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Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (15:39): I rise today with great frustration to express my complete opposition to the Road Safety Remuneration Repeal Bill 2016 before the House today. I have spoken on the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal on many occasions in this House, and, indeed, I was the chair of the parliamentary committee that reviewed this bill before it was introduced. I have spent a lot of time looking at the issues around road safety. It would not surprise members that I would do so, given that my seat has a major trading port—the port of Kembla—in our region. We deal with a lot of truck movements across our entire region, and, in particular, areas like the Mount Ousley Road.
The issue of road safety is a consistent one in our community. We have had decades of looking at really serious issues that we experienced around truck-based accidents on the roads. Of course local members like me and the member for Throsby, who was also a member of that committee, are going to take a serious and in-depth interest in anything to do with road safety. So I find it extremely offensive, cheap and rather pathetic that people opposite would attempt to characterise our engagement in this debate as motivated by some sort of control by unions, or would pass judgement on our motivation and link it to being controlled by others. It is cheap, it is easy, it is lazy and it is wrong. I live in a region where we have had many decades of dealing with truck-related fatalities. I took it very seriously when I chaired the committee that reviewed the legislation, when I was looking at what was structurally happening in that industry that may be problematic for the safety and wellbeing for those who are driving trucks—which is, of course, important.
I come from a mining family. I know only too well that the issues around how you structurally deal with safety can drive a particular type of behaviour, and, hopefully, improve the likelihood that people will return home to their families. That is important. But truck drivers, uniquely, are an industry that spend the vast majority of their work time sharing their workspace with us—the rest of the community. All of us are out on our roads and using our roads to do our own work, move around with our families and participate in community life. We need the assurance that those who are using our roads as their workplace are doing so in the safest and most effective way in order to ensure that we can all use the roads safely.
I absolutely find comments by those opposite, who have taken shots about the motivation of those on this side, a really poor and sad reflection on the standards of debate that should happen in this place. I always find it frustrating that on this side of the House—in my own area, I meet with my trades and labour council, I meet with my business chamber, I meet with peak community groups. I treat everybody with the presumption that their motivation is to represent their organisation, their members and to do a good job, even though we will not always agree. But in this place those opposite consistently seek to run a demonising campaign about the trade union movement in this country—and we are seeing it being ramped up and ramped up as we head into an election. That is what we are doing here this week, so the Prime Minister can get a double dissolution election by once again going back to the standard, repetitive, conservative tradition of running an election campaign by demonising the trade union movement. We even had a little bit of 'stop the boats' thrown in today for good measure. It is a really legitimate question to ask why they bothered changing leader at all, because it is back to the same songbook.
Anyway, as frustrated as I am with that, I am going to bring to my contributions some reflections on why I think the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal is a significant and important contribution to the road safety of the country. It is the case—and many members opposite have made the point, and it is a good point—that there are many ways in which to address road safety. Obviously, laws around behaviour and the use of roads is one of those. Organisations like the road safety National Heavy Vehicle Regulator and so forth are in place to ensure that the sorts of laws we require people to comply with can be enforced. The previous member, the member for Riverina, spoke about how 'trucks do not speed because the police catch them'. That would be nice if it did happen all the time, but it does not. Police cannot be everywhere all the time.
So, if you look at the history of road related truck accidents, you will consistently find issues to do with truck drivers having made decisions that lead to deaths on the road, accidents and injuries. Often those relate to speeding. They relate to the use of illegal drugs. And they relate to failure to maintain and look after the vehicle in a way that ensures that it is road safe.
You take that issue, and you can go in one of two directions. I suggest that those opposite are taking one, and we are taking another. One direction is that that individual is personally responsible and must be prosecuted. I do not think anybody in here would argue that, if people break the law, that should not be the case. But the other thing you can do as a broader society and indeed at least as a government is to ask: is there something systemic happening here, in that so many of those individuals are making those decisions? We have heard a lot of talk about the owner-drivers that those opposite have met with, and I would say that, across the board, truck drivers are not somehow different to everybody else and more prone to illegal activity by the very nature of who they are. They are being driven to this by the way their industry is structured.
