Interstate Road Transport Charge Amendment Bill 2008; Road Transport Charges (Australian Capital Territory) Repeal Bill 2008: Second Reading

We need to give our freight movers roads of the highest quality; we need to give our truck drivers rest stops to combat driver fatigue; we need to make the presence of heavy vehicles on the roads safer for the sake of truck drivers and, importantly, for all road users. We need to improve the efficiency of our road network by upgrading our roads and strengthening our bridges. In laying out the obligations the government have to heavy vehicle users, we also recognise that contributions from the freight industry are an important part of the total road expenditure. Successive governments of both political persuasions and many in the trucking industry have supported the contribution towards the cost of road construction and the contribution towards fixing the damage that heavy vehicles do to our roads. Ultimately these contributions directly benefit the freight and road transport industry. This bill will overhaul the existing act and create charges which are more equitable for all truck drivers.

An inquiry into road and rail infrastructure pricing by the Productivity Commission found that currently small trucks are paying too much while larger trucks are paying too little. On advice from COAG, chaired by John Howard, the National Transport Commission recommended that the former government introduce legislation to ensure full cost recovery of heavy vehicle usage and cross-subsidisation of large trucks by smaller vehicles. The Howard government at that time said that those changes were to be implemented on 1 July 2008. The new Rudd government, based on the same recommendations, aims to do the same. Significantly, the government’s bill deals only with registration charges. The implementation of the road user charge will be delayed until 1 January 2009. I welcome the support of the industry for this change. Stuart St Clair, the Chief Executive of the Australian Trucking Association, had this to say:

Minister Albanese has listened to the industry and delivered a strong result for trucking operators and Australian families …

The bill introduced by the government will reduce registration fees for 25 per cent of the nation’s 365,000 heavy vehicles, distributing the costs to larger vehicles. The greatest increase will be for six per cent of trucks, for the larger trucks such as B-doubles. To ensure minimal impact on the industry, these increases will be introduced over three years. The logic is that those that do the most damage and enjoy the greatest benefits from road upgrades will pay the highest cost.

My experience over the last four years working on the Westlink M7 project in Western Sydney is testimony to the advantages that road freight gets from first-class infrastructure. The M7 is a new freight link through Western Sydney, a 40-kilometre road that connects the M5 to the M4 and on to the M2. It is a road that has made the work of moving freight in Sydney, and particularly in Western Sydney, so much more productive and so much more efficient. The evidence of this can be seen in the heavy vehicles that use the road. On most motorways in Sydney and across the country on most arterial roads you will find that the traffic mix on those major roads is around eight or nine per cent heavy vehicles and the rest smaller vehicles. The M7 has a very different traffic mix: it has in the order of 18 per cent heavy vehicles. Those trucks, those heavy vehicles, are taking advantage of the M7 because it cuts travel time, and time is money. A couple of years ago, the Victorian Transport Association released some information on the real impact of saving time for the freight industry. They gave me some information which indicated that, at that time, an hour saved on the road for a B-double equated to around $100 saved. That incorporated the cost of fuel, it incorporated the cost of labour and it incorporated the cost of maintenance. When all of that was taken into account, a B-double saving an hour on the road saved about $100.

Good infrastructure that cuts time and cuts costs makes business more efficient and more productive. Good infrastructure saves time and money. That is what the M7 does, and that is why I welcome the investment that we see in this bill in new and improved road infrastructure. We can also see these benefits in major upgrades to the Pacific Highway. Travel times have been cut significantly and the route has been opened up to B-doubles, with over 200 B-doubles utilising the road every day-heavy vehicles that are moving from the New England Highway over to the Pacific Highway to take advantage of the travel time savings, and cutting their costs and becoming more productive as a consequence. We can also see the benefits in Victoria, with the $331 million Deer Park bypass, a nine-kilometre four-lane freeway which will improve access to the Western Ring Road and Melbourne Ports, and reduce travel and operating costs for 7,000 heavy vehicle users. Also, we see the benefits on the Hume Highway, where the bypass around Albury-Wodonga has reduced operating costs for heavy vehicles, drastically cutting the driving time between Melbourne and Sydney.

The benefits of these projects have a ripple effect. They increase efficiency and safety, and they increase productivity. When you increase productivity you go a long way towards lowering inflation. But the bill that we are discussing today is not just about boosting productivity or improving infrastructure; it is also about saving lives. This government, through this bill, will invest in driver safety. This government will invest $70 million into the trucking industry and road infrastructure to prevent the loss of hundreds of lives and the thousands of injuries that occur annually on our roads. The road toll can be reduced by using the measures that the minister for infrastructure and transport has outlined: the introduction of black box technology to make it difficult for drivers to drive for too long or at high speeds; upgrades to freight routes and the strengthening of bridges to enable them to safely carry larger, heavier loads; and the construction of more heavy vehicle rest stops and parking areas along highways to reduce driver fatigue. The Monash University Accident Research Centre estimates that road spending on such measures can reduce heavy vehicle related deaths by 38 per cent. That translates into 125 lives potentially saved each year. I commend the minister for working closely with the states and territories and the industry to develop a plan not only to create greater efficiency in the existing road network but also, very importantly, to potentially save lives.

Again, I welcomed the comments in the Australian Financial Review this morning of Stuart St Clair, the Chief Executive of the Australian Trucking Association. He said:

These are very significant changes to the industry, they should not be underestimated …

I also note that the former minister for transport in his contribution spent considerable energy defending the former government’s investment in road infrastructure. However, his argument is not borne out by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, which released a report only recently that showed that road funding during most of the Howard government era was about 11 per cent lower than during the years of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. Federal road funding averaged $2.3 billion a year under the former Hawke and Keating Labor governments but fell to less than $2.05 billion a year under the coalition. There is a lot of work to do to realise the aim of the freight industry: to move more freight, to move it more safely and to move it at less cost. We are just beginning, but I welcome the government’s commitment to this task and I welcome the minister’s contribution to this task.’