Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wants to save small trucking businesses by abolishing a road safety watchdog, but Labor warns it could end up threatening all road users.
Mr Turnbull has promised the coalition government will dump the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal if it’s re-elected, with $4 million in funding redirected to the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator.
The decision follows anger at new minimum pay rates – set by the tribunal – for owner truck drivers that they fear will drive them out of business.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who established the tribunal when Labor was last in office, warned there was a proven link between low rates of pay and poor safety.
“If you’re trying to pay the bills, trying to pay the mortgage, put the food on the table for the family and you’ve got unsafe rates of pay then something’s got to give,” he told reporters in Melbourne.
“We don’t want that to be the safety of Australia’s road users.”
Transport Workers’ Union national secretary Tony Sheldon echoed his concerns.
“If you can’t afford to maintain your vehicle, you don’t. If you can’t afford to put food on the table because you’re not earning enough, you work extraordinary hours and you’re fatigued,” he said.
Mr Sheldon said the heavy vehicle regulator had not successfully prosecuted one company.
“Malcolm Turnbull has turned around and put the money to a dead duck rather than to trying to save lives on our roads.”
But Mr Turnbull believes the tribunal was designed to advantage the union.
“It was a piece of legislation that has had nothing to do with safety and everything to do with getting small businesses, self-employed people, the enterprising family businesses of Australia off the roads,” he told reporters in Sydney.
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said the government didn’t have the numbers to abolish the tribunal now, but was confident it could secure legislation to suspend the new pay rates that came into effect on April 7.
A bill to freeze the rates will be introduced when federal parliament resumes on April 18.
Independent senator Glenn Lazarus wants the tribunal abolished but can’t believe the government is waiting until after the election.
“This is the most disgusting thing I have ever heard,” he said.
“The Turnbull government is just trying to buy votes and they are prepared to use mum and dad truckies as pawns in their own election campaign.”
Senator Lazarus will introduce his own bill to abolish the tribunal during the week of April 18.
Greens MP Adam Bandt is yet to be convinced that scrapping the tribunal is the right thing to do.
The Australian Trucking Association has commended the government for taking action.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon told AAP he voted for the tribunal in good faith.
“But it has morphed into a mess,” he said.
He called on the government to deal with the issue this month and to not let it become a “political football” during an election campaign.
He questioned Senator Cash’s claim that she doubts the numbers are there to abolish it, and urged the coalition to test them in the Senate when parliament resumes.