It may now be time to circle the wagons as the rampaging hordes approach on horseback. Attacking the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator has now become a national sport, with a front page news story, followed up by a self-serving opinion piece in today’s Australian newspaper. Read more
This year has started with a succession of depressing news stories as Cootes are put through the wringer by RMS. Anything which means photos or footage of burning trucks on Australian roads in the media is bad for everyone in the trucking industry. Our biggest problem is the public perception of us, which results in the truckies getting the blame for many issues on our roads.
Nobody is saying there isn’t a problem with poorly maintained trucks in the Cootes fleet and this contributed to two deaths last October in Mona Vale. The industry has to look to itself to solve the problems, if we let the authorities run the show, then it is going to be bad news for everyone.
Now, 540 personnel are losing their jobs as McAleese trim down the fuel hauling fleet in the wake of the loss of contracts due to the safety issues in the Cootes fleet. Many of these are good operators and would hope to pick up work with whoever it is who has picked up the lost contracts. Skilled fuel tanker drivers are not two-a-penny.
The Roads and Maritime Service have entered the fray again this week announcing 300 charges against Cootes. They have gone through the fleet with a fine tooth comb and come up with 222 notices being issued for issues around interstate rego and operating an unsafe vehicle plus more for mass and fuel leaks.
Up until the crash last October, the Cootes fleet were in the National Heavy Vehicle Accreditation Scheme and were having their maintenance systems audited. Is anyone investigating the NHVAS and its auditing system, or is this too big a can of worms to open? Are we scared what we might find?
If we are going to come out of this in good shape the trucking industry needs to work together. We need a single goal agreed by the majority of stakeholders which will improve safety outcomes and satisfy the regulators of of its effectiveness without making too big a dint in the precious productivity everyone is searching for.
Is this possible? People like Lindsay Fox coming out in the press and rowing his own boat is not helpful. Trying to distance ourselves from the issues doesn’t do much good either. We have to engage, get our hands dirty and take the bitter pill, take this issue extremely seriously. Go to the regulators, cap in hand, with pragmatic helpful solutions, not self-serving platitudes, but most of all do it together.
It would seem many people in the trucking industry will feel we dodged a bullet after the ABC Four Corners program on Monday highlighted many of the issues facing the industry in the recent past and the coming years. The program could have stirred up a great deal of anti-truckie feeling but was a restrained and informed look at the world of trucking.
In the run up to the show being aired there was a great deal of anxiety about what the TV would show and how strongly the public, and consequently the government, would react to stories about people being killed in accidents with poorly maintained trucks or where drivers were fatigued. Even Diesel News got caught up in the worries about the outcome.
What about the reaction within the industry? Now is not the time for relief about avoiding some of the nightmare scenarios, now is the time for action to ensure the industry is not at risk of being tarred with the same brush as a rogue operator. The TV show did demonstrate where the cracks are starting to appear.
The maintenance regime, as a whole, leaves a lot to be desired and many in the industry have been talking about how some operators can continue with some forms of accreditation when the trucks or trailers they are running are not up to scratch. A lot of resentment is felt by trucking operations competing for work against those they know to be flouting the regulations.
Many trucking operators would have got shivers down their spine watching a former operations manager sitting in front of the camera listing the company’s misdemeanours. There has been a culture of just wanting to get the job done for a long time in our industry. It is engrained in the DNA of many of us who have spent our lives in road transport. We have all seen these things happen and tried to minimise them, but they still occur.
Probably the most moving sequence on Four Corners was the story of the two unfortunate car drivers killed at the side of a West Australian highway by a fatigued driver drifting into their parked vehicles. No-one could complain about the punishment meted out the driver after his conviction. However, the story gave us all hope when the victim’s wife expressed her forgiveness to the truckie face to face and ended the story on a positive note.
Where do we stand after such an examination of our industry on prime time TV? We certainly are not in such a bad position as may have occured. Yes, NSW is clamouring about how tough it is going to be. Nothing new there! Cootes and Blenners are going through a legal wringer fighting to keep their business going.
I think trucking has dodged a bullet this week but we had better not react with complacency. Having dodged one bullet, now is the time to bite the bullet and get really serious about safety in our industry, so we don’t live in fear of the next exposé just around the corner.
