Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Labor’s Employment Spokesperson Brendan O’Connor speak to truckies about the RSRT

Beneath the partisan politicking of the government’s use of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal as a wedge against Labor is both a complex safety debate and a disturbing, and ongoing, tragedy.

The purpose of the tribunal, set up in 2012 by the Gillard government, is to improve safety in the road transport sector through remuneration, standards and dispute resolution. But primarily, it’s about the first of those: the statutory role of the body is “ensuring that road transport drivers do not have remuneration-related incentives to work in an unsafe manner” and “removing remuneration-related incentives, pressures and practices that contribute to unsafe work practices”.

That is, to ensure remuneration is both sufficient and structured so that truckies can work in a safe manner without suffering a financial penalty. Road transport is the country’s most dangerous industry: data from Safe Work Australia shows that the transport sector overall accounts for 15% of workplace fatalities, putting it ahead even of agriculture in terms of employees killed on the job. In most industries, there’s little or no link between remuneration and workplace safety — getting paid poorly or in a way that creates perverse incentives isn’t likely to directly lead to injury or death on the job. But the tribunal was established on the basis that road transport in unusual in having such a link.

But the very idea that there’s a link between remuneration and safety is contested by employers in the industry, because once you accept that link it becomes much harder to reject improved remuneration. The Coalition has reviewed the tribunal not once but twice since coming to office, and the second report, by PWC, tries to reject the case that there’s any link, arguing:

“Although a number of studies have found a statistically significant link between remuneration and road safety, evidence as to the extent and nature of this relationship varies substantially, is limited in size, focuses on employee drivers and largely uses international data sets.”

This echoed an earlier Coalition-commissioned report by a consultant, in 2014. That sought to downplay concerns about the safety record of the heavy vehicle sector and question or explain away the long list of academic studies or studies commissioned by the National Transport Commission (the joint Commonwealth-State body that oversees road transport regulation and policy) that showed a link between remuneration and safety. Faced with one study that demonstrated a very strong link between remuneration and safety, the consultant described it in these terms:

“Firms that pay higher wages are able to recruit higher quality drivers, with safety performance representing an important aspect of driver quality. Importantly, this proposition differs from that underlying the safe rates concept – i.e. that a given cohort of drivers will drive in a less safe manner as a result of financial pressures arising from low remuneration levels.”

In safety terms, that would appear to be a distinction without a difference. But undeterred, the consultant concluded from his literature review there was a “likelihood that some correlation between various financial measures (including firm financial performance and driver remuneration) and safety performance exists, at least where very low levels of remuneration are concerned. However, both the nature and extent of the impact on safety performance of a change in driver remuneration is highly uncertain.”

Discrediting the idea of a link between remuneration and safety in road transport is critical to the campaign against the tribunal, given its raison d’etre is based on that link, but the best two Coalition-commissioned reviews have been able to do is acknowledge there is a link, but question how extensive it is.

There’s another safety issue, however, that also distinguishes road transport: workplace accidents don’t merely kill employees, they kill other people as well. These are what SafeWork Australia calls “bystander fatalities”. There were 70 bystander fatalities in 2014, including 12 children under 14. Forty-two, or 60% of them, were vehicle incidents. And that number has risen in recent years.

These aren’t all necessarily the fault of truckies: car drivers crash into trucks — indeed, car drivers are more likely to succumb to fatigue on the road than professional drivers. But the numbers illustrate that road transport safety isn’t merely a problem about injuries and fatalities among truckies, but among all road users.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash has suggested GPS tracking of all heavy vehicles as an alternative approach to addressing enforcement of driving hours regulations, which would be a significant imposition of surveillance on both the industry (many larger firms already operate GPS tracking systems, but smaller firms and most owner-operators do not) and individual drivers. But by and large the government prefers not to talk about safety, preferring instead to concentrate on trying to link Bill Shorten to trade unions and talking about a “crisis” that will destroy livelihoods and drive up freight costs.

However, whether you accept or deny a link between remuneration and safety, road transport still kills far too many employees and other people, and no politician is serious about the issue unless they have a workable and implementable policy to improve enforcement of driving hours regulations.