11 April 2016
by James Massola

Former TWU official blasts safe rates created to 'destroy' owner-drivers

Michael Wong

A former Transport Workers Union official has claimed the tribunal that sets rates of pay for owner-drivers says the link between road safety and remuneration is "marginal" and that the union "doesn't care" about small operators.

Michael Wong, who worked for the union between 2009 and 2012 in the Queensland, NSW and National offices of the union, has also apologised for allowing his "professional skills to be used in a campaign for safe rates that would have a profoundly negative effect on the owner-drivers of Australia".

The extraordinary apology comes as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced on Sunday that if re-elected, his government would abolish the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT).

Mr Turnbull said that two government-commissioned reviews of the RSRT, by Jaguar Consulting and PwC, had found no link between rates of pay and road safety and recommended it be abolished.

The federal government and truck owner-drivers argue a recent pay order by the RSRT threatens the livelihood of small operators by pricing them out of the market and enforcing much higher rates of pay.Mr Turnbull said on Sunday the RSRT's recent pay order would "drive owner-drivers out of business. It will make them uncompetitive with other larger businesses. It is designed entirely and was designed entirely by Bill Shorten when he was in government to advantage the Transport Workers Union".

"It is not a tribunal that does anything effective to do with safety. It undermines owner-operators, it undermines small-business, it undermines family businesses."

Mr Wong, who worked on the political campaign to establish the RSRT while at the union, said "fundamentally, the union doesn't care about owner-drivers, it cares about its income and the political power it can achieve". "The practical effect of the RSRT is to push owner-drivers out of the market. Only stronger police powers could rein in the cowboys who are the problem. By that I mean the clients who will never place a driver's safety above their own immediate needs," he said.

"The unique success of the TWU's achievement in the establishment of the RSRT was that it framed a marginal issue – the link between rates of pay and safety – as the central issue and then drove legislative change through its political mates."

The former union official's comments will embarrass the TWU and embolden the Turnbull government, which has added the RSRT to industrial issues – including the re-establishment of the construction watchdog – it plans to fight Labor over in the 2016 election.

The RSRT pay order had been due to come into effect on April 4, and the federal government had intervened to support an application in the Federal Court to stop that pay order coming into effect until January 1, 2017.

Federal Labor and the Transport Workers Union argue higher rates of pay are essential to improving safety for truck drivers by reducing deadline pressure to drive long stretches without a rest.

TWU chief Tony Sheldon on Sunday linked Mr Turnbull's push to abolish the RSRT with "major companies who are his party's donors".

"The prime minister's own reports show that road transport has the highest fatality rates of any industry in Australia, with 12 times the average for all industries. His own report [by PwC] show that this tribunal will reduce truck crashes by 28 per cent, yet he is attacking the tribunal."

PwC's review also said the RSRT should be reformed and that the "abolition of the system would result in significant net benefit to the economy and community at large".

In a statement, the TWU rejected Mr Wong's claims and stressed " this is a former employee who had no role in assessing the effect of the RSRT or researching the link between pay and safety".

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the heavy vehicle industry had 12 times the fatality rate of the national average and that "if there's a problem with a particular wages order, by all means let's talk it through and see what needs to be done".