OUR SAY: ATA shouldn't accept second-rate deal on rest areas

The ATA is right to push for 900 new rest areas, which is why it shouldn't accept 500

By Brad Gardner

The Australian Trucking Association’s (ATA) office in Canberra was a hive of excitement on October 3.

The media officer was busy on the phone, lobbying efforts were in full swing and Chief Executive Stuart St Clair was waiting to spread the good news—the ATA had just released proposed amendments to stop any indexation of the fuel excise, and to have 900 new rest areas built by 2019.

The amendments were in response to the Rudd Government’s decision to introduce the Road Charges Legislation Repeal and Amendment Bill into parliament to allow it to annually increase the excise at will.

The ATA opposed the move, instead calling for any increase to be tied to government expenditure on rest areas. The Opposition also refused to back it, labelling the Bill a tax grab.

If accepted, the ATA’s proposal would require the Government to build at least 90 rest areas a year before jacking up charges, which the ATA estimated would result in 900 new facilities in the next decade. The industry wanted something in return for constantly having the Government’s hand in its back pocket pulling out money.

So much so, the ATA hired a law firm to ensure its amendments were legitimate.

"It highlights how serious we are about our plan," according to ATA Chairman Trevor Martyn.

Yet the group’s effusive praise of the Opposition’s proposed amendment of 50 rest areas a year—cutting the amount built in the next decade by 400—questions how serious it is.

Upon hearing the Coalition’s proposal, Martyn congratulated opposition spokesman on transport Warren Truss. He had inspired his colleagues to deliver significant benefits for the industry, he claimed.

But amid the admiration, the ATA somehow forgot the proposal would slash almost in half the amount of rest areas the peak body argued for.

On October 3, Martyn claimed "the AusLink national network needs an additional 900 rest areas to bring it up to the mark [of national guidelines]".

The ATA is right to argue 500 new rest areas is an improvement, but the question remains is if this is acceptable then why did it argue for 900?

And why is the ATA accepting a proposal for 500 rest areas when it claims only 900 will meet national guidelines?

Lobbying is all about negotiation, but accepting almost half of what is necessary is not a desirable outcome.

While it should support any moves to increase the number of rest areas, the ATA shouldn’t surrender its quest for 900 new facilities.

After all, it has the argument on its side: new registration and road user charges will deliver significantly more revenue, there is a chronic shortage of rest areas, as government reports show, and the current state of most rest areas is appalling.

But by merely accepting 400 fewer, the ATA may have lost any advantage it had in arguing for more.

Unlike when the ATA released its amendments on October 3, there is now no pressure on Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Anthony Albanese to support the ATA’s proposal.

Rather, he can now adopt the Opposition’s amendment and not only claim bipartisan support but also industry support because the ATA did not stand firm on 900 rest areas.

In praising the Opposition, the ATA should have slipped in the line: "500 new rest areas are great, but we must strive toward 900 by 2019 to ensure there are enough stops for truck drivers and to ensure rest areas meet national guidelines."

Not only would this show the industry supports 500 new rest areas, it would also make it unequivocal that 900 must be the goal.

And that was the sentiment of the group on October 3. It was firm and passionate about the issue. Where has this gone in the space of three weeks?

The ATA is much like the orphan Oliver. It is begging the sirs for more but, just like Oliver, is resigned to accepting whatever is thrown its way.

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