Simon O’Hara: RFNSW General Manager
With a new General Manager at the helm and reinvigorated fighting spirit following the RSRT abolishment, Road Freight NSW is on track to becoming one of the most vocal industry associations in the country.
Founded as the Australian Trucking Association’s (ATA) local NSW organisation in 2007, Road Freight NSW (RFNSW) has taken it upon itself to represent the State’s vast and varied commercial road transport community – both locally and on a national level as a member of the ATA.
After a brief hiatus due to an internal reshuffle, the reinvigorated lobbying group started making headlines again in mid-2016, when it worked alongside NatRoad to facilitate the abolishment of the controversial Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT). Ever since, the Wetherill Park-based body has been officially back on the big stage, with new General Manager, Simon O’Hara, saying it will become even more vocal down the track.
A lawyer by profession, Simon has worked in the areas of commercial law, workplace law and industrial relations, as well as at criminal law. His transition to association management and industry representation began with almost a year heading up the national Association for Aircraft Engineers before spending five-and-a-half years at the Virgin Australia Pilots’ Association.
Both aviation and transport have a strong safety focus and are subject to significant oversight by authorities, he says, creating ample opportunities for him to find his tread and create new momentum for the association he joined in May 2016. “Many people in the road transport community look at trucks and trailers in the same light as aviators do, who love new technologies,” he says.
“That’s a great starting point. By and large, our members are embracing technology as quickly as possible, but still in a considered way. Aviation experts are much the same – unlike many smart phone users, they don’t faddishly jump to the latest offering, but put careful thought into what best suits the task at hand.”
Acknowledging that Australia has a “confusingly large” amount of road transport associations, he says the demarcation between them can get blurred at times – putting the onus back on him and his team to sharpen RFNSW’s profile. As such, Simon has spent much of his ‘on-boarding process’ working with enforcement agencies to improve the understanding between the authorities and the trucking industry. “We have built a great relationship with RMS (NSW’s Roads and Maritime Service, ed.) and we can talk on a variety of issues with the people there,” he explains. “While we are not always going to agree about everything, the foundations are sound. We need to be able to have robust conservations and we do it in a way that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
He adds, “NSW RMS representatives attend our OSOM (Over Size Over Mass, ed.) sub-committee meetings, for example, where we address specific issues our members have brought up. They can raise questions directly with RMS personnel, which I think is the best way to receive meaningful answers.
“It’s about building productive processes and putting mechanisms in place to be able to ensure that the membership at a grass roots level has the opportunity to ask questions around some of the real life issues they face.”
In joining the RFNSW, Simon not only reinforced old alliances, but also instigated a general overhaul of the organisation itself – starting with broadening the range of issues that RFNSW is able to address, as well as adding to the benefits available to members.
“We have undertaken a lot of work in terms of the value proposition of belonging to RFNSW. I came on board with the firm intention to provide members with greater membership options in addition to the advocacy and representation that are at the core of what we do,” he explains. “That may include a better fuel deal or a special deal with a forklift company. It can also be access to a legal partner that can assist with issues such around Chain of Responsibility (CoR, ed.). We’re also working closely with Ai Group to represent our members on industrial relations issues such as the General Carriers Contract Determination (GCCD) and the modern Awards.”
Former NSW Roads Minister, Duncan Gay, made a point of having a good relationship with the road transport industry via organisations such as RFNSW, and Simon has been quick to engage with Gay’s recently appointed replacement, Minister Melinda Pavey, and met early with her and her staff to continue that tradition in his new role.
High on the agenda during the first meeting was the proposed surcharge that was to be unilaterally applied by stevedoring company DP World Australia (DPWA) on every container being moved to and from its wharves. “Minister Pavey is both engaged and keen to hear from our membership directly,” Simon explains. “She met with us very quickly about the DPWA infrastructure surcharge and heard us out.”
Simon sees the DPWA surcharge as inappropriate and unfair and is still embroiled in serious efforts to prevent its implementation, he adds. “I think there is an approach here that is immature to be honest. By maturity I mean normally you’d have some form of consultation – such as we had with PBLIS (Port Botany Landside Improvement Strategy, ed.), when we hosted a round table discussion of the issues around it.”
He adds, “I find it surprising that 60 days’ notice for this new charge was given to Transport for NSW, but why weren’t we consulted? There are serious concerns within the industry about the charge, so why not get RFNSW into the room for discussions? The notice of the new charge went to carriers and we only received it when it was forwarded by some of our members. At no stage were we sent it via a direct channel.”
According to Simon, “the charge has been lumped onto operators with hardly any notice and they are going to be forced to pay $21.16 per container – for some carriers that will amount to more than $150,000 per year.”
He explains the surcharge will severely compromise carriers’ cash flow, given that DPWA demands payment within seven days while most truck operators have to wait 30 days or longer for their own customers to pay them. “How can they be expected to run a business like that? We’ve asked the Minister to intervene, as she has authority to act in this circumstance, and her department is looking at it at the moment. We’ve also made a submission to the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, ed.) and Kate Carnell, the Small Business Commissioner. From our members’ perspective, we see the move as being anti-competitive.”
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of Simon’s second high-profile lobbying effort, he says it’s situations like this that fuel his drive to make his membership heard.
While there is no typical member of the association – the spectrum can range from family businesses with less than five employees to national fleets such as Border Express, Vellex and Bagtrans – Simon says the key issues affecting them are often the same and generally discussed in a range of sub-committees focusing on key areas such as Dangerous Goods, OSOM or container transportation. “Each sub-committee comprises of industry leaders who are prepared to set aside some of their own time to the benefit of their industry as a whole,” he says. “I believe herein lies a major strength of RFNSW as an organisation.”
He also emphasises that while many members may actually be commercial competitors, they share common goals for a stronger and safer industry and are committed to continuous improvement. “Combine that dedication with the DPWA infrastructure surcharge issue, and you’ll notice there is a real space here for RFNSW to ensure that our members get representation and that we can advocate and be their voice within the industry. We need to ensure that those who do the heavy lifting day in and day out get heard – both by government and the kind of companies that just aren’t properly consulting with industry.
“A lot of it has to do with respect. There may be a whole range of reasons for the introduction of the surcharge but surely you’d have consultation?”
Simon says he has made inroads with some mainstream media outlets that often sensationalise news stories involving trucks, too. “The frequent distortion of facts can be problematic from an objective point of view,” he says. “Just prior to Christmas 2016 we came out in relation to a highly publicised accident involving a tipper and dog being driven by an allegedly suspended driver on Sydney’s Cahill Expressway.
“We were asked for our view as an association and I made the point that what occurred was unacceptable behaviour – our members simply don’t behave like that. Our members want safety to be the cornerstone of what they do each and every day. To see this sort of thing happen not only brings down the reputation of the industry, it also raises legitimate fears in the public’s mind about safety and how it is handled by operators.
“Our members look at these things seriously and if others bring down the industry because of their own, selfish negligence and carry out potentially criminal actions, then that reflects upon the entire industry. In terms of the interview with the TV station, it was important that we voiced our position that such actions are just not good enough anymore.”
Simon acknowledges that he is involved in a ‘numbers game’ where it is important that members are part of the collective industry voice – but among that collective one, their own voices still need to be heard.
“The question for the road transport industry in NSW is, do you want an association that is relevant, represents you and provides quality services that you need within your business? What we are trying to do here at RFNSW is to ensure that real issues like CoR are not only known about, but embedded within our members’ organisations. As an association, we have to hear and support them individually so we can present the state’s industry with one, strong voice.”