EXCLUSIVE: Govt, associations drive wedge through ATA

Relations between the Rudd Government and the ATA collapse, as internal politics drive a wedge through group

EXCLUSIVE: Govt, associations drive wedge through ATA
<b><font color=red>EXCLUSIVE</font></b>: Govt, associations drive wedge through ATA
By Brad Gardner

Relations between the Rudd Government and the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) have collapsed, as internal politics threatens to drive a wedge through the organisation.

On the eve of its first general council meeting for 2009, the ATA has been beset by a wave of criticism from within and outside its ranks over the running of the organisation.

That includes people inside the Federal Government, who say they are finding it more difficult to cooperate with the group.

A high-level Government source reveals a rift between key decisions-makers and the lobby group stretching back to late last year. ATN has previously reported on tensions between Labor's Transport and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese and ATA Chief Executive Stuart St Clair, a former National Party MP and staffer.

According to the source, the ATA raised the ire of the Government for repeatedly changing its position and issuing new demands during the debate on whether to index heavy vehicle charges.

The Government last year acceded to a request to delay the charges for six months, but as the deadline loomed the ATA blindsided it by calling for 900 new rest areas and for the states to match federal funding under the $70 million Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Package.

ATN understands tensions arose after the ATA refused to back an annually adjusted charge in return for increased funding.

As the government source told ATN, the trucking group "could not have one and not the other".

"There is dissatisfaction simply because of the issue over the heavy vehicle charges," the source says.

"The negotiating position of the ATA was ineffective and inconsistent."

The situation has marginalised the group, with the source saying "it is hard to have a strong relationship" when the ATA "continues to shift the goalposts".

St Clair declined an interview on the matter.

Meanwhile, a showdown is looming between the ATA and member associations ahead of tomorrow's meeting of the General Council.

Executives from state and specialised associations have reacted angrily to being excluded from a meeting between ATA Chairman Trevor Martyn and association boards, being held away from the General Council deliberations.

It has fuelled rumours the ATA is attempting to divide board members from their executives based on a fear the latter wants to topple St Clair from the top post.

Internal documents leaked to ATN reveal the concerns of an attempted power grab on behalf of associations, who have denied the allegation.

"They [the ATA] believe there is some global plot by the executive to take down Stuart, so they are battening the hatches and trying to drive the wedges," a source tells ATN.

A spokesman for the ATA has defended Martyn’s decision, saying there is no reason why executive members must be involved in the meeting.

"The chairs of the ATA member organisations are all elected trucking operators and it is entirely appropriate for them to meet privately without staff," the spokesman says.

The source, however, says the peak lobby group should be looking at its own performance after member associations raised concerns over the ATA’s effectiveness.

According to the documents, the ATA is failing to keep its members informed of lobbying efforts, leading some to speculate whether it has a working relationship with ministers and the Opposition.

The situation has reached the point where some associations are questioning the relevance of remaining part of the ATA, with sources saying the groups can achieve more individually.

Industry groups are also claiming they are being denied input into policy development on vital issues such as national transport reforms.

Demanding a greater say in the policy process, the groups are also pushing to be included in the financial management of the ATA.

The Board of Management is currently responsible for all budget issues and reports to member organisations and ATA Council members only after expenditure decisions have been made.

But internal critics of the organisation say it is not good enough, and point to the ATA’s investment in the Mobile Education Centre (MEC) as an example.

The ATA was forced to borrow money on top of an existing loan to bankroll its more than $1 million initiative, which it has so far struggled to repay.

An e-mail circulated to council members shows there is still a $724,000 shortfall.

The ATA plans on running fundraisers to recoup the money but its previous efforts only managed to raise $476,000, prompting one source to say the organisation is "up shit creek".

The documents also show member organisations are still concerned about the viability of the ATA-NSW, which continues to struggle to gain a seat at vital government-industry roundtables.

As previously reported by ATN, the branch was blacklisted by former roads minister and Labor powerbroker Eric Roozendaal over political tensions between him and the ATA.

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