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Peter Anderson

Opportunistic tax grab hits more than drivers’ hip pocket

September 2017

The transport industry has shown tremendous resolve in its near-unanimous opposition and outrage over an Australian Tax Office (ATO) determination issued in early July that will slash what drivers can claim on their tax returns.

The Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation (ARTIO), of which I am Secretary and Treasurer, led a chorus of industry criticism about ATO claims it consulted widely about plans to reduce by 43 per cent the amount drivers can claim for travel expenses, and the impact of this on drivers and their families.

Federal and state transport organisations lined up to demonstrate they hadn’t been consulted by the change, which at least has had the belated effect of the ATO now engaging with the industry to discuss the changes and its consequences.

The Victorian Transport Association (VTA), through its involvement with the ARTIO, and in unison with other peak bodies, will be loudly advocating for the determination to be reversed or significantly scaled back.

The determination is an opportunistic cash grab from a part of the workforce and economy already reeling from stagnant economic and wage growth, and smaller margins thanks to higher road-user and other charges. It will hit more than drivers’ hip pockets.

It’s worth reflecting on the unintended consequences for drivers and employers if the determination isn’t changed.
Like politicians and their advisers, heavy-vehicle drivers spend many nights away from home.

Deductable allowances they can claim help offset the economic, physical and social costs of working in a profession that requires extended time away from spouses and children, and is hardly the perk some have characterised it as.
A higher allowance gave drivers more money to spend on healthier food options, which typically cost far more than quick and easy fast-food alternatives. This is important when it is considered that heavy vehicle drivers are far more susceptible to disease and chronic health issues.

A 2015 Centres for Disease Control (CDC) survey of over 1,600 heavy-vehicle drivers revealed two-thirds (69 per cent) have a body mass index of 30 or higher, with 17 per cent being morbidly obese. Another US study the year before of almost 38,000 people found our industry had the highest prevalence of obese workers (38 per cent). Obesity increases chances of type 2 diabetes, sleep apnoea, heart disease, cancer and stroke.

We also know that heavy-vehicle drivers are more prone to mental health issues, with a 2008 NSW transport industry health survey showing they are seven per cent more likely to develop depression.

As an industry, we have worked hard to encourage widespread uptake of healthier eating and lifestyle choices from transport workers. We must be moving forward, not backward, and with its recent determination the ATO risks unravelling all of our good work.
Equally concerning are the impacts the ruling will have on families.
Reasonably paid, long-haul drivers face the same education, health, transport and other cost-of-living hikes as workers who aren’t facing a 43 per cent hit on their allowable tax deductions. There will be less money for drivers and families to get by in an increasingly expensive world where wage growth has stalled.

There are also unintended consequences from the determination for employers that the ATO hasn’t properly considered.

Many employers have struck Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) that already factored in the previous rate. We are concerned employers who had EBAs specifying amounts payable in these circumstances that were approved by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) could now be in breach of their legal obligations.

The other matter for employers is their duty of care to drivers who are now at a significant financial disadvantage and more exposed to health issues.
Employers are under enough pressure financially as is and cannot simply make up the deficit of the ATO ruling out of petty cash. Employers will help drivers where they can, but there must be more give and less take from the ATO.

Instead of being penalised, drivers and employers should be incentivised to make healthy choices and create healthy workplaces. This will lead to fewer chronic medical issues for drivers – and their associated costs, the savings from which would offset the cost of restoring deductions that were previously allowed.

Drivers work long hours away from home to keep our economy running. Another tax hit is the last thing they and their employers need in difficult times.

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