner-operators. The key issues that must be addressed to assist small trucking businesses are minimum freight rates based on specified conditions such as kilometres and load weight and national regulation to reduce the red tape faced by small trucking businesses. As you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, these are very important issues.
On the issue of rates, it is important to note research by ACIL Tasman showing that 60 per cent of all business in the road freight industry is done by small trucking operators but that they earn only 11 per cent of total income. Moreover, additional research shows that real road freight rates have been declining for more than 40 years. National minimum freight rates that are less likely to be undercut because of the fierce competition in the industry would help improve the viability of the industry.
The lack of uniform regulations for operators that cross borders places a disproportionate level of financial and operational hardship on small trucking businesses, according to a recent study done into the viability of owner-operators and the impact on their families. I refer to a report by Transport Women Australia on Australian trucking families in crisis, which found that there was a dire need for national regulations. I also praise Australian transport families represented by Transport Women Australia for bringing this report to the attention of members of this House over the course of today. It is important that the House listens to the issues raised by Transport Women Australia. They see at first hand the financial hardships, the problems of keeping families together and the impact not only on their families but also on many small communities in regional, remote and rural Australia.
For example, operators require different vehicle specifications for different states. I therefore raise the issue of the poor regulation of distribution centres which means that many truck drivers wait between eight and 10 hours to load their vehicles—time that could be better spent resting, which I contend is a vital part of improving the safety of the road transport industry. As the member for Corangamite will appreciate as he goes out to count the numbers for his forthcoming preselection, the reason for this is that these duties add to fatigue on the road caused by delivery pressures, and this presents a risk not just to drivers but to all road users. These are issues that need to be addressed by both the government and the private sector to increase the profitability of the industry for smaller players.
In conclusion, let me say this. Ultimately, addressing the issues is in the interest of all of us as recipients of freight, especially considering that road transport makes up a large percentage of the freight industry and has such a significant impact on rural and remote communities. If the member for Corangamite had been prepared to stand up for these operators over many years, I am sure he would have a comfortable margin in the forthcoming preselection. I wish him well but I wonder whether the neglect of road transport operators over many years has endangered his future tenure in the House of Representatives.