Axing the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal: Turnbull's lie

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The abolition of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal had nothing to do with safety and everything to do with politics, writes TWU Secretary Tony Sheldon

YOU KNOW something’s got to be up with a particular policy when the Prime Minister has to continuously lie in public about it.

So it has been with the Turnbull Government’s abolition of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. The entire campaign against the Tribunal and its Road Safety Remuneration Order setting safe minimum rates for owner drivers, as orchestrated by employer groups and the Federal Government, was one of misinformation and scaremongering.

Now that it is gone, Malcolm Turnbull has taken to openly lying about the Tribunal’s legacy stating on live television on Sunday during the leaders debate, that it “put 50,000 owner drivers out of business”.

He also lied to Parliament the day after the Tribunal was abolished when he said:

“Thousands and thousands of trucks were idle. Thousands and thousands of businesses were out of business.”

This simply did not happen. The Tribunal’s Order was in operation for just two weeks – from 4-18 April – before it was abolished. Some drivers did get the rate rise, like Roy Ballantyne, a driver in South Australia, who had not received a rate increase for decades making life a daily struggle for him and his family.

However, many drivers did not get a rate rise. As it went into force, the Federal Government made clear it intended to abolish the Order and the Fair Work Commission put out a statement saying it had 'no intention of seeking enforcement outcomes to early contraventions that may be identified'.

In any case, if 50,000 Australian truck drivers went out of business overnight, we all would have known about it. Supermarket shelves would have been empty, petrol stations would have run dry and ports would have ceased to operate.

So the question is, why is Malcolm Turnbull openly lying to the public about this?

After just over eight months as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull and his Government have achieved very little. The abolition of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal is a tangible achievement that he and his ministers can point to, on which that they have indeed carried through. But the problem is he knows all too well about the real effect of this move.

With the abolition of the Safe Rates Order, gone are the minimum rate thresholds for some of Australia’s most lowly paid, who earn on average around $30,000 per year. Gone is the requirement for these drivers to be paid for all their work such as loading and waiting time — which for some, adds several hours onto their days. The Order also gave whistleblower protection for all drivers who raised concerns about safety in their workplaces and allowed them to take leave without losing their contracts.

Most importantly, however, this Order delivered a world first: it held the wealthy retailers, manufacturers, oil companies and banks to account – rather than the middle-men transport operators – for safe rates being paid to drivers who deliver their goods. Never before had the top of a supply chain anywhere in the world been held to account by binding law. Many of these companies also happen to be major donors to the Liberal Party and with one stroke of a pen, Mr Turnbull ensured they remain accountability-free.

Now that the Tribunal is gone so, too, is another Order it made previously, requiring owner drivers to be paid by transport operators for work carried out within 30 days. It also mandated safe driving plans and training for workplace health and safety. Managing director of transport firm FBT Transwest Cameron Dunn recently said the Tribunal allowed his company to compete against businesses that didn’t prioritise safety.

The Tribunal was investigating other transport sectors, where lives are put at risk because safety is being cut amidst client pressure to reduce rates. It was expected to rule shortly on the cash delivery sector where, in some cases, banks are pushing safety standards down to the point that millions of dollars in cash and valuables are being carted around in ordinary cars without any protection for the drivers.

It was also expected to rule on the deadly fuel delivery sector, after an investigation prompted by an application by my own union, following the 2013 Mona Vale crash. Two people were horrifically incinerated after a fuel tanker rolled over and exploded. The driver was put on trial but was acquitted of serious charges last February, when the jury heard his brakes had failed. A nationwide audit of his employer, Cootes (a retired brand of the McAleese Group) found hundred of defects in the trucking fleet. The Tribunal had also begun investigations into the waste and ports sectors.

But the major losers in Mr Turnbull's termination of the Safe Rates system are every day road users. Over a 10 year period to 2014, more than 2,500 people were killed in truck crashes on Australian roads. We know from coroners’ reports, academic studies and government reports that the financial pressure on truck drivers and transport companies leads to many of these crashes, because they are forced to speed, drive long hours, skip mandatory rest breaks and skip vehicle maintenance.

Sue Posnakidis and her family know about this deadly cycle. In 2010 her brother John was killed when a truck crashed into an Adelaide bus stop where he was waiting. The driver was inexperienced, fatigued and his truck’s brakes were faulty. The company he was driving for, had just been opened a few weeks previously, by the wife of a man whose transport firm went bankrupt and who was being chased by creditors.

Malcolm Turnbull is acutely aware of these types of circumstances which lead to truck crashes that devastate families.

His own 'Review of the Road Safety Remuneration System Final Report January 2016', states (on page 86) that there is a link between safety and driver rates and that the Safe Rates system decisions he tore down would have cut truck crashes by 28 per cent:

'In summary, we assumed that the Road Transport Order and Payments Order resulted in a 10 per cent and 18 per cent reduction in the number of crashes.'

So, for Turnbull, the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal delivered a double-edged sword. It’s something he can say he has actually done but what in fact he has achieved, is the axing of minimum rates for poorly paid drivers, the quashing of accountability for wealthy companies and the termination of a system aimed at making our roads safer.

Drivers, transport operators and road safety campaigners have fought for 20 years for clients to be held accountable for their low rates which cost lives and make the job unsustainable. One decision by an ideologically-driven Government will not stop the fight to make trucking safer.

As Sue Posnakidis said:

“I can’t bring John back but I’ll fight to make sure no other family has to go through the heartache we are living every day.”

Tony Sheldon is the National Secretary of the Transport Workers' Union.

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