Bewildering red tape jungle threatens to strangle an essential industry

The trucking industry can lay claim to being the most heavily shackled sector in Australia.

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By Warren Clark

The trucking industry can lay claim to being the most heavily shackled sector in Australia.

That’s largely understandable. Safety must be the number-one concern in any environment where heavy vehicles interact with smaller ones.

What’s less fathomable is how a $66 billion a year industry can operate without a truly national, consistent set of laws.

There is something called Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) that tries hard to live up to its name.

But when it started in February 2014, Western Australia and the Northern Territory staunchly remained outside its reach – and remain so.

The other jurisdictions are a bewildering mish mash of regulatory red tape with differing rules that are highly technical.

The only common thread is an enforcement regime that’s heavy-handed and works contrary to the principle that punishments must be proportionate to so-called crimes.

If you’re a motorist, can you imagine a law that fines you for misspelling a place name or not drawing a straight line in a logbook? Or missing a mandated rest break by three minutes because you were looking for somewhere to safely park?

Welcome to the world of the long-haul truck driver.

To understand why Australia lacks harmonised truck laws, you need to go back to 1901 when Australia became a federated nation.

The railways were owned by state governments who zealously protected them. The new Constitution was silent on the Commonwealth Government’s powers over road transport, so it was left to the states to regulate as they saw fit.

To be fair, there were no trucks back then – only stagecoaches, and horse and carts. To preserve their own revenue bases., the states imposed levies on carriers of goods on roads across borders.

This appeared at odds with section 92 of the Constitution that deemed “trade, commerce and intercourse” between the states should be “absolutely free” but it took a long time for anybody to test it

A group of truckies put a copy of the Constitution in a wheelbarrow in 1952 and pushed it by hand between Melbourne and Sydney to highlight this. It took them 11 days – which was 48 hours quicker than a parcel mailed at the same time and sent by rail.

Their point was well made but it took a successful High Court action against the State of New South Wales by a private transport company to force the hands of lawmakers.

The subsequent lifting of levies started discussions about the harmonising road transport rules.

It took until the late 1970s for states to even agree on a uniform configuration for interstate trucks. To this day, states have differing rules for what types of truck can use their bridges.

B-Doubles are a common sight on Australian highways but were banned until 1984, despite being widely used overseas.

Only last month, truck width laws were changed to allow the wider, more efficient vehicles operating in Europe to be legal here.

Several states are now trialling new mass limits to open the door to large electric vehicles with their substantial on-board battery payloads.  

Heavy Vehicle National Law is 676 pages long, divided into 800 sections, and has five sets of accompanying regulations.

Transport ministers ordered a review of it in November 2018. The body responsible, the National Transport Commission, was sent back to the drawing board in 2022 after not very much changing.

There’s talk that some in our industry want the review put on hold for another year, so Queensland can hold its election. Let’s hope that thought doesn’t take hold.

The more practical view is that the bureaucrats need to pull their collective fingers out and overhaul the mass of regulations underpinning the law. Legislative change can come after that.

The Albanese Government is empowering the Fair Work Commission to put minimum standards in place that are designed to assist positive change.

Road transport in Australia is largely run by owner operators and small companies. Like everybody, they’re doing it tough. Their difficulties were evident long before the disruption of COVID-19 and soaring fuel prices became a way of life.

My association’s members report their operating margins are now at about two percent, and problems like a chronic shortage of drivers and diesel mechanics in an ageing industry are only gathering speed.

Making the national freight task safer and more efficient is more important than ever.  The global move towards decarbonisation adds urgency.

Truck operators want to do their part in a sensible and measured way that doesn’t send them to the wall.

That will require policymakers to work hand-in-hand with industry. As you can see from the snail’s pace of regulatory reform, that’s rarely, if ever, been the case.