The disgruntled truckies leading the convoy to Canberra are on the margins of the sector they purport to represent, disowned by industry groups and many of their colleagues. Among the small crowd of perhaps 150 people outside Parliament House this morning was disgruntlement at their mates, too, for not showing up. It’s a familiar story for a traditionally disunited workforce.

But the feeling among participants runs deep, even if the politics of the movement are as difficult to pin down as the issues they’re fighting for. Ken Wilkie, a self-employed driver who led a 50-strong convoy from Queensland, insists the rally is not an endorsement of Tony Abbott.

“I know he’s probably a PM in waiting,” he told Crikey over the din of angry speeches this morning. “But our ambition here is to have an election, not to have Abbott installed in power. If Julia [Gillard] is good enough and can demonstrate her integrity to the electorate after selling us a lie then she could get re-elected.”

About 80 trucks made the journey to the nation’s capital — well short of the 100-plus promised — only to be blocked from entering Parliament’s front yard (the protest was held down the hill). MC Alan Jones fumed that was a threat to democracy.

The self-declared leader of the gathering, Mick Pattel, is a long-time industry rabble-rouser and disendorsed Liberal-National Party candidate in Queensland. The National Road Freighters Association, of which he is the national president, is a loose collective of owner-operators that isn’t recognised by any other industry group. Pattel wasn’t answering his mobile today.

The key industry lobbyist, Australian Trucking Association CEO Stuart St Clair, is another former National Party member. He held New England for the Nats for a final term before independent Tony Windsor claimed the seat in 2001, and went on to advise former leader John Anderson.

But St Clair wants none of the convoy and its rabble of supporters. The ATA, as the main industry conduit to Canberra sitting at the foot of parliament in the diplomatic core of lobbyists’ row, doesn’t involve itself in protests or politics.

ATA spokesperson Bill McKinley (another former Coalition adviser, incidentally) told The Power Index the convoy reinforces the cowboy stereotype of the industry. It’s a popular view in an industry paranoid — with good reason — of its perception in the media, fuelled by tabloid TV stories of speeding, drug-addled truckies.

Indeed, McKinley makes the point it was lobbying efforts from groups like the ATA (and the Transport Workers Union, which isn’t represented at the rally either) that forced the government to delay applying the carbon tax to diesel fuel for two years. So just what is the fight about?

Ken Wilkie — who reckons the “too politically correct” ATA has failed to serve its constituents — says the carbon tax deal with the Greens is still “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. And he lists the government’s handling of live cattle exports among a “combination of issues”.

“We’re taxing the incentive right out of the country in the sense we’re losing employment,” he said. “We’re taxing the productive part of the economy.”

He admits the turn-out is disappointing, but insists the road-side support they’ve had on the trek south shows “a lot more support then what’s been made evident here”. “It’s at Julia’s peril to ignore this,” he declared.

Daryl Pederson, the vice president of the rebel NRFA and a driver from the Tablelands of Queensland, adds the mining tax and “the way primary producers and graziers are being treated” to a laundry list of complaints. One speaker at the rally today talked of poor phone reception from Telstra; another told the media the problem was the increased power of the United Nations.

“We need stable government, the issue is that the government does not have a mandate,” Pederson told Crikey. “We need to take it to the Australian people to vote, the result being a government we have confidence in who have a mandate to rule the country.”

Frank Black, the owner-driver representative to the ATA, was steering clear of the protests today and making the point the issue of cost recovery for sub-contractors — as Crikey detailed last month — would be better pushed through the union’s “safe rates” campaign. TWU national secretary Tony Sheldon is keeping pressure on the government to act but wasn’t supporting today’s protest.

Alan Jones introduced a long line-up of Coalition MPs including Nats leader Warren Truss, Senator Barnaby Joyce and Liberal front-bencher Bronwyn Bishop. Abbott spoke to members of the convoy outside Canberra last night and appeared at the protest as Crikey hit deadline.

Peter Fray

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