Paul Bongiorno
Turnbull picks a move on truck drivers, not banks

“Convoy”, the stirring anthem of truckie defiance, will be the soundtrack for a protest that plans to blockade Parliament House in Canberra on Monday. In a twist not lost on Labor’s Anthony Albanese, this “little ol’ convoy” has the full backing of the government. The call to arms from the employment minister, the strident Michaelia Cash, is being heeded by owner-drivers from up and down the eastern seaboard. Albanese says if he called for a “strike” and a demonstration as a Labor politician he would be branded reckless.

The obstacle this convoy is planning to crash through is not the tollgates into New Jersey, as in the C. W. McCall song, but the minimum pay rates set for independent contractors and owner-drivers by the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT). Many in these categories claim the determination will break them. They insist it has nothing to do with road safety but is the tribunal caving in to the Transport Workers’ Union.

The prime minister moved quickly this week, from bringing in legislation to defer the application of the pay orders to abolishing the independent tribunal itself. He says it is the brainchild of Bill Shorten as the relevant minister in the Gillard Labor government and was set up “as a part of a deal” with the union.

This issue is a ready-made opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to embellish his theme of Labor being in bed with the unions to the detriment of the nation. Or, more to the point, to the detriment of the family businesses on whom “our future, our economy ... depends”.

The government wheeled out a couple of owner-operator “victims” to give hi-vis support to Turnbull’s newfound attachment to their cause. Labor claims there is no record of him being such a champion for them since he came into the parliament in 2004. Shorten says it is the prime minister’s way of keeping the right wing of his party happy. Cue The Australian and Tony Abbott. The national daily went to the dumped prime minister for comment. Shorten is right: it worked. Abbott happily backs the campaign against the RSRT and even claims he wanted to abolish it himself but was stymied by the senate.

There is also something curious about claims that the pay determination will put these drivers out of work. The determination is in fact lower than state-legislated pay rates, based on distance and hours worked, in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. The conclusion has to be that their claims of ruin are deliberately overblown or they’re not paying these rates anyway. The only claim they made as they stood beside Turnbull was that they were confused. But the confusion meant they were losing business.

Shorten says he’s prepared to delay the implementation and even compromise on aspects of it, especially in the area of interstate transport. But he is mystified as to why Turnbull and some of the operators don’t want to apply the minimum wage determination to the distribution supermarket sector. Clearly if the supermarkets or their lead logistics contractors undercut the legal wage to subcontractors they would be liable for big fines and catch-up payments.

Shorten says Turnbull should sit down with the industry “rather than playing politics with safety on our roads and the pay rates of low-paid owner-drivers”. Valiant and spurious attempts by the Coalition since coming to government to delink rates of remuneration with road safety are not borne out by studies commissioned by the joint Commonwealth and state National Transport Commission.

And why would they be? It is a no-brainer that drivers struggling to meet their lease or mortgage payments with not much left over to live on will push the envelope. It goes a long way to explain why the transport sector accounts for 15 per cent of workplace fatalities. And the issue here is the fatalities aren’t confined to the drivers but to other road users, the so-called “bystander fatalities”.

The high-octane demonstration will set the scene for next week’s specially called new session of the parliament. Its original purpose was to highlight Labor’s refusal to re-establish the Howard-era Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). This construction industry watchdog is touted as the only real way to stamp out “lawlessness” and restore productivity to a key driver of the economy. Never mind that it operated in the civil jurisdiction and not the criminal, and that no less than the Productivity Commission found it added nothing to productivity.

Turnbull says he will now introduce two other bills to the new session as well, either to abolish the RSRT or, failing that, to defer the minimum pay ruling. He won’t be doing anything to give effect to Labor’s calls for a two-year royal commission into the banks. Some government insiders console themselves with the thought that Shorten is running out of steam for a really good reason to spend the $53 million on such an inquiry. Turnbull scoffs at Labor’s failure to come up with specific terms of reference. But it ignores the fact that the idea has wide support within the government parties.

Eight MPs and senators have already gone public backing the call. One, the indefatigable bank sceptic, Nationals senator John “Wacka” Williams, even accuses the opposition of stealing the idea from him. Veteran Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch described Turnbull’s rejection of it as a “captain’s call”. Adding weight to the criticism is the fact that the joint parliamentary committee on corporations and financial services is currently inquiring into the way the banks and other lenders treat their customers when they can’t make their repayments. Its chairman, Liberal senator David Fawcett, has not ruled out recommending a royal commission.

There is some dismay among Turnbull’s closest allies in the party that he is not showing the political agility on this issue that he is urging on the rest of us. The prime minister, after all, set the hares running on the banks when he attended Westpac’s 199th birthday bash. This was always fraught, especially as the regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), had just announced it was pursuing the bank for allegedly rigging home loan rates.

A late inclusion in the PM’s speech was an eloquent demolition of all the banks’ reputations as good corporate citizens. The bankers were furious. One senior executive privately remonstrated with Turnbull. Others were appalled that a prime minister would launch such an attack, elevating its seriousness.

Turnbull didn’t mince his words regarding guarantees during the global financial crisis: “... many Australians, as you know, ask today: ‘Have our bankers done enough in return for this support? Have they lived up to the standards we expect, not just the laws we enact?’ Wise bankers, such as your leaders, recognise these questions are legitimate – dismissing them as bank bashing misses the point.” And the real clincher: “But we have to acknowledge that there have been too many troubling incidents over recent times for them simply to be dismissed.”

Turnbull went on to urge the banks to a healthier culture beyond the singular pursuit of an extra dollar of profit. But his use of the word “incidents” rather than “scandals” undermined the higher moral tone he was seeking to take. If the message was really to the banks’ customers – millions of whom are also voters – it was a weak one.

Since then, Turnbull and his treasurer, Scott Morrison, have been arguing that there is no need for a royal commission because ASIC has all the powers of a royal commission and more. But even here the government didn’t get it right. The chairman of the commission, Greg Medcraft, confirmed on Radio National Breakfast that the Abbott government’s cuts of $120 million over four years had seen staff cutbacks and a reduction of proactive surveillance. This comes on top of the watchdog’s patchy record of doing as much as it should when scandals have been drawn to its attention in the past.

While ASIC can investigate and prosecute, unlike a royal commission it doesn’t have the culture-busting force of forensic public cross-examination of banking executives. As we’ve seen in the institutional sexual abuse royal commission, there’s nothing quite like the spectre of top people being asked to explain their performance or non-performance to focus their minds.

There is no doubt Shorten is playing into populist sentiment with his commission call. Even though strong, profitable banks proved a bulwark against the disruption of the GFC, it seems bank bashing is a rich vein to mine. The risk for Turnbull and Morrison in their resistance is that it can look as though they are defending the banks against their customers. It is little help to them that someone as eminent as former Reserve Bank governor Bernie Fraser would prefer a panel of experts to hold yet another private inquiry.

An Essential poll earlier this month found that 47 per cent of Australians believe banks and other financial institutions would be better off under the Liberals. Only 11 per cent thought Labor would be of greater benefit for them. This finding shows the potency of Shorten’s charge that Turnbull has greater allegiance to the “big end of town” than to ordinary Australians. It is a counter to Turnbull’s charge that this is precisely where the Labor leader is with the unions.

The prime minister may need something more to persuade a majority of voters to “come on” and join his convoy on election day.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2016 as "Turnbull’s big rigs".

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