EDITORIAL: Agreement likely, but long reform road ahead

By: Jason Whittaker

Today, Australia’s heads of government are expected to finally agree on a national takeover of water allocations in an effort

Today, Australia’s heads of government are expected to finally agree on a national takeover of water allocations in an effort to save the ailing Murray-Darling river system.

Tomorrow, transport ministers will attempt to strike a similar federalism over heavy vehicle regulation to save, perhaps, the future competitiveness of the road transport industry. The parallels are striking, at least in the prolonged bureaucratic wrangling needed to align governments on national reforms.

As Kevin Rudd has been quick to point out, having Labor governments in power in all jurisdictions doesn’t make the path to reform completely smooth. Precious governments and parochial ministers, no matter what their political leanings, will always be out to protect their own turf.

Transport reform presents a much more complex agenda than water. Trucking remains a politically-charged issue and ministers won’t want to be seen giving up their powers to govern what goes out on the road. At least not without something in return.

There’s a raft of reform work to be done; battles on multiple fronts to remove stupid, overlapping, productivity-sapping, innovation-stifling laws governing the transport industry. A wider roll-out of higher mass limits; access for B-triples on the inter-capital network; a national approval framework for performance-based standards (PBS) vehicles. Real productivity improvements that transcend state borders.

But trucking operators will have to give to get. Better road access will come at a higher cost in terms of road pricing arrangements, and tougher safety standards.

Friday’s meeting could deliver a landmark agreement on a way forward for national reforms. But that will only be the first step. As the long debate over water has shown, agreement on principle is a long way from agreement on practical application.

The devil will very much be in the detail. Bureaucrats will spend months nutting out an agreement and the industry will be asked to do and pay more than it ever has.

Anyone who thinks this will be easy, or that it will all be handed to the trucking industry on a silver platter, is kidding themselves.

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