Federal IR landscape needs new trucking player

The industrial relations fight has moved to a new front. The trucking industry must reassemble its troops to stay in the game

By Jason Whittaker

Tony Sheldon has friends in the highest places in Canberra. The federal Transport Workers Union boss is a welcome guest in some ministerial offices in Parliament House.

One regular visitor to Capital Hill jokes that, lately, you can’t open a door in the Big House without spying Sheldon in deep discussion with ministers and staffers.

The trucking industry’s peak lobby group, the Australian Trucking Association (ATA), is following in Sheldon’s Parliament House shadow. It’s been wrong-footed in some areas. In one important policy area in particular its representatives were nowhere to be seen.

The backroom wheeling and dealing and personal dynamics in Canberra are fascinating for political junkies. But the outcomes are vital for trucking operators. There’s an important shift in powerbase and policy unfolding in the national capital. Already operators are seeing the impact.

In a few years state-based industrial relations will effectively be abolished. In a nationalised environment transport operators must be represented with a unified, national voice.

The Labor Government has already been caught flexing its mandate muscle against trucking workplaces, attempting to nationalise the controversial and flawed Bluecard training regime from New South Wales as part of its WorkChoices replacement legislation.

Labor didn’t consult on the plan, in fact it didn’t even put the clause into the legislation that went before the House of Representatives. Only when it reached a hostile Upper House did some senators and studious trucking groups read the inserted fine print that would have not only enshrined the NSW model but extended it to all trucking workplaces in every state across Australia.

The Coalition called it "sneaky" and "outrageous" and of showing "contempt" for trucking operators in trying to increase union power in the workplace. At best it was underhanded, and Sheldon’s fingerprints are all over it.

But this is not an ideological debate about unionised workplaces. The Bluecard regime is simply bad policy, an unnecessary regulatory burden on an industry already over-regulated in driver fatigue and occupational health and safety.

The industry spoke in the right ears to make enough fuss. Senators stood firm and Bluecard is, effectively, no more. But questions were asked in Canberra: where is the ATA? Why was the industry’s peak lobby group on the sidelines for an urgent and important fight against an imbalance in union power and even more red tape?

The ATA has a well-worn excuse: it is not an industrial organisation and doesn’t involve itself in workplace relations matters. Previously that would have made sense; in fact, state groups have jealously guarded their role in industrial relations from any moves by the ATA to expand its representation.

But ATA member groups rightly point to hypocrisy from the national body — it was one of the loudest critics of any move to legislate safe driver rates despite taking a hands-off role in any other industrial dispute. There is a mixed message here, and it’s confusing people in power.

Importantly, on an increasingly national IR landscape the lobbying effort must also be national. Having multiple representatives knocking on multiple ministerial doors in Canberra does the industry no good.

For better or worse the ATA is often the only group mentioned in Canberra circles. It is the public face of the trucking industry, it is stationed at the foot of parliament and it has immediate access to the federal ministers and bureaucrats responsible for driving industrial relations reform. Its absence from the latest debate was curiously noted.

Meanwhile, the alternative, the Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation, has limited resources and profile and is far too closely-aligned with the Victorian Transport Association for some of those north and west of the Murray.

The IR battle has quickly shifted fronts. The trucking industry must reassemble its troops just as quickly.

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