VTA 2021 notes post-Covid confidence

By: Mark Gojszyk

Resilience praised but issues in need of serious attention recognised

VTA 2021 notes post-Covid confidence
Scott Buchholz and Peter Anderson at the VTA conference today

In March 2020, the Victorian Transport Association (VTA) annual conference pondered what impact the emerging novel coronavirus would have on global and domestic markets.

Soon after, Australia, like much of the world, entered its first lockdown and the rest needs no further explanation.

Now, exactly 12 months later, VTA ponders "what’s in front" of industry and how to prepare for new times and more challenges in the aftermath of the global pandemic.

Senator Glenn Sterle brings into sharp relief the extent of the Covid-19 response in Australia as it corresponds to the freight task, noting it has often been easier to travel between international borders in Europe than within our own federation.

Many may argue this approach largely enabling a return to normalcy in Australia by reducing the spread of the virus, though Sterle laments there is little normal about the treatment drivers have faced at some overzealous roadhouses, warehouses and client facilities – a depravation of basic rest and hygiene facilities is still ongoing, even if not to the extent of the height of lockdowns.

On a positive note, VTA CEO Peter Anderson reiterates the public’s heightened awareness of supply chain reliance, with the carnage seen at supermarkets underscoring the sector’s importance to society’s functionality.

Anderson hails the resilience of operators who have been at the forefront of economic recovery, constantly evolving and improving their systems, and setting global standards in road transport productivity and agility.

However, he questions the resilience of Australia’s supply chain sovereignty, and whether we are doing enough to be flexible to deal with changing population demands, increased capacity or disruption – for example, our lack of domestic fuel supplies, or a disruption of supply from China, which represents close to 20 per cent of our imports.

Politically, it’s noted T&L is in a rare strong position, with bipartisan representation in federal parliament – Sterle a former road train driver, while federal assistant freight minister Scott Buchholz was once director of Toowoomba Express Couriers.

Both, though from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, are bound by an understanding of the challenges and needs of the sector.

VTA says reopening plan is as expected

Buchholz tells the conference he wants business to be "more profitable than in the past".

He evokes the ‘known unknowns’ line in conceding society could easily be turned on its head again in the next 12 months, but he accords delegates a degree of certainty that he is in regular consultation with industry in finding solutions.

"As a government, we hold your hand," he says, pointing to provisions to assist transport operators, such as instant asset write-offs, and huge government spends, quoting a $110 billion pipeline on roads infrastructure.

Buchholz is also adamant "technology is coming", and spruiks the achievements of various businesses and initiatives in the past year or so. These include:

  • Truckmakers – Paccar is close to developing its 170,000th truck here; Volvo and its autonomous technology; Daimler’s Mirrorless technology
  • Inland Rail – its development will be used to shift volumes to rail and aid the freight task
  • In-cab technology – Seeing Eye’s systems aid operators and drivers on fatigue compliance
  • Business innovation – Toll Group’s track-and-trace gains address increased parcel demand.

The next issue on the table, as emphasised by Anderson on feedback from operators, is the looming skilled employment shortage in the industry, particularly around good drivers.

Buchholz recognises this, though as a rural MP stresses the problem is not unique.

With migrant transit impacted by Covid-19, pressures on the labour market has increased, he notes, with rural doctor and pharmacy associations also lamenting a personnel shortage.

Despite this, he says his government is liaising with industry on solutions on upskilling drivers and other transport workers and making those skills transferrable across the sector, predicting further updates in this space later in the year.​

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