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Federal Election: Labor vows to do the right thing by owner-drivers

Ex-truckie Glenn Sterle knows full well how large the spectre of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal’s disastrous 2016 payment order still looms in many quarters of the transport industry.

The way it unfairly penalised owner-drivers with a minimum pay rate is arguably the most calamitous policy call from any party in recent years, and one that many drivers may still not be willing to forgive and forget on polling day.

All Sterle, the WA Labor Senator and shadow assistant minister for road safety, can say in response is that the controversial order, or anything that remotely resembles it, will never see the light of day if Labor is in power after May 21.

“This time there will be industry consultation and I’m putting my reputation on the line here, I’m not backing down on that,” said Sterle.

“As an ex-truckie, it [the payment order] frightened the hell out of me because I know that once you start pitting owner-drivers against company employees, it’s a recipe for disaster.

“It has to be hand-in-hand, and we’re not isolating once sector of the transport industry.”

Consultation is a word that comes up a lot in our interview with Sterle.

It was the underlying theme of the recent Senate inquiry he chaired into a viable, safe, sustainable and efficient road transport industry that garnered 128 public submissions and held 11 public hearings, and Sterle is adamant that everyone will have a seat at the table if Labor wins power.

Sterle says you only have to look at Labor’s first order of business if in government, how and where to spend the $80 million it’s pledged this year to build more rest areas.

He plans to form a working group of truckies to tell him where they should go and how they should be built.

Sterle will also help form an independent body that will, in consultation with industry, set universal and binding standards, as per the senate committee’s recommendations, and also oversee dispute resolution.

“We’re very clear on our policy around the independent body, which goes to the heart of what the remuneration tribunal was,” said Sterle.

“The whole intent is not to isolate owner-drivers, but to have a hand-in-hand, independent body headed up by industry, with input by industry, to make sure we have the opportunity to not only be paid on time, but to be paid properly and to be paid sustainably.”

Sterle believes that without this element, the industry will also be short-changed where it counts most.

“This is what’s been lacking sadly over the years; there is no voice for the Australian road transport industry in Canberra,” he said.

“There are certain entities that stand up for their members, and good on them, but as a united front, it’s non-existent in Canberra. That’s why they treat us so poorly.

“There is so much we all agree on and we need to come together to discuss the things we agree on, but unfortunately we’ve had the government that does not want to have a collective industry representation because it’s so much easier to entertain one or two friends who come through the door, take their phone calls and do five-eighths of stuff all.”

There is a long list of other issues that Sterle is itching to sink his teeth into, from overhauling fatigue management – he’s a big fan of the WA model – to changing truck design rules to allow truckies bigger sleepers and other amenities.

“This bullshit where we can have caravans with toilets and showers in them, but we can’t get an extra 200mm on a prime mover because, God help us if we have a little bit more weight supposedly over the steers. What a load of shit.

“We should be doing this sort of stuff.”

Although supportive of bringing in new blood to the industry, he believes the Morrison government has the cart before the horse with its recent endorsement of an apprenticeship scheme for truckies. 

“It’s all just fairy floss,” he said. “

“Within certain enterprises, yes, the training is fantastic. 

“But as a one-size-fits-all, here’s a bucket of money, aren’t we wonderful, we’re going to start some apprenticeships, what a load of crap.

“We should support those good employers, but we shouldn’t just say, here’s open slather, going to throw x amount of millions of dollars, then we can have a feeding frenzy of RTOs out there.

“At this stage I cannot put my hand on my heart and support a lot of the way licences are handed out like confetti at the moment.”

Sterle also challenges truckies to name three things that the LNP has done since gaining power.

He knows some will say the removal of the RSRT is worthy of celebrating, but counters with the fact there have been 3000-odd transport companies that have collapsed since 2014 under the LNP regimes.

“The devil we know has done nothing for the road transport industry. Name one member of parliament in the LNP that is a champion of the transport industry, or is prepared to roll up their sleeves, do the hard stuff and get out there and have the hard conversations; I can’t find one.

“Anyone can go to a factory and sit in a Kenworth. Anyone can go and open a function. But what have you delivered? What have you done? And that’s my frustration.

“We won’t just give lip service. We are determined to implement an independent body after consultation with industry to give the opportunity to not only increase the remuneration for our drivers and owner-drivers, but also take the pressure off companies. To address the squeeze coming from the top of the supply chain, the economic employers at the top of the supply chain, the Coles, the Woolies, the Aldi’s, the BueScope Steels, the mining companies.

“Labor will roll its sleeves up and get the work done in consultation with the industry and we will not be just standing there wanting photo opportunities with absolutely no follow-up. We’re dinkum.

“So, I would say if you want to continue down the path of watching another 3-4000 companies disappear since the 2014 financial year, continue on with the same deal.

“We want to talk about change, and talk about making this better.”

While we wait for a response from Barnaby Joyce’s office to our request for an interview with the transport minister, perhaps the best guide to what the industry can expect from three more years with Scott Morrision and Joyce at the wheel can be found in the government’s response to the 10 recommendations made in the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee report.

It opens by highlighting the achievements of the Heavy Vehicle Safety Initiative (HVSI).

The NHVR-administered program has provided more than $28 million for 117 grants over six years. 

A  further $5.6 million is committed under round 7 of the HVSI. 

The response also states that the Australian government is also making significant investments in road infrastructure to deliver safety and productivity gains.

As at the 2021-22 budget, the government has committed more than $25 billion over the next four years towards road projects with “direct and indirect road safety benefits”.

“The Australian government believes investing in practical measures that support the industry’s safe, sustainable and efficient operation, combined with the existing effective regulatory supports, is the best way to ensure the continued viability of the road transport industry. In the last 10 years to December 2021, road crash deaths involving heavy trucks decreased by an average of 2.9 per cent per year. 

“Further, the number of deaths from crashes involving heavy trucks since the RSRT was abolished in 2016 has reduced. 

“This shows the Australian government’s approach is working.” 

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