Independents hold key to passage of safe rates

Government must rely on independents to secure a safe rates tribunal after support for reform splits along party lines

Independents hold key to passage of safe rates
Independents hold key to passage of safe rates
By Brad Gardner | March 2, 2012

The Federal Government will need to attract crossbench support for its safe rates tribunal after the Coalition formally ruled out backing the reform.

A report from the parliamentary inquiry into the Road Safety Remuneration Bill, which will establish the tribunal, was supported by Labor members but opposed by the Coalition.

Five of the nine politicians involved in the inquiry urged the government to push ahead with its plan, but four Coalition MPs attached a dissenting report dismissing a link between pay and safety.

"The Committee considers that there is sufficient evidence to establish the link between remuneration and safety," the report states.

In its dissenting report, the Coalition argued: "In assessing the evidence that was submitted, the Coalition members were unconvinced that safe rates will lead to an improvement in road safety outcomes."

"It was feared that adding another layer of bureaucracy would not improve safety outcomes but would lead to increased costs to industry and consumers," the party says.

The Greens have pledged to support the tribunal, while Independent Rob Oakeshott was among the five members of the parliamentary inquiry recommending the minority-led government pass the Bill.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten says the government has started talking to the independents.

"We’ve engaged in discussions with them. I’m also pleased to say that some of the cross benches have indicated that they’ll meet with the Transport Workers Union," he says.

While a majority of MPs involved in the parliamentary inquiry supported safe rates, they also highlighted concerns over the scheme’s limited coverage.

Constitutional limitations will restrict coverage to about 80 percent of employee drivers and 60 percent of owner-drivers. The Federal Government wants the states and territories to refer their powers so all drivers are covered.

"The Committee is concerned…partial coverage may cause confusion in the industry as to which drivers will be under the jurisdiction of the Tribunal," the report states.

Shorten blames low rates of pay for truck drivers for poor safety standards, adding that tight deadlines cause some to take illicit substances.

"We think that the cost of inaction is far more expensive than the cost of action. In terms of the Opposition, I cannot understand what on earth would possess the Opposition to say they don’t want safe roads," Shorten says.

The tribunal, to begin on July 1, will set pay and pay-related conditions for truck drivers to remove incentives that encourage unsafe practices. Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Anthony Albanese blames unpaid waiting time for forcing drivers to speed and work fatigued to make up lost time.

Labor MP Laura Smyth says owner-drivers have little ability to demand sufficient pay rates because they are at the bottom of the supply chain.

"Truck drivers should not have to speed, they should not have to overload their trucks and they should not have to drive excessive hours or cut back on vehicle maintenance just so they can make a decent living," she says.

However, the Coalition’s Rowan Ramsey, who holds the seat of Grey, claims the tribunal will impose another layer of red tape on operators. Ramsey also went into bat for truck drivers who he says have to put up with "uneducated invective that comes from a certain section of the public".

"Truckies are the root of all evil if you ask the average suburban person. I drive 90,000km a year and I find the truckies are some of the best drivers on the road. It is the blokes in the cars that I would like to get off the road," Ramsey says.

Labor’s Stephen Jones, who was part of the parliamentary inquiry, says he is "gobsmacked" by the Coalition’s argument there is no link between rates of pay and safety.

Academic studies from the likes of Professor Michael Quinlan and Professor Ann Williamson, coronial inquests and government reports have cited a link between economics and safety.

Furthermore, US-based academic and former truckie Michael Belzer’s studies have proven higher rates of pay lead to reductions in heavy vehicle crashes.

"Quite simply, those opposite who seek to deny the link between hourly rates, hours worked and road safety have their heads in a bucket of sand," Jones says.

"The overwhelming finding of report after report show that there is a link between safety, rates and structures of remuneration in the road transport industry and the accidents, deaths and injuries on our roads involving these vehicles."

Opposition spokesman on transport Warren Truss yesterday ridiculed the proposed tribunal as government payback for the support it received from the Transport Workers Union (TWU). He claims the measure will not work and there is no evidence pay rates affects safety.

The Australian Logistics Council today backed Truss’s comments and reiterated its disapproval of safe rates.

"Rather than improving safety, the Bill will add another layer of unnecessary regulation that will impede industry efforts to improve safety and productivity levels which have flatlined in recent years," ALC Managing Director Michael Kilgariff says.

He says governments should instead mandate GPS trackers for linehaul operations – trucks that travel beyond 500km.
"Unfortunately, this sensible safety proposal has yet to be acted upon," Kilgariff says.

He cited concerns with the Bill’s coverage of intrastate courier drivers despite the measure not being part of the original proposal.

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