Glenn Sterle's open letter to Warren Truss

Labor Senator Glenn Sterle criticises Opposition transport spokesman Warren Truss for his stance on safe rates

Dear Mr Truss,

I note your comments regarding ‘safe rates’ for truck drivers in the recent October issue of the Australian Transport News.

In particular I was troubled by your comments that "there is no evidence to support the idea that Government fixing safe rates will make roads safer".

You must not be aware then of reports such as the National Transport Commission’s - Safe Payments: Addressing the underlying causes of unsafe practices in the road transport industry (2008) authored by the Hon Lance Wright QC and Professor Michael Quinlan which details the case for safe rates and is widely accepted by the industry.

I note that you do not seem to have any extensive first hand experience of the transport industry.

You may not be aware, but I have had significant experience in this sector, for 5 years as an employee and later as an owner driver for 11 years operating road trains through the Pilbara, Kimberley and Northern Territory.

I followed this with 14 years representing long haul drivers and sub contractors as a proud organiser of the Transport Workers Union.

I know only too well the conditions that truck drivers face when dangerous deadlines are demanded of them. I have probably forgotten more about the long distance road transport sector than you’ll ever know about it. I can only imagine that you have got your information on this subject from your good friend and defeated National Party Member Stuart St Clair, now CEO of the Australian Trucking Association (ATA).

You would be aware that Mr St Clair is no friend of truck drivers; his only consideration is the security of his own position within the ATA. The ATA is a representative body for transport companies; it is natural for them to put the interests of their members before the pay and conditions of workers in the transport industry. If you rely solely on Mr St Clair and the ATA for your information in this area, then it is little wonder your understanding of the issues is so limited and misguided.

So allow me to give you a brief summary of the argument behind safe rates. Currently there is mixture of payment systems that put the onus on drivers to speed and overload as well as work excessive hours in breach of current laws to meet deadlines and quotas. This leads to a hyper competitive marketplace where drivers are forced to drive longer distances over longer hours just to survive.

I would hope you would be aware of the consequences that such work conditions have on the wider community. We have seen in recent years the truly horrific results that are brought about by fatigue and speed even in the wider road community.

When a large vehicle such as a road train or other heavy vehicle is involved, the consequences are almost universally fatal for other road users. Therefore it is of great benefit to the wider road community that truck drivers are not forced into such dangerous practices.

A safety net of a safe rate for employees and owner-drivers will allow them to secure a steady rate of remuneration so they are not forced into dangerous practices.

Safe rates will not prevent companies from competing on price; it will simply ensure through a minimum enforceable rate that this competition is not undertaken at the expense of drivers and broader community safety.

If you had even a limited understanding of the industry, you would realise that your comments were not only without foundation, but also insulting to the thousands of transport workers who continue to operate under dangerous conditions simply to make a living.

I note your position as the Coalition’s spokesperson for Infrastructure and Transport. I would like to provide you the opportunity to come with me to any trucking yard in the country and debate this issue, not with the management, but with the drivers who are working under these conditions. I would be happy to debate you in any area of the industry, from general to freezer/chiller, furniture, car carrying, heavy haulage, cattle and bulk commodities.

If you were to enter a real trucking yard with real workers and their families rather than just reading out the ATA media releases as they are sent to you, you would hear about the conditions the drivers endure. You would hear also about the wife who lays awake at night worried sick about whether her husband will make it home from yet another long haul drive, a wife who is all too aware of the risks he has to take to keep his job and put food on the table.

As a former driver I know also that drivers want to return home to a reasonable quality of life, where they can enjoy quality time with their children and family without being exhausted and needing to rest for their next long haul. Mr Truss, I really do hope you will take me up on my offer of visiting these workplaces to debate the issue, I believe it will open your eyes to the challenges facing this industry.

The Australian transport industry is the backbone of this great nation, and the men and women who drive this sector deserve to be protected. I urge you to become better aware of the important issues in this sector before making any further ill-informed statements.

Please liaise with my office to provide dates in which you would be available to accept my challenge so that we can visit these sites and hear the concerns of workers in the near future.

Yours sincerely

17 October 2011

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