Judith Sloan, 13 April 2016

It’s a good line: “literally sending them to the funeral parlours”. It’s a line being trotted out by Transport Workers Union national secretary Tony Sheldon to describe the attempt to abolish the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal.

Let’s face it, Sheldon is right behind the tribunal’s campaign to send owner-drivers out of business. That’s a bit harsh about the tribunal, you say. But check out this excerpt from the decision mandating the (now in force) contractor driver minimum payments, made by the RSRT: “(The new rates are) intended to affect positive change for the purpose of promoting safety and fairness in the road transport industry. Some still appear to think that it is ‘un-Australian’ for the orders to place restrictions on market practices that are the root causes of death and serious injury on our roads.”

The trouble is these mainly union-connected members of the RSRT couldn’t recognise true root causes if they slapped them in the face. And here’s another ironic development — Sheldon keeps quoting the PricewaterhouseCoopers report that was used (faintly) to justify the passing of the original RSRT legislation.

According to him, this report concluded that “the tribunal will reduce truck crashes by 28 per cent”. (Mind you, this dubious figure does not just relate to owner-drivers, who are less likely to be involved in accidents than employee drivers.)

But take a look at what the PwC report concluded in that regulation impact statement it prepared for the original legislation: “There is some research to suggest that the remuneration for drivers is a factor in safety outcomes, however data at this point is limited and being definitive around the causal link between rates and safety is difficult.” (Note to tribunal members: “being definitive is difficult” does not square with “root causes”.)

But if that is not ironic enough for you, take the next PwC report on the topic of the RSRT: “We consider that the abolition of the RSRT would result in significant net benefit to the economy and community at large. The benefit-cost ratio associated with the orders is less than one in all cases. When considered in terms of the net cost to the economy, the $13.4 million expended over three years on the RSRT cannot be seen as anything other than an additional inefficient cost.”

In other words, PwC’s advice now is to get rid of the RSRT.

Not surprisingly, we haven’t heard Sheldon referring to this latest assessment.

If that’s not bad enough for the funeral parlour campaign of the TWU, on Monday we heard from former TWU official Michael Wong on the real deal behind the establishment of the RSRT.

“Fundamentally, the union doesn’t care about owner-drivers, it cares about its income and the political power it can achieve. The practical effect of the RSRT is to push owner-drivers out of the market. The unique success of the TWU’s achievement in the establishment of the RSRT was that it framed a marginal issue — the link between rates of pay and safety — as the central issue and then drove legislative change through its political mates.”

That’s a very good summary of what happened. But there is a serious question about why the Abbott-Turnbull government simply sat on its hands for 2½ years as this foreseeable outcome became reality. Why were the bureaucrats not warning ministers (and there are several relevant ministers, including the ministers responsible for transport and agriculture)?

After all, the TWU is hardly top of the pops when it comes to any popularity contest. It has come in for adverse publicity on many fronts.

In 2013, it was accused of cooking the books in relation to its financial members to boost its political influence. (It claimed to have 40,000 members in NSW when the true number was closer to 25,000.)

It was singled out in the final report of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption for running the secretive McLean Forum, which was funded using money extorted from large transport operators. The election campaigns of factionally aligned candidates in other unions as well as Sheldon’s campaign to become president of the Labor Party were funded through the forum.

We also learned from the royal commission that employee drivers regularly are forced to join TWU Super, and TWU Super pays the TWU to employ superannuation liaison officers who hardly do any superannuation-related work. Fifty per cent of their non-salary expenses are also billed to TWU Super. We also know the TWU entered into a financial deal with transport giant Toll Holdings to spy on Toll’s competitors — in the name of road safety, of course.

And while the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission did not deem this arrangement to be illegal — it could not find a substantial lessening of competition — its press release at the time did reveal a degree of unease on the part of the ACCC in reaching this decision.

Everyone worries about road safety. Everyone would like to see the incidence of road fatalities and accidents reduced. And it is a concern that trucks are likelier to be involved in serious accidents, some involving fatalities, than other vehicles. It is an emotive and real topic. But to single out one class of truck drivers — owner-drivers, many mum and dad operations — and impose excessive, one-size-fits-all payment rates on them alone is pure politics, designed to deliver the gift that the previous Labor government promised the TWU: more paid-up union members, more members in TWU Super and more influence in the Labor Party.

If we are really interested in road safety, we need to use direct means such as the Heavy Vehicle Regulator and to harness the opportunities presented by new technology to drive better safety outcomes on the roads.

In a final ironic twist, the opposition has backed down and no longer is offering Sheldon its full support to run owner-drivers out of business. Serious compromise is now in the wind.

You know the guff. If there are concerns, they should be addressed. All the parties should work out a mutually agreeable solution. Let’s delay the order and possibly phase in the new payment rates. Even the best-laid plans to hand over favours to union mates can come unstuck, it would seem.

Extracted in full from The Australian.