The reality is that a power imbalance occurs where those at the top of the chain are able to screw down and drive contracts that push the pressure and the responsibility further and further down that chain until the people who are sitting in the truck have to make decisions that are absolutely unacceptable. I do not believe it is sufficient for a government to say, 'We are okay with addressing this issue by pursuing the individuals, but we're not okay with pursuing the structural problem in the industry that is pushing those decisions onto those individuals.' We will continue to see the structural problem occur. We will continue to see cases where trucking companies are involved in truck accidents because the trucks were not maintained. And sadly, too often, others on the road die in those cases as well.
It is true that you can improve infrastructure. Of course you can. We can get better roads. Finally the New South Wales state government have got around to spending the $4 million we gave them before the last election to put a new truck stop on the Mount Ousley Road. I have been banging on at them for ages to get on with it. It is great that it is finally underway. Of course the infrastructure is important. Of course getting better regulations in place, such as requiring people to take rest breaks and so forth, is important. Of course laws that require people to act in legal ways—such as not using drugs, not abusing drugs, not driving excess hours, not failing to maintain their vehicles—are important. But we have been doing all that for decades, and we continue to see this industry have the highest death rate of workers of any industry in this country. We have seen about 25 deaths only recently, over recent months, on our roads. We continue to see this as an industry with excessive rates of suicide amongst the workers because of the pressure under which they work.
I come, as I said, from the mining industry. We fought hard over generations to stop the sorts of practices in the mining industry that were causing death. It was a very dangerous industry.
Mr KATTER: One in 30.
Ms BIRD: One in 30. And of course at the time people would have put arguments about how that cost impacted—that is, how higher safety levels might impact on the business arrangements at the time. They are never easy decisions. They are never easy processes. But no-one in our community would argue that loosening up the safety requirements we put in place in that industry because of its horrific death rates is the right thing to do.
The time has come for the trucking industry. The workers in that industry deserve the same systemic approach to their industry to make it safe, not only for them but, uniquely, because they share their workplace, for the rest of us on the roads. I have been to many, many briefings on this particular issue since the change of government. I have met with the widows who come here to talk to these parliamentarians. In one case, it was about the lady's husband. In another case, the lady's husband was killed on the side of the road; he was not the truck driver. I have talked to truck drivers. There is the gentleman who has gone public saying he has attended 52 funerals in his working life. It is incomprehensible. If there were 52 people killed in any other industry, we would not be tolerating continued structural arrangements that allow for that level of death rate. That is how serious this is. I do not bring anything to this dispatch box other than a really genuine and serious concern that we have an industry that is crying out for us to do something about it, and we have communities who share their roads with that industry saying to us, 'There is a bigger problem here, and it needs to be addressed.'
We did. As a result of the evidence that came forward—and I refer honourable members to the advisory report on the bill, which the committee did, and there is a dissenting report in there—we came to the view that the most effective way to do that would be to establish the tribunal and task it with the job of looking at the industry and at particular sectors of the industry to see whether there was a chain-of-command problem that was putting pressure unreasonably on all levels of that chain so that the cascade effect was that you ended up with unsafe practices.
Decisions are made by tribunals. Sometimes they are difficult for one part of the community, and we work as parliaments and governments to find transition methods and how you would manage that and do it effectively. It looked initially like that was what the government were going to do, but then they decided to just jump and abolish the tribunal. I think that is a really short-sighted decision to have made. I think that, if they had wanted to discuss—as indeed our shadow minister said—how these things could be implemented and managed in ways that took people's concerns into consideration, we could have at least continued to progress the issue of the structural problems around safety in the trucking industry. But they have not; they have decided to abolish the tribunal—and they have done it with a whole lot of rhetoric. I hope not all speakers on the other side fall into the trap of simply union bashing. They believe that we, because of generations of understanding the role of unions in protecting people's wellbeing and safety at work, somehow bring dirty hands to this debate. I will not tolerate that. It is an unacceptable assessment of what the debate is about, and I am not going to allow that sort of comment to stand unchallenged. It is beneath people in this place. We can have differences of opinion about how to improve road safety, but I think it is pretty cheap to question people's motivations when it comes to safety.
I say to the government: talk to the opposition; talk to the key players in the sector, certainly. Let's see if we can find ways to make this a manageable issue for those who are having problems. But we need this tribunal. We need it because over decades it has been proved that the other measures—infrastructure improvements, rules and regulations, laws and enforcement—while important, are not enough. There is a structural problem. It is impacting the safety of everyone on our roads. This tribunal needs to be allowed to do its job, and this bill should be removed from this House.