With an inquiry running in the Senate, the fallout from the RSRT continues, according to the Australian Livestock and Rural Transport Association. In late April 2021, the ALRTA appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport inquiring into the Importance of a Viable, Safe, Sustainable and Efficient Road Transport Industry.
A no brainer it seems? Of course, it is important! Still, it’s one thing to recognise the importance of an industry and another thing entirely to delve into the problems it faces and to identify solutions.
The commissioning of the Inquiry followed a roundtable of industry stakeholders held in Canberra and hosted by Labor Senator for Western Australia, Glenn Sterle, Shadow Minister for Road Safety. Senator Sterle was a truck driver and owner-driver from 1977 to 1991. He later held various positions such as organiser, committee member and councillor within the Transport Workers Union.
He is known for his strong support of a link between transport pay rates and safety outcomes and for the establishment of a new body, similar to the former Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT), to mandate minimum pay and conditions for owner-drivers. It must also be said that Senator Sterle is passionate about all other safety issues facing the trucking sector.
It is against this background that the Inquiry is looking into an extremely broad range of issues. There are essentially three camps:
- Unions and supporters: Seeking the re-establishment of an RSRT as the solution to all problems;
- Industry associations: Generally opposed to an RSRT and proposing specific solutions to specific problems; and
- Regulators: Who are asked to explain why the current problems are so persistent.
ALRTA was represented at the hearing by National President, Scott McDonald, and Executive Director, Mat Munro. During the hearing we explained that ALRTA had initially been supportive of the RSRT until it became clear that the Orders it made would negatively affect owner-drivers across the rural transport sector. When our members began receiving letters from head contractors around Australia advising that their services would no longer be required after the minimum rates Order came into effect, we had no choice but the seek relief from the Order, and when that failed, abolition of the tribunal.
The primary problem was that the Order created a two-tiered freight market. It did not apply to transport businesses using employee drivers which enabled them to undercut owner-drivers. The Order also did not recognise the prevalence of backloading, part-loading, multi-owner loading or empty running which are an important part of efficient freight movements in the rural sector.
The Order did not apply to employee drivers because the Australian Government does not have sufficient constitutional powers to legislate in respect of all freight operators. It is the primary reason why the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) is actually state-based, rather than national, legislation. When legislating the RSRT, the Australian Government relied on their corporations power and interstate trade powers. So, in effect, the only entities covered by the RSRT were transport businesses operating as corporations or engaging in interstate trade. It did not cover employees, or those operating within a state as a partnership, sole trader or trust.
ALRTA recognises that there may indeed be some merit in applying minimum rates and conditions across the entire transport industry. However, even with the best intentions, a new RSRT would still face the same legislative restrictions and would therefore once again create a two-tiered freight market. The Australian freight market is sophisticated enough to respond via a structural shift away from more expensive freight services, disadvantaging those who minimum rates are intended to help.
In order for a new RSRT to be successful, the states would need to refer their powers to the Australian Government. This has happened before in some areas, but the states have steadfastly refused to do this in the transport space. There is just too much at stake in terms of road infrastructure provision, vehicle taxation and local enforcement control. As they say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
With this in mind, ALRTA identified to the Inquiry a range of other priorities for consideration including misuse of primary producer registration, the condition of rural roads, lack of effluent disposal options, the need to legislate the Australian ramp standard, improvement to chain of responsibility laws and local access problems.
The Australian Labor Party has recently reaffirmed a policy of re-introducing an RSRT-like body to mandate minimum rates and conditions for owner drivers. This is an important development with a Federal Election likely within the next twelve months.