March in support of RSRT in Canberra today (20/4/16), which was utterly ignored by the mainstream media. The anti-RSRT rally on the weekend, however, received blanket coverage (Image via Anthony Albanese / ‏@AlboMP)

The successful big business-led scam that let to the abolition of the road safety tribunal has revealed fatal flaws in our media and democracy. Managing editor David Donovan reports.

THE SENATE CROSSBENCHERS siding with the Government to pass legislation on Monday night (18/4/16) to abolish the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT) represented a stunning victory for big business scamsters and an abject failure by a fundamentally compromised mainstream media (MSM) — one which was scarcely fought by the Opposition. This failure will almost certainly cost the lives of both truck drivers and everyday people travelling on Australian roads.

Firstly, let's discuss what happened, starting with the safety aspect.

SAFE RATES SAVE LIVES — BUT YOU WON'T HEAR THAT FROM THE MSM

As Independent Australia reported last week, the evidence is clear that the rates of pay for truck drivers have a direct bearing on road safety. This is a matter that has been scientifically examined over many decades and is simply irrefutable. It is also common sense. When drivers need to work longer hours to make enough money to pay their bills, it makes sense that they will be more prepared to drive tired, take risks and take uppers than people who are paid better for their time. It was for this very reason the RSRT was set up by the Gillard Government in 2012 — to set fair rates of pay for truck drivers. IA also reported that the statistics since the RSRT started making orders in 2014 show truck fatalities have, indeed, declined. The RSRT has been doing its job.

Despite this clear evidence, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash have consistently claimed that there is no evidence of a link between pay rates for owner drivers and road safety. This is false. The mainstream media, however, did not call them out on this lie, but rather universally accepted these comments at face value. This was a massive failure of reporting and one which smoothed the path for the Government to win over crucial crossbenchers to their cause.

THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE RSRT WAS NOT FROM MUMS AND DAD

The second failure of Australia’s establishment media here related to misreporting over who was really behind the campaign against the RSRT.

As reported by IA earlier this week, rather than being conducted by owner drivers, in truth it was big freight companies and big business lobby groups, including deceptive front groups, that funded and piloted the campaigns against the RSRT. In fact, as you might expect, many − if not most − owner drivers strongly supported increased rates of pay.

The first clue for the media that this was not an owner driver issue, but rather an issue for Big Business and Big Freight, was that the Government only picked up on this issue this month, despite the controversial ‘Contractor Driver’ RSRT order being made in 2015. Interestingly, this came at the same time as big business lobby groups AIG and the ACCI, along with big freight companies Linfox and Toll Holdings, launched ultimately unsuccessful attempts to stay the order in the High Court.

WHY BIG FREIGHT LOVE LOWLY PAID OWNER DRIVERS

The media reported on these challenges, but not why big business and big freight, which the new RSRT order was supposedly going to advantage by driving owner-drivers out of business, would challenge it in the courts.

The reasons appear obvious. Owner drivers keep freight costs lower for big chains and provide a source of non-unionised labour for freight companies. Not only that, these workers compete against each other for contracts, work long hours for low pay, pay for their own rigs, fuel, depreciation, maintenance and storage, as well as pay their own superannuation, holiday pay, long service leave, worker’s compensation, tax and back office costs. These lowly paid contractors also act as a dampener on unionised driver’s wage claims, thereby keeping freight companies’ payroll costs down.

They MSM also didn’t ask how, without owner drivers operating, big companies would have been able to step in instantly take up the slack? To deliver the 10,000 long haul loads required to be delivered in Australia each week.

The media didn’t appear to consider how it was possible that big freight companies were able to keep running, let alone be so profitable, with this much excess capacity on hand.

None of this analysis was presented in the MSM, preferring instead to run as as a herd with the Government mantra that this was all about saving “Mum and Dad” small businesses. Mums and Dads who, inexplicably, preferred to work longer hours for less pay and take greater risks hauling freight on Australia’s roads.

