ACCC issues veiled jail threat to Owner Driver columnist

By: Greg Bush


Frank Black, a regular contributor to Owner//Driver magazine, has received a warning from the ACCC over comments he made in April over cut priced freight rates

ACCC issues veiled jail threat to Owner Driver columnist
Owner-driver Frank Black

 

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has fired a warning shot to Owner//Driver columnist Frank Black following his concerns over low freight rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter sent to Black dated June 1, Catherine Pavey, director Cartels branch at the ACCC, referred to statements made in his April 2020 column that the ACCC could give rise to allegations that he has attempted to fix prices with other owner-drivers.

Black’s opinion piece also ran on Owner//Driver’s website: www.ownerdriver.com.au.

In particular, Pavey listed two "potentially problematic paragraphs" in Black’s opinion piece:

"What does concern me is the cheap freight being offered by people taking advantage of the situation. This is no time for bottom feeders to seek to profit at the expense of others. We can’t afford for rates to be lowered anywhere in the industry.

"In harder times, it’s more important than ever for us to stick together and stand strong. We all feel the calling of our personal financial needs but undercutting each other to win work will only do harm to us all."

Pavey believes the article raises concerns that Black, a one-truck owner-driver, may have attempted to form arrangements or reach understandings with the purpose of fixing, controlling or maintaining prices.

Pavey also mentioned in her letter to Black that contravention of the cartel provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 is a criminal offence and carries serious criminal and civil penalties, including up to 10 years in jail for individuals.

Black, a staunch Transport Workers Union (TWU) member, was a supporter of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT), which was abolished by the Coalition Government in 2016. The RSRT was originally set up by the Labor Government, coming in effect in 2014 to set pay and conditions for drivers in the road transport industry.

The TWU responded to Pavey’s letter, saying it was "utterly astounded that the ACCC is threatening criminal charges carrying jail terms to a truck driver" over an opinion article.

The TWU has requested the ACCC on information has how it obtained Black’s personal contact details. It has also asked for a full withdrawal of the letter and accusations levelled at Black, as well as an apology.

As well as his TWU membership, Black is the current owner-driver representative on the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) general council.

In recent months, Black and the ATA’s relationship has soured. In Owner//Driver’s March edition, Black questioned the association’s right to speak on behalf of the whole trucking industry. He accused the ATA of becoming nothing more than an employer group.

The then ATA chair Geoff Crouch responded in Owner//Driver’s May edition, accusing Black of making "inaccurate and inflammatory accusations from the sidelines". It also stated that Black had failed to participate in council policy committee meetings. However, Black tells Owner//Driver he has missed only one general council meeting this year.

More recently, the ATA CEO Ben Maguire states that, "although he is an elected member of the ATA Council, Frank Black was not speaking on the ATA’s behalf when he suggested in his column that owner drivers should fix prices".

 "The ATA did not see or approve the column before it was published. We do not endorse it.

 "The ATA takes compliance with the competition laws very seriously. We operate in accordance with the Competition and Consumer Act and the ACCC guidelines for industry associations.

"ATA Chair David Smith will be writing to all ATA councillors and committee members with a refresh of their obligations under the competition laws and to provide links to guidance material," Maguire says.

"Instead of arguing for price fixing, Frank Black should have dialled in to our council meetings in April and May and put forward constructive ideas on behalf of the owner drivers he was elected to represent."

One of the biggest infringements over cartels came to a head in 1994 when TNT, Ansett Transport and Mayne Nickless received massive fines for years of price fixing and rigging. The then Trade Practices Commission, the ACCC’s predecessor, said the three companies’ actions represented the most sustained and systematic price fixing case ever to come before an Australian court.

Despite the millions of dollars in fines, no jail sentences were recorded.

The ACCC has had much on its plate lately. It recently lost its appeal over a ruling that Kimberly-Clark had not misled customers when it said its Kleenex Cottonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths where in fact flushable. Coincidentally, in his April column, Black mentioned Kimberly Clark as one of the companies that has thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic, due mainly to toilet paper hoarding by the general public.

Owner//Driver has attempted to contact Catherine Pavey of the ACCC.

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