Elizabeth Colman and Joe Kelly

Bill Shorten has pledged to revive minimum pay for truckies if Labor is elected, risking a fierce backlash from owner-drivers who earlier this month killed off the union-backed Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal.

Less than a fortnight after Malcolm Turnbull scrapped the tribunal after an outcry that small businesses were being driven to the wall by so-called “safe rates”, the Opposition Leader said he was “convinced of the link” between safety and truck drivers’ remuneration. “Labor will work with industry and the unions to bring back a bipartisan forum to establish safe rates of pay in the heavy vehicle industry,’’ Mr Shorten’s spokesman said.

Labor would also reinstate the tribunal if it was shown that safety worsened as a result of its abolition. “There is a clear link between low rates of pay and unsafe working conditions on the roads — the evidence is in,” the spokesman said.

“That was the whole point of the RSRT — to ensure truckies did not have an incentive to cut corners.”

The pledge to act on truckies’ safety followed a rally in Sydney yesterday by the Transport Workers Union, which successfully lobbied the Gillard government to set up the industrial body, with protesters calling for the Turnbull government to reverse its position on “safe rates”.

TWU national secretary Tony Sheldon told The Australian: “Safe rates are needed so that all interested parties in transport from drivers, their represen­tatives and industry can come ­together to ensure major clients are held to account for what ­happens in their supply chains.

“By opposing this system, Malcolm Turnbull has placed profits over lives on the roads.”

In December, the tribunal mandated that owner-drivers subcontracted to certain long-distance or interstate journeys must charge minimum wages.

The order was scrapped when federal parliament voted to abolish the tribunal, a bitter dis­appointment to the transport union.

The TWU, a right-wing union that has an influential voice within the ALP, will be emboldened by federal Labor’s commitment to revive safe rates.

Labor’s pledge comes despite criticism of Mr Shorten, who ­established the tribunal while workplace relations minister in 2012, with small business groups arguing that the safe rates regime favours unionised labour over ­individual contractors who stood to be penalised by mandatory pay rates.

It is not clear if Labor will embrace changes to the now defunct tribunal to ensure that owner- drivers are not disadvantaged under the so-called “safe rates”.

The TWU sought an amendment to the RSRT order earlier this month that would attempt to ensure owner-drivers were not penalised at the expense of drivers who worked for large fleet ­operators.

“The most important thing is saving truckies’ lives and improving safety on our roads for motorists and their families,” Mr Shorten’s spokesman said.

“Too many people are killed in heavy vehicle crashes — that’s what Labor wants to stop. The Liberals have shown they’re only interested in the politics, not making our roads safer.”

The opposition employment spokesman Brendan O’Connor, like Mr Shorten, emphasised that any future tribunal would strive to be bipartisan.

“We will sit down with stakeholders in the industry to discuss ways to improve safety for truck drivers and road users generally,” Mr O’Connor said. “Unlike the Abbott-Turnbull government, Labor accepts the overwhelming evidence that there is a link between pay rates and road deaths.’’

Steve Shearer, executive director of the South Australian Roads and Transport Association, said the TWU’s case was “demonstrably wrong”.

“The TWU erroneously ­argued, on the strength of a discredited and less than rigorous anecdotal report, that there is a causal link between rates and safety,” Mr Shearer wrote in an open letter to Mr Shorten.

“The TWU’s premise that a contractor or driver who is working unsafely will self-correct their own unsafe and illegal behaviour simply if they are paid more … ­denies fundamental human ­nature and beggars belief and yet this was the very premise that ­underpinned the fatally flawed (tribunal) concept, which was always doomed to fail.”

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said the tribunal “has been completely rejected by owner-drivers after it was shown to be nothing about safety and all about bolstering the coffers and numbers of the TWU.”

Extracted in full from The Australian