The Australian Trucking Association (ATA) is an industry body boasting a membership base including major logistics companies, transport industry associations and businesses with leading expertise in truck technology. Prime Mover Senior Features Writer, Peter Shields, spoke to its newly appointed CEO, Ben Maguire, to see what’s in store for the Association under his leadership.
Q: How are you settling in to the trucking industry?
A: I feel very at home with the culture of the trucking industry. I have my heavy-combination (HC) licence and I’ve had small cattle and horse trucks myself. I enjoy representing this industry as it has a lot of honest, hardworking, professional and amazing people.
However, there is an enormous amount of technical and legislative and policy information involved so I give thanks every day for the intellectual property available in the ATA office, with people like Bill McKinley (Chief of Staff, ed.) and Chris Loose (Senior Advisor – Engineering, ed.).
Q: How can the ATA change public opinion of the trucking industry?
A: I see a real opportunity to rebrand the industry. I think many in the community have a poor impression of the transport industry and just think of the big scary trucks on the highway – not the people involved.
The ATA has a lot of credibility and brand respect in federal departments and I don’t think we leverage that enough. If there’s a drought, the farmers get a really decent voice in the media because there’s a very human side to their story. When there’s a downturn in the transport industry, it doesn’t seem to have the same emotional impact – even though it is also affecting people.
Q: Is social media important to the ATA in that regard?
A: We’ve started to change our social media behaviour and campaigns. If the ATA continues to build its followership as well as membership, we can start to have that conversation with more and more people and we can start to help our member organisations grow. Our conversations have been had with hundreds of people, and we ought to be having conversations with thousands. The recent Australian Taxation Office (ATO) drivers’ meal allowance issue is a great example (see page 16, ed.) We posted a video, put the case with some commentary and put it on our social-media platform. It went to 45,000 people, was viewed by 18,500 and we got hundreds of comments. It seems to me that is an industry association having a conversation with the industry.
Q: Will changing public opinion address the skilled-driver shortage?
A: We need to work on the profile of the industry because it’s not a career choice. There’s no pathway or education. There’s no Certificate I, II or III for operating heavy vehicles. We have to change the profile first, and start to professionalise the image and promote it as a career of choice for young people.
Q: How does the ATA address those issues?
A: The ATA has a role to play in respect to economic impact, influencing legislation, changing the norms and talking about the future. We are not just in the industry of trucking, we’re in the business of business – so we can have more of a conversation around business and economics rather than just compliance and legislation.
Q: That being said, the ATA does play a role in compliance and legislation, together with the National Transport Commission (NTC) and the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR). How do the organisations work together?
A: The ATA’s relationship with the NTC is a bit more straightforward. There are a few positions that it takes within the industry that we’ve pushed back on, but that’s been in a very healthy environment, debating road user charging regulations or fatigue management.
The relationship with the NHVR is more complex. With all due respect to the NHVR, the lines have been a little unclear around the Association’s and the Regulator’s roles in the industry. I mentioned in the foreword of the ATA’s annual review that I want to hold us accountable, because I also want to hold the regulator accountable with a professional, mature, advocate-type of voice.
I think the way it is operating in the eastern states could be different. Road safety funds are being spent on cameras to monitor what everyone’s doing and make enforcement easier, but there’s not enough being spent on educating small-vehicle users, who are so often the cause of heavy-vehicle accidents.
I’ve sat at four conferences now where the regulator has presented its Chain of Responsibility (COR) update, and the majority of the dialogue has been around infringements and the risks to operators in relation to punishments.
The message has been that you don’t need to have a roadside infringement for the regulator to come and search your business. That’s leading conversation to the point where members of the audience have become quite distressed.
I recently spent four days in Western Australia, the first time I’ve been there in this role. I came away with a better understanding as to why they have consistently rejected becoming part of the national scheme. I met the regulator and his team and saw that there is a seven-day call centre, and every road in the state is mapped. Crucially, as a team their number-one KPI is zero infringements.
Of course they’ll have infringements when they find people who are doing the wrong thing, but it’s a whole different approach. WA wants to support a viable industry to help it become more productive.
Q: Meanwhile in South Australia, the NHVR is moving into the enforcement role. Your thoughts?
A: The NHVR will be the regulator, the accreditor of the National Heavy Vehicle Accreditation Scheme (NHVAS), and now the enforcement arm as well. But who checks the NHVR? Roadside enforcement officers will be looking at vehicles that are accredited by the same employer. Is it a conflict of interest? I spent half a day on the roadside with a New South Wales enforcement team that was having a blitz on the ‘truck and dog problem’ on the WestConnex construction sites in Sydney. So many trucks were pulled over that had NHVAS accreditation but nevertheless had problems.
From a pure industry perspective, I don’t like the lack of accountability combined with the amount of control. I’m all for compliance but also don’t actually see any safety benefit in this happening.
Instead, the ATA promotes an industry-led safety system called TruckSafe that has checks and balances, and with TruckSafe you don’t get to choose your own auditor like you can in NHVAS. The ATA and all the advocates in the industry want a safer industry and TruckSafe could be the solution, but the NHVAS generates around $10 million a year. Is it about safety, or is it about revenue?
The ATA doesn’t need TruckSafe to pay the bills, we’re saying it’s a safety accreditation system with 25 years of intellectual property developed by some eminent Australians and that is being ignored.
Q: Are there similar challenges in dealing with governments?
A: From an advocacy perspective, I’m very pragmatic. The world is changing rapidly and key people and roles change just as fast, so we just have to become more nimble and more agile. The government has billions of dollars to spend in the community and they’re surrounded by good ideas. How we can help them make better decisions for our industry?
Q: Do you think its flawed Road User Charge (RUC) will be resolved?
A: There are a couple of stages to resolution. First, we are saying keep the freeze on increases until it is solved. The confidence of the industry was lost when they miscalculated the registrations and so we’re still being overcharged half a billion dollars. Then, work through what is the most fair and equitable system. We’ve been working with the Urban Infrastructure Minister, Paul Fletcher, and his team in the department to come up with that.
Q: What about the mass-distance-location charging concept?
A: There are operators that are averaging 15 or 20km/h, or unable to access routes due to floods. There has to be a correction. We need to stop looking at the population base and start looking at industry output and I’d like to see that added to the equation.
Q: As the freight strategy evolves, will an Inland Rail link affect the line-haul sector?
A: We are still going to need trucks to get things on and off the rail. Rail has its purpose, and I don’t ever want to find myself in competition with it. We need both, and who gets the extra business will come down to professionalism, marketing and logistics.
My only hesitation is that Inland Rail may suit today’s environment, but in 20 or 30 years – if manufacturing in Australia is declines and the majority of our freight is imported – will we need rail as much?
There’s currently a freight strategy being developed. It’s good that as a nation people are looking at those sorts of horizons with investment opportunities in mind. I want them to make sure they leave a certain amount in the strategy for blue-sky thinking. We can’t just be looking at tracks and bitumen and concrete. What’s still unknown?