Nick Cater, 12 April 2016

On the night the Road Safety Remuneration Act passed the lower house, Julia Gillard and Anthony Albanese caught a VIP jet to Sydney to raise a glass with the legislation’s sponsors.

“We’d shown the union movement who controlled the parliament, and we were going to celebrate with them,” recalls the former prime minister’s speechwriter, Michael Cooney, in his book The Gillard Project. “Our staff sat with Albo and his staff and cracked a few cans to toast a fighting week.”

TWU national president Jim McGiveron told the TWU’s annual dinner that night in May 2012: “We have a prime minister today who’s with us, who’s one of us … our sister Julia Gillard.”

Four years later the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, the quasi-judicial monster set loose by Labor’s legislation, has gone berserk. Its latest ruling will do nothing to improve safety.

It will, however, punish owner-drivers, hand market power to larger transport companies and drive up freight costs that will be passed onto consumers.

The good news about road safety — news you are unlikely to read in a TWU press release — is that the chance of being killed by a truck is shrinking every year.

Deaths from heavy vehicle crashes in Australia have fallen by more than 20 per cent in the last decade from 276 in 2005 to 220 in 2014.

But then the Road Safety Remuneration Act was never really about safety; it was one of the more deceptive pieces of legislation enacted by the Gillard administration.

PwC looked at the draft legislation and advised strongly against it in a Regulatory Impact Statement, concluding that the additional costs of higher remuneration exceeded the expected road benefits.

Yet the government pushed the legislation through regardless, justifying the move with the emotive, misleading and morally arrogant rhetoric that the union has been pushing for years.

“We know some truck drivers are pressured to cut corners on safety and maintenance and feel they need to take illicit substances to keep them awake just to get to destinations on time,” Bill Shorten said.

“These practices endanger the lives of all Australians.”

The goggle-eyed truckie driving hell for leather is one of the folk demons of our time. If only the poor wretches were paid a decent wage, the argument goes, accidents would be avoided.

Yet common sense tells us there are simpler ways to make road haulage safer than setting up a union-stacked tribunal. Truckies might care to put on their seat belts for instance. NSW government figures show that a third of drivers in fatal crashes were not wearing them properly.

The police could get tougher on speeding since speed is a contributing factor in 60 per cent of single vehicle truck crashes.

Trucks could be equipped with tachographs, a mini black box that keeps a record of speed and rest-breaks. Tachographs have been mandatory in the European Union for decades; indeed European manufactured trucks come with them already installed. Bizarrely, when imported to Australia, the boxes are ripped out.

Other technological aids to truck safety are getting better and cheaper all the time. Lane assist technology can prevent trucks drifting and active cruise control with emergency braking can vastly reduce the chances of collision. Electronic stability control helps prevent jackknifes, rollovers and other loss-of-control crashes.

Yet the TWU’s safety campaign embraces none of these measures. Instead the union makes the ambitious leap between accidents and pay and Labor responds with the RSRT.

The tribunal has exercised its extraordinary powers to dictate the price of commercial contracts in an order that came into effect last week. If a driver with their own vehicle agrees to transport a truckload of goods at a more competitive rate, they can be hauled before the commission.

Owner-drivers are in danger of being priced out of the market by the larger trucking giants such as Linfox and Toll. The result of Labor’s audacious market intervention is to give a leg-up to the big end of town, or at least the big end of road haulage, while 35,000 or so single truck operators are being squeezed.

The tribunal has accelerated the growth of a regulatory jungle in which smaller operators pay disproportionate compliance costs. Almost everything it sets out to do duplicates the functions of one or more pieces of state and federal legislation.

Driver work and rest hours are strictly regulated by the Heavy Vehicle (Fatigue Management) National Regulation 2013. The Chain of Responsibility Law places a duty on drivers not to drive when fatigue and a duty on contractors to ensure those obligations are not infringed.

Bureaucrats and large transport companies aside, the obvious beneficiary of Labor’s legislation is the TWU, which has been trying to drive non-unionised independent drivers off the road for decades.

The centrally planned, anti-competitive and illiberal road haulage regulations bequeathed by the Gillard government have virtually nothing to do with safety. They are the consequence of a tawdry deal between Labor and one its biggest donors, the TWU.

This being an election year, the Labor Party will again be expecting a six or seven figure donation from the TWU that, like most unions these days, resembles a corporation rather than a workers’ co-operative.

In an ideal world Tony Abbott’s incoming government would have repealed this damaging legislation without delay, but it was deterred by the likelihood that recalcitrant senators would have thwarted it.

As a consequence of the tribunal’s overreach, however, the debate is turning in favour of the single-truck operators. Malcolm Turnbull has promised that a re-elected Coalition government will legislate to overturn the legislation.

It is difficult to imagine that any fair-minded crossbencher would stand in the Prime Minister’s way.

Nick Cater is executive director of The Menzies Research Centre.

Extracted in full from The Australian.

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