OUR SAY: The political potency of safe rates

The 'safe rates' paper is tucked away. Will Gillard use it as a political weapon in her re-election campaign?

By Brad Gardner | July 21, 2010

NSW Transport Workers Union boss Wayne Forno must have been left scratching his head on July 13 wondering if he got his dates mixed up.

He had pencilled in July 12 for the release of the long-awaited policy paper from the Federal Government on overhauling pay rates in the trucking industry.

The paper is a response to an independent report that called for government intervention in the marketplace, arguing current pay methods and pressures on truck drivers from higher up the chain were encouraging them to commit unsafe practices to meet deadlines.

The paper is expected to recommend a system that holds the supply chain accountable for paying operators and owner-drivers a sustainable rate so they don't need to cut corners to make ends meet.

But it is tucked away somewhere in the office of Industrial Relations Minister Simon Crean and the Government will not commit to a specific release date.

If you’re cynical, you might get the impression that strategists realised the document could be politically potent if released during an election campaign and decided to keep it for later use.

It certainly has the potential to put the Coalition in an uncomfortable position.

During his speech to a small business summit in Brisbane earlier this month, Opposition leader Tony Abbott droned on about the Coalition being the best friend of small business.

It understood what it needed and would look after it, Abbott contended.

So in that regard you would expect him to support reform. After all, most trucking operators are small businesses and stand to benefit from changes because the supply chain will be forced to pay a better rate.

But the Coalition also likes to point out its opposition to increased regulation, which a government scheme will deliver.

And can it put aside its ideological differences to support a union-backed scheme?

The problem for Abbott is that if he opposes the reform then he might be exposed to allegations of abandoning the small businesses the Coalition purports to stand up for.

He also leaves himself open to charges that he is willing to jeopardise road safety. As the independent study by Professor Michael Quinlan and Lance Wright points out, low pay rates are a primary cause of unsafe practices.

And perhaps the paper will give the Government the chance to cause a little unrest in the ranks of its opponent. The Nationals might see the scheme as a means of scoring a better deal for their key constituency, the farmers. After all, if more money is flowing down the chain then it is likely more will end up in their pockets.

The policy paper on pay rates is meant to be in the interests of improving safety, but don’t be surprised if it becomes a political pawn in the Gillard re-election campaign.

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