When you have been in the trucking industry as long as I have, it is hard not to get bogged down in the doom and gloom surrounding our industry. There seems to be negatives on every side and almost insurmountable issues in the future. Every time we have got our hopes up in the expectation of a positive change, we only see them dashed. However, hope does spring eternal and there are some positive aspects of 2014 we can look forward to as an industry.
The economic indicators do seem to suggest an upturn in the fortunes of transport and logistics operators, according to the Commonwealth Bank’s Future Business Index. The report talks about a considerable increase in confidence among companies interviewed for the survey. The index went from a negative to a positive and transport and logistics was highlighted as a star performer.
One aspect of the increased confidence is the assurance respondents had about being able to handle fluctuations in the market. The industry has had a tough few years, recovering from oil price inflation only to be hit by reduced economic activity and a resources investment slowdown. These events are now embedded in the tribal memory of the trucking industry and survival strategies well worked out. We are better prepared for an oil price shock than we were in 2005/6.
The other reason for cautious optimism is the imminent, if delayed, birth of the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator. It has been a long time coming and has yet to prove its worth, but there is no denying a large amount of goodwill towards the NHVR, and its aims, exists throughout the trucking world. Even if the NHVR doesn’t fulfil all of its many promises, the situation with the new regime in place must be an improvement on what has gone before.
Admittedly there was great optimism when the Hawke Government announced the establishment of the National (Road) Transport Commission, and the NTC comes under a lot of criticism from all sides on a number of issues. However, thinking back over twenty-odd years, everyone in the industry would have to admit there have been some achievements.
Just the fact there have been people with a working knowledge of the transport industry in the room when policy has been formulated has had some beneficial effects. Hopefully, the NHVR should have a similar positive effect. The personnel recruited are practical, pragmatic and respected by the industry and, although they are likely to be hamstrung with bureaucratic red tape by a number of states, their heart seems to be in the right place.
There are rational reasons for optimism from a few more quarters. The Truck Industry Council is predicting higher truck sales in 2014 and the trailer manufacturers are making positive noises. These are both indicators of increasing confidence. Just the existence of the NHVR will mean permits should be easier to access and there is a helpline for the trucking industry, at the very least.
Even hardened cynics have to be positive sometimes and although any increase in fortunes is going to be hard fought, at least the opportunity seems to be there for the transport industry in 2014.
The trucking industry, as a whole, is going to have to be very careful about what it says and does in the next couple of months. Now is not the time for petty bickering and in-fighting between the various interest groups. We are one bad accident away from a major crisis for the trucking industry.
The incident on Mona Vale Road in Sydney late last year was a clear indication of just how precarious a position the road transport industry is in. When we paint a picture of a responsible industry policing itself to keep the general public safe, we cannot afford too many such crashes.
In the aftermath, two serious turns for the worse hit trucking. Firstly, one of the most sympathetic Roads Ministers in any state for quite a while, turned on trucking with some vehemence accompanied by threats to punish offenders very harshly. Duncan Gay had been instrumental in breaking through a number of road blocks set up by the old Roads and Traffic Authority to stymie productivity initiatives for truckies. One fireball on the Mona Vale saw a lot of good will thrown out of the window.
The subsequent, and very public, investigations into the operator were also an issue to concentrate antipathy towards trucking in general. Yes, there were some issues with the RMS looking at the worst case scenario and then publicising it to make the operator appear even more negligent than they actually were. However, the results of the investigation were met with a stony silence on the part of the transport industry, nobody was going to be the one to cast the first stone. It was more a case of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
If this is how close the industry feels to disaster, then we really are one bad accident away from a crisis. An incident with echoes of the Mona Vale crash or the Menangle head-on from early in 2012 is going to start the alarm bells ringing in the road enforcement community all over Australia and give a free hand to irresponsible politicians to kick the truckies for political gain.
Have we learnt nothing from history? The coincidence of two major road tragedies within a short number of weeks back in November/December 1989 brought the whole edifice down on the trucking industry and it was only some astute manoeuvring, coupled with complete unity within the trucking community, which brought the industry through with any dignity at all.
Now is not the time to wait for another disaster before the trucking industry gets itself together and sorts out the wheat from the chaff. There is no room for those in the know to turn a blind eye to issues. If we cannot keep our own house in order someone else will do it for us.
Every stakeholder concerned with the trucking industry is involved and if there is a public perception the trucking industry is irresponsible and unsafe, they will have to act. This is the tightrope on which the trucking industry is now standing. We are not just one bad accident away from a crisis, we are probably just one well researched but very negative TV documentary away from a major crisis.