HOW THE MEDIA COVERED UP THE IPA ASTROTURFING SCAM

Piloting these High Court challenges (as well as appearing constantly in the media) was a spokesman from the so-called “Independent Contractors Association” and the “Owner Drivers Association”. Despite the misleading names of these groups, these are merely sham organisations set up by infamous big business front group the Institute of Public Affairs to fight against fair rates of pay for contractors. IA also showed that these bodies had been secretly funded by large employer organisations and big business. This practice is a well-known method by which big business manufacture consent, called astroturfing.

All this information was easily available. However, in the lead up to Monday’s night Senate vote to scrap the RSRT, the only thing in the mainstream media suggesting any IPA astroturfing link was a First Dog on the Moon cartoon in the online only Guardian on Friday 15 April.

It should be mentioned that Fairfax did cover these matters in a column by Andrew Street, on Tuesday 19 April 2016 — the day after the vote.

Here’s what Fairfax published on the matter, in its entirety:

We got a little ol' convoy, rockin' through the night…

Specifically, the claim that the Road Safety Renumeration Tribunal is going to destroy owner-operator truck drivers by… um, ensuring they're paid the higher minimum wage for which they've fought?

There was a rally in Canberra on the matter over the weekend, at which Turnbull, Employment Minister Michaelia Cash and deputy PM Barnaby Joyce promising to abolish the tribunal.

For context, the idea of the RSRT's controversial ruling was to set fairer rates of pay in order to prevent drivers having to work dangerously long hours in order to make a living - a theory which is supported by a number of Australian studies and was also borne out by the government's own evidence, despite Cash mysteriously claiming the opposite to be the case.

If the idea of truckies actively opposing getting more money in order to put their lives at greater risk seemed like a bit of a stretch, then you're not alone: Independent Australia journalist David Donovan went through the paperwork and found some stuff that appears… interesting.

Pithy, succinct and containing a link to IA – good – but far too little and way too late.

WHY, WHY, WHY?

The lack of scrutiny applied to this underhanded big business campaign to remove the RSRT was, in summary, an abysmal failure by Australia’s mainstream media. Perhaps we could understand if it was just the commercial media that was reluctant to bell the cat about these corporate shenanigans — they are, after all, big businesses themselves – but the narrative was also pursued by public broadcasters ABC and the SBS. Are these organisation so cowed by Government attacks on them and threats to their funding that they are now determined not to rock the boat? Could it also be that because IPA spin doctors are used so frequently on air as “experts” by the ABC, to reveal them as the manipulative fraudsters they are might be seen as damaging to the public broadcaster’s credibility? We may never know for sure.

LABOR PLAYS DEAD

Also deserving censure in this area is the Opposition. Given the IPA’s links to front organisations ICA and ODA were explicitly known by Labor frontbencher Tony Burke as far back as 2006, why these were not exposed in Parliament and a more robust defence of the RSRT mounted is unknown. It would appear that a decision must have been made at the highest levels to play dead on this issue — to vote against the RSRT, mount a tepid argument about safety, but not expose the IPA/big business scam. The Opposition may have concluded that the narrative had been already firmly set by the Government and in the media and so they were fighting a losing battle — one, perhaps, that could lose it support among “Mum and Dad” businesses. Or maybe it was simply that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten did not want to expose the organisation run by his best friend, John Roskam. Whatever the reasons, the Opposition did not produce a compelling case to the crossbenchers to prevent them from voting to kill the RSRT and nor did it mention the role of the IPA at all.

BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS

Overall, was a dismal display by a broken democracy. One that when an overworked truck driver on an Australian highway kills a family, we will remember the Mums and Dads and kids most put at risk by scrapping the RSRT — all of us. Perhaps then we will look at the activities of the IPA, and of their big business paymasters, and their cronies in the Government, and the mainstream media, including the ABC, and ask: do they have blood on their hands? Perhaps we will also look at the weak resistance to scrapping the body by the ALP and ask: is this the best we can expect from our democracy? And perhaps we will also remember the only media prepared to publish the full story about this tawdry affair — Independent Australia?

Perhaps we will do all these things, someday soon, when the gruesome inevitability occurs — but I doubt it. I’d say we are too overworked, too tired and too far down the road for all that.

You can follow managing editor Dave Donovan on Twitter @davrosz.

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