The Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell last week delivered a scathing report on the now-defunct Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT). This report is perhaps the most damning example in recent years of the damage a Government can do when it seeks to govern only for sectional interests.
Last week, nearly five months since the Turnbull Government abolished the RSRT, the damaging effects of the Tribunal’s payments order were laid bare.
The most troubling aspect of Ms Carnell’s report was the suggestion, based on evidence provided to the inquiry, that some independent truck drivers were unable to cope with the stress of further financial hardship and took their own lives.
Almost as concerning was the Ombudsman’s conclusion that the Tribunal’s payments order discriminated against owner-drivers without any justification or supporting evidence, and some of those affected by the order are still suffering as a result.
For those who may have forgotten, the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal was a body set up by Bill Shorten, on the back of pressure from the Transport Workers Union, during his tenure as a Minister of the previous Labor Government.
On December 18, 2015, the Tribunal issued a payments order forcing independent truck drivers to set minimum rates, removing their right to offer a price that could compete with major freight companies.
The payments order only applied to those who owned and drove their own vehicles, targeting the 35,000 truck drivers who operate small businesses across Australia.
These measures were introduced under the guise of improving road safety – the inquiry into the RSRT has once again underlined the tenuous link between remuneration and safety, and referenced studies which show owner-driver safety performance is equal or greater to that of employee drivers.
The Government took an unwavering stance on this issue and eventually succeeded in repealing the legislation that created the tribunal – a decision Bill Shorten promised to reverse if Labor won the election.
We worked hard to secure crossbench support because we believed the payments order would spell the end of the owner-driver industry and cripple thousands of Australian families. The enterprise and hard work of the family-based owner-driver sector is a key factor in keeping freight rates down. The RSRT would have had a disproportionate effect on regional WA with our reliance on the road transport sector.
That concern was proven accurate in Ms Carnell’s findings and although the order was only in effect for a short time, some owner-drivers told the inquiry it was time enough for them to fall into significant debt.
We were challenged throughout our attempts to abolish the RSRT and had the Coalition lost the election, the Tribunal would likely be on the verge of returning.
Now that we have the Ombudsman’s report to reflect on, it’s clear that we took the correct action.
I’m proud to say we backed hard-working Australians and protected 35,000 jobs in the process.