A lot of the discussion in and around the transport industry is based on antagonism between the government regulators, the transport customers and the trucking industry, including those working in it. A shot of reality needs to be injected into discussions because trucking needs a united front to deal with its biggest issue, the big retailers.
There is a blame game going on, where a truckie’s life is made hard by the roadside enforcement, the customer puts too much pressure on the operator and the enforcement system punishes the operator for something outside of their control.
A casual observer could look at the situation and think it fair to allocate some blame to all of the parties. They all have their issues and agendas so they must all take some of the blame for problems which occur.
This would be a reasonable assumption to make, all things being equal. However, things are not equal when one of the elements in the equation is so big and powerful, their sheer size distorts the picture and normal market forces. We are talking about the supermarkets and their incredible size and power in our economy.
This week Deloitte have released their ‘Global Powers of Retailing 2013’ report and some of the figures make interesting reading. In Australia we look out at the rest of the globe and assume the large supermarkets have a power elsewhere in the world, similar to the kind of influence they have in Australia.
In fact, the two big players in retail in Australia, Woolworths and Wesfarmers (owners of Coles), are both in the top twenty retail operations in the world. This top twenty is dominated by the US and Germany, with Australia equal with France and Japan with two entries. The UK has one in the twenty, Tesco, number two in the world behind Wal-Mart from the US.
Our country’s economy is tiny when compared to these economic giants but our supermarket are in the big league. What does this tell us? It tells us the individual supermarkets are, proportionately, more powerful in our economy than they are in the big economies of the world.
Our biggest transport operator, Toll, with an annual global revenue of $8 billion dollars doesn’t look so big when facing either of the big supermarkets who both turn over around $60 billion per annum. They are so large, if they sneeze, the trucking industry is stricken with the flu. The retailers don’t need to act like a bully, their sheer size makes them equivalent to a bully
As long as the bickering between various parties continues the big retailers can carry on their merry way in blissful ignorance, prices will fall and the pressure on suppliers will rise, setting off another round of the blame game.
There is no excuse for a continuing battle between the transport operators, the unions and the regulatory authorities. A consensus needs to be found and presented as a united front to the big retailers otherwise we will continue with business as usual, low margins, overbearing pressure on drivers and a culture on the road where fatigue creates casualties.
Let’s get real!
Written by Tim Giles
This week’s announcement by the Australian Trucking Association and the reaction to it are a good illustration of exactly what is going wrong for the trucking industry. The reaction, the way it was reported and the opinion of those working in transport, show us why we get ourselves bogged down in internal battles and can rarely get any real progress on the big issues.
The premise for the ATA was simple, there is a shortage of truck drivers and if the government changed the rules to make it easier to get foreign drivers in on a 457 visa then the problem would be solved. Very simplistic and reflecting the opinion of many of the bigger trucking players who struggle to keep skilled drivers.
The chances of getting a sensible measured debate in the media was quite slim and it didn’t take long for the Transport Workers Union PR machine to get into gear. They also have a straightforward point to make on this issue, conditions and pay for drivers are unattractive and they are leaving the industry in large numbers.
Comment on social media about the announcement did, in some cases, run along the line of a dislike of foreigners coming in and taking Australian jobs but also focused on the awful conditions drivers have to live with. The harassment by the authorities on the road (no other profession can get fined nearly a week’s wages for mis-spelling a location in a log book) was given as a reason for the shortage. Many drivers talk about being poorly treated by employers, consignors, police, other road users and the general public as good reasons to leave the industry.
By the time the story hit the mass media the difference between the effectiveness of the TWU and the ATA in terms of leverage with the media was clear. One of the most misleading reports came on the Channel Ten News at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4PKai_7_KI&feature=share. This managed to conflate the TWU message with the ATA’s as their main focus while showing footage of frightening truck crashes. The ABC did a little better but still linked the story to truck crash deaths.
At the end of the day no-one has got their point across. The public just sees images of burning trucks and remains scared of monster trucks. The ATA’s message is completely lost in the noise around this subject. The TWU get some of their message across, don’t come up with a solution and further alienate the trucking industry.
There is no consensus, so the government can sit on their hands and do nothing, the trucking industry carries on desperate for drivers and disgruntled truckies continue to search for alternative employment. Is that a result?