OPINION: Biased representation

By: Frank Black

Does the ATA really represent us? Or is it merely looking after big business?

OPINION: Biased representation
Do blitzes improve safety?


I have now been on the General Council of the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) for a total of approximately 14 years. Throughout that time I have made my position clear that one man is not enough to represent the entire fleet of owner-drivers in Australia. Even if I were the most influential man in the country, I nor anybody else that held the position could speak on behalf of thousands of owner-drivers, across six states, a variety of sectors, and all with their own unique concerns.

It hadn’t even occurred to me that my role as the sole owner-driver representative could expand even beyond that.

I now find myself feeling somewhat responsible for speaking on behalf of all truck drivers in Australia, including the employees. This has been the case for months, since the Transport Workers Union (TWU), which is made up of thousands of truck drivers across the country, ceased to be a member of the ATA. With its departure, the ATA has lost the voices of thousands of Australian truck drivers, leaving them with a membership that consists mainly of trucking corporations and associations that represent the interests of larger transport operators. In short, the ATA appears to have become nothing more than an employer group.

This begs the question, what right does the ATA have to speak on behalf of the whole trucking industry?

In 1989, 21 lives were lost in the Grafton truck and bus crash. From this tragedy, the ATA was established to improve safety, professionalism and viability in trucking. It is not possible to improve any of these standards from a one-sided viewpoint – especially the side that is profit-focused.

Every company in the transport industry says safety is their number one priority, yet trucking is Australia’s deadliest industry. Every company claims to be professional, yet we have widespread wage theft, unrealistic deadlines and drivers pressured to work fatigued. The precariousness of the industry is probably the only thing we’d all agree on, but how to ensure its viability is another matter.

Missing the target

Police blitzes target truck drivers for minor breaches, claiming that this will improve safety on the roads. We all know that this entirely misses the mark. More often than not, those breaches we are fined for are either out of our control or a consequence of the pressure from the operator, or client at the top of the supply chain. Despite these deep flaws, the targeting of drivers does acknowledge our critical role in road safety.

We absolutely should be held to account for our actions, of course, but if our influence over safety trucking is acknowledged through punishment, so too should it be in finding solutions.

Rarely are we – the experts in trucking – asked how to make this industry safer.

Of the 50,000 businesses the ATA represents, it speaks only to the bosses. The member associations largely represent the interests of larger transport operators too. Other than myself, the TWU was the only remaining member which was not swayed by company interests. The thousands of truck drivers represented by the TWU, which includes many owner-drivers, gave the ATA credibility. Without this representation, the ATA is significantly unbalanced.

Through my years of experience on the general council, I have seen the impact that a lack of driver representation has on discussions and decisions. Owner-drivers are often left at the bottom of the pile. I can draw upon a long list of examples that point to employer priorities driving the conversation towards decisions that would ultimately disadvantage owner-drivers.

Remuneration lost

Here is a quick example on the controversial topic of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. Rather than consulting any concerns that they may have held with myself or the TWU representative on the council, they chose to shut us out completely, going to the extent of not returning our phone calls. Instead the ATA enlisted support from people that had been misled by bad information.

Conversations steer to higher productivity vehicles, or environmentally friendly vehicles, things that are out of reach for the majority of owner-drivers. More duties and responsibilities are added for drivers, without any talk of additional remuneration.

When fatigue laws were under the microscope, the discussion mainly focused on how to get freight from A to B as quickly as possible without breaking the law, rather than how to ensure drivers had adequate rest breaks built into their deadlines so they weren’t pressured to drive fatigued.

The ATA holds influence in our industry, meaning decisions like these can be pushed through despite the damaging impact on arguably the most crucial section of transport; its drivers.

It’s no secret and no wonder that the ATA and the TWU sing from different song sheets. This alone is enough to call into question the ATA’s representation of drivers wishes. Setting that aside, if the ATA wants to be a reputable voice for the entire transport industry it must have a plan for either extending the olive branch to the TWU or find another way to give drivers the opportunity to unbiased representation.

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