Road Safety and the Transport Workers Union

I would like to speak this morning about the trucking industry and its safety. I do so with some familiarity with the industry. My father-in-law is a truck driver. My uncle is a truck driver. I have seen firsthand how important safety is in that industry. It has a much higher fatality rate than most industries. The trucking industry has about 10 times the average fatality rate of any other industry. It is something that families always live with when they have members of their family in that industry driving long distances. Right now, my father-in-law is somewhere between Wagga Wagga and Lightning Ridge on another long-haul drive.

In the 12 months to March this year, 207 people were unfortunately killed in 180 heavy vehicle accidents. It is a very serious issue. Two years ago this place established a Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal to help try to deal with these issues—the so-called safe rates legislation. At the time I remember thinking, 'I do not exactly know how this is going to deal with safety.' I remember it going through. It was something that was pushed by the Transport Workers Union at the time. They were able to get that up through the then government.

We heard last week at the royal commission how the president of that union, Mr Tony Sheldon, had used money in the McLean Forum and that he had been able to control and leverage those funds to help him control other unions—such as the Health Services Union, the Flight Attendants' Association of Australia and also the Electrical Trades Union—by funding campaigns. That obviously gives him a fair amount of influence over unions in this country. The evidence at the royal commission did seem to say that. But it is not just unions, of course, because when he has control of those unions he also has control of preselection to the Australian Labor Party. If he has control over preselection for the Australian Labor Party, he has control of the leadership of the Australian Labor Party. Unions were able to leverage that influence to get a lot of things out of the former government. We saw a lot of those things go through parliament last year.

One of the things that went through was this safe rates legislation in 2012. We know that they did use that influence because there was a meeting at Kirribilli House in November 2011 between Julia Gillard and union bosses. We know that Mr Ferguson said of that time:

It was another Kirribilli agreement … It was the deathknell for her government. She gave the unions everything they wanted … It was 'lock in behind me and I will deliver for you'.

And she did deliver. She delivered this safe rates legislation, which was simply a sop to the Transport Workers Union. It has not delivered any real benefits for the trucking industry or truckers themselves.

There is no evidence that higher rates of pay lead to more safety. There was an OECD report in 2011 which broke down the causes of heavy vehicle collisions. It reported on the results of an International Road Transport Union study. It showed that about 85 per cent of accidents involving heavy vehicles do not involve driver fault. Only for a quarter of those cases was the heavy vehicle driver at fault. A similar conclusion was reached in the Australian context in a 2003 study, which found that in 82 per cent of motor vehicle accidents involving heavy vehicles the driver of that vehicle was not at fault.

I am not a truck driver; I am an economist. I always felt that, when you increase hourly wages or pay, you increase the supply of labour. You actually encourage people to drive more, not less. The whole reason for the legislation was to try to encourage people to drive less and therefore be safer on the roads. It was an admirable goal. But I did not quite see how those two things were linked, and neither did the regulatory impact statement of the government of the time. The government of the time had to do a regulatory impact statement on this legislation. The regulatory impact statement itself found no link between higher rates of pay and safety. It evaluated two options and they came at a net cost of $44 million in one case and $228.4 million in the other case. There was no evidence for the legislation's establishment.

But establishing the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal has been very good for one group. It has been very good for those people connected to the Transport Workers Union, because there have been seven members appointed to the tribunal and they have done quite well. There is the president, who is the Hon. Jennifer Action. Her husband was Bill Shorten's office manager.

Senator Jacinta Collins: "Acton."

Jennifer Acton, sorry. I correct the record, thank you. A former senator of this place and former TWU boss as well, Steve Hutchins, is also on the tribunal. Paul Ryan, who represents an employer body, is also reportedly close to the Transport Workers Union. All of these people are being paid in the order of $95,000 to sit on that tribunal. That is very good. It is good for them. Good on them. But we have had this tribunal in place for two years and, so far, there has not been one remuneration order made by the tribunal that has increased pay for truck drivers.

I know my uncle and father-in-law would love to have increased pay. They would love it. But they have not got any benefits from this remuneration tribunal. The only order the tribunal has made duplicates state based safety regimes—another layer of red tape for employers which makes it harder for them to employ people in the trucking industry. It has not been so much 'safe rates' legislation as 'mate rates' legislation. That is what has happened here. The mates of the union have been able to come in and get lots of largesse from this new body.

I remember when the legislation went through. I remember, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, that you gave a very passionate speech on the night about safety in the trucking industry. I was genuinely moved by it. There were a bunch of people up in the gallery who applauded when the legislation went through. But nothing has changed. What has this body been charged with doing? What is it doing, other than providing jobs for former union members and former Labor senators?

I would like to conclude on a couple of issues from that royal commission. Mr Tony Sheldon made some comments around that royal commission last week about the safe rates legislation, including reporting on a tragic accident that occurred last week when a runaway garbage truck had an accident and unfortunately killed somebody. He said at the time that we need the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal because it is 'one of the few mechanisms available to help enforce safe working conditions for drivers.' He used that tragic accident to try to call for the tribunal to stay. As a matter of fact, the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal does not apply to waste collection services, including garbage trucks. It has nothing to do with that industry. Comcare is the national safety regulator that regulates road safety. It has issued a prohibition notice, but the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal has done nothing in response to this accident. The Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal is not about safety. It is not about remuneration. It is purely about promoting TWU bosses and securing their influence in the Labor Party.

The official Hansard of this speech is available here.

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