The federal government risks being seen as presiding over carnage on the nation’s roads as both transport unions and key employers call for a significant overhaul of the truck safety regulatory framework.

Malcolm Turnbull owns the existing safety framework after abolishing the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal in April 2016, in the face of warnings from Labor and the Transport Workers Union that it would undermine heavy vehicle safety. At the time, Turnbull dismissed any link between the way truckies are remunerated, and safety, insisting the RSRT was only destroying family businesses.

But, whether linked or not to the abolition of the RSRT, heavy vehicle safety has dramatically deteriorated since then.

Data from the government’s own Safe Work Australia shows that, after a small rise in deaths in the transport sector in 2016, preliminary numbers from 2017 show an alarming surge in transport-related deaths, which rose more than 15%, while there was a significant fall in worker deaths across the whole economy.

A recent spate of fatal truck crashes (which, it is important to note, are often the fault of other drivers, not truckies) prompted the managing director of transport giant Toll to write to Turnbull to call for stricter national safety rules. The Australian Trucking Association last week also released its 2018 budget submission calling for a National Road Safety Commission to be established. Ports Australia even sought to exploit the tragedies by issuing a press release calling for more freight to travel by sea.

Hampering the government’s response is Barnaby Joyce’s bungled ousting of the well-regarded Darren Chester from the Infrastructure portfolio in December, for reasons of personal vindictiveness and intra-party conflict. Joyce, who has a poor reputation in Canberra as both a policy thinker and a portfolio administrator, has himself taken over Infrastructure, following in the footsteps of two better and more capable Nationals leaders, John Anderson and Mark Vaile. Moreover, longtime Infrastructure Secretary Mike Mrdak was moved to Communications in September, meaning the portfolio is now headed by two relative newcomers.

Joyce limply responded to the recent spate of crashes by claiming truck-related deaths had fallen over the last decade. That’s the sort of half-baked response you’d expect from a new ministerial office reliant on bureaucrats, and unlikely to cut it when the TWU is openly claiming the government has blood on its hands.

Peter Fray

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