An idea for independence – is a Victorian heavy vehicle regulatory body worthwhile?


It was make or break for Rod Barton last week when he pitched his proposal to state parliament. Now, the Victorian heavy vehicle industry may soon be run by a new body.

An idea for independence – is a Victorian heavy vehicle regulatory body worthwhile?
Victorian parliament recently passed a proposal to create an independent heavy vehicle state body

Politician Rod Barton stood in front of Victorian state parliament. His voice echoed throughout the chamber.

"Owner drivers are everyday Australians, entrepreneurs and contributors to our society," he said. "Their jobs are based on a fair go.

"We need regulation to kill off contractor loopholes that enable the exploitation of drivers."

When Barton finished spruiking the idea of creating an independent heavy vehicle regulatory body in Victoria, the fate of his notion hung in the balance. An independent system isn’t a new move for other Australian states – New South Wales has had an autonomous heavy vehicle body in place since 1996. But a similar body would set a new precedent for Victoria, which has, for so long, relied on government bodies and unions to clash over industry standards.

Following Barton’s speech, the opposition voted against it becoming reality. But the tide had turned. The entire crossbench, except for members of the Liberal Democrats party, supported the notion. In a telling move, the state government didn’t oppose the move. The idea for an independent transport body in Victoria was passed through parliament.

Reflecting on the milestone achievement, Barton said it was a crucial first step to securing a transport regulatory body in Victoria.

"It’s massive for the industry," he told ATN. "The government didn’t vote against the idea, which is a real signal that they think it’s the right thing to do."

The passed proposal for an independent heavy vehicle regulatory body in Victoria began late last year. As an aspiring member of state parliament, Barton says he has "been constantly working on areas in the trucking industry related to commercial and rideshare vehicles". Barton says he is unhappy with the current state of the gig economy and hopes this move for an independent body could change the state’s transport industry for the better.

The politician didn’t have to look far for inspiration. New South Wales has had an independent body governing transport for more than 25 years. Barton’s first step in drafting a proposal for Victoria to follow suit was to travel to NSW and meet with members of the tribunal.

"We went and met with officials in NSW and union people from the Transport Workers’ Union," Barton says. "We also met with government people and the NSW state opposition so we could learn what they are doing."

But the potentially illuminating trip only brought to light a significant challenge that Victoria would have to overcome if it was to implement its own independent transport body.


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When Jeff Kennett was Victoria’s premier in the 1990s, his state government handed over industrial relations powers to the federal government. Thirty years later it has created what Barton refers to as "a small hurdle" that the state must leap over. Although the independent body proposal was passed through parliament, the Commonwealth still has power over the matter.

It's taken time to get through Victorian parliament, but Barton says it will be worthwhile for vulnerable drivers who are being exploited by operators and large companies.

"The exploitation of drivers and the demands placed on them is unacceptable," he says.

"We know that transport drivers are earning below the minimum wage and driving more than they should be – they are fatigued and it’s awful.

"This is all a safety-related issue. We have a chain of responsibility, starting with how drivers behave and it goes on to parliament rules and regulations – we all have our hands on that chain."

Under the proposed new system, Barton says the independent body would allow for Victorian transport workers to receive fair rates of pay more consistently. He also says that workers in Victoria could determine steady contributions towards super and receive a fair set minimum rate.

 

Fellow state politician Sonja Terpstra supported Barton’s idea in parliament, rising to defend his idea and highlight the need for an increased focus on transport worker safety.

"The tax on workers from conservative governments never end – all in the name of profit," Terpstra said.

"It’s offensive to hear about market solutions as markets don’t care about workers.

"If the market could, then it would have unmanned trucks on the roads."

Is more legislation needed?

But not everyone in the transport industry finds the move necessary. National Road Transport Association (NatRoad) CEO Warren Clark says that he is all for supporting truckies’ rights. The need for an independent body, however, may just add more confusion.

"What it appears to us is that there is already legislation in place covering owner drivers and to us it’s just duplication," Clark told ATN.

"I don’t know why we need it. It’s not necessary; it’s duplicating the legislation already there and making it all more complicated.

"We’ve already got an industry that’s over-regulated and over-legislated. We don’t want to see it get even more confusing."

Clark points to determinations like the Owner Drivers and Forestry Contractors Act 2005 as an example of current legislation in place to protect transport workers. Although NSW does have its own body to regulate the industry, the NatRoad CEO says it’s not worthwhile to consider doing the same in Victoria.

"Victoria already has additional legislation protecting truck drivers that other states don’t have," Clark says.

"When you have truck drivers working from state to state, it becomes impossible to keep on top of.

"We don’t want to see any more legislation that makes it more complex or adds duplications to our system."

Although not everyone in the transport industry is supportive of the idea, last week’s proceedings mean Victoria may be on the way to establishing an independent tribunal anyway.

After securing the "massive result", Barton will be helping the state government to consider the parameters of the idea with the hope of eventually establishing this new independent transport body. Depending on the upcoming federal election, Barton’s path to creating this body may be made easier.

"Now the government has to think about it, our next step is helping the government investigate the gig economy to see how it meshes with our recommendations," Barton says.

"If we have a change of federal government this Saturday then it may help progress it further, as we could have a more receptive government."

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