OUR SAY: Can O'Farrell deliver for transport?

NSW has a new premier, but can the big guy deliver the results for the state's transport industry?

OUR SAY: Can O'Farrell deliver for transport?
Can O'Farrell deliver for transport?
By Brad Gardner | March 31, 2011

The banner headline splashed across the front page of the March 27 edition of The Sun-Herald said it all:


The NSW election was never going to be about whether an unpopular Labor government plagued by scandal and maladministration could hold on for another four years,

The Coalition was romping in. The question was how many seats it would take from the party that held the state’s purse strings for 16 years.

While Labor licks its wounds and turns to unionist John Robertson to lead it back to power, new Premier Barry O’Farrell – or BOF as he sometimes known – has vowed change.

As he told The Sun-Herald: "NSW has to be rebuilt, NSW has to be renewed and I’m committed to doing that."

The good news for the trucking industry is that the new premier and his deputy come to power with a firm understanding of the problems facing the industry.

Andrew Stoner was a vocal critic of the failings of fatigue management during his time in opposition and actively promoted reforms to make life a little easier for operators.

He pursued changes to demerit points to make the system fairer and only last year he took to the road with Mills Transport to grasp the issues afflicting industry.

O’Farrell was twice in charge of the shadow transport portfolio when he was in opposition and has used the election campaign to hammer the message that infrastructure and transport issues would be high on his agenda.

Similar to the federal Labor government’s Infrastructure Australia initiative, O’Farrell will establish an independently-chaired group called Infrastructure NSW to allocate projects based on need.

It remains to be seen whether the Coalition ensures politics is taken out of the allocation process, but the new body – along with the $5 billion fund Restart NSW O’Farrell has announced – is an important step in delivering funds to much-needed projects.

While the big-ticket items and the catchy titles like Restart NSW grab people’s attention, O’Farrell’s commitment to injecting $1 billion into local infrastructure to improve heavy vehicle access is a promising move.

For too long many NSW operators that have spent the time and money to meet compliance requirements only to have their applications for higher mass limits approval knocked on the head.

One of the main issues has been councils’ lack of money to assess infrastructure to determine if it can support heavier vehicles.

The industry will need an assurance, however, that the $1 billion will be spent directly on resolving access issues. It’s no good just pouring the money into local coffers and relying on councils to put it back into bridges and roads.

And waving cash around won’t be enough. Even councils with the funds to conduct route assessments are happy to deny heavy vehicle access to their roads purely due to ‘community concerns’.

The $1 billion O’Farrell plans to invest will need to coincide with an education campaign to dispel the myths surrounding higher productivity vehicles. It won’t be easy (let’s face it, there’s a few anti-truck nutters out there), but it is vital if the new premier is interested in helping the industry secure greater access.

O’Farrell takes over the running of the state at an important time for the industry. The move to national regulations took a significant step forward following last month’s release of a regulatory impact statement, which outlined proposals to resolve the 368 cross-border variations.

The new roads minister will no doubt be briefed on the latest happenings from everybody’s favourite government department, the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA).

Hopefully though, they will spend some time drawing their own conclusions rather than solely relying on the RTA to provide an assessment. Otherwise the move to a single model of laws might hit a wall very quickly.

Anyone who has flicked through the impact statement can see the RTA has been busy trying to keep NSW-specific conditions in place, whether it be fatigue management, the ‘three strikes’ policy or the ability of officers to detain trucks.

But perhaps there is hope the department won’t run the show under the new administration. Responding recently to the NSW branch of the Australian Trucking Association (ATA), the Coalition took a swipe at the RTA by saying: "the RTA seems to a little bit of everything, but none of it all that effectively".

Sure, it might be a throwaway line to get the industry on board. After all, who doesn’t like a political party that vows to take on the all-powerful bureaucracy?

But if you consider – as an example – RTA efforts on trying to resolve its controversial wool loading policy, it’s a no-brainer the new roads minister is going to need to crack some skulls together.

This matter has dragged on for more than two years despite the fact it could have been resolved quickly if the RTA issued a notice reinstating a previous and more sensible wool loading policy.

Unfortunately it has been the exact opposite. The RTA has dragged the chain on the issue, ignoring advice from one of its officers telling it that the current requirements cannot be complied with.

Numerous meetings with industry have been held, along with physical demonstrations, reiterating the failures of the policy.

The RTA’s response? Slap a bevy of new regulations on trucking operators in return for allowing them to load wool according to the old scheme. The idea, it would seem, is to offer industry a solution so pungent that it will shut up and go away.

Of course when you ask the RTA why it won’t change the policy it resorts to the defence that it is a national scheme and that it has a duty of care to all road users.

The claims might stand up to a bit of scrutiny if the department didn’t have a problem bastardising other supposedly national regulations or if it bothered to produce any evidence showing that the previous wool loading policy is somehow dangerous to the public.

O’Farrell has promised "real change". He’s going to have to get his hands dirty to deliver for the state’s trucking operators. Let us hope he is up to the task.

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