NSW: looking to become the pace-setter …

Last week’s registration and stamp duty announcement from the NSW Government has generated the most positive feedback from our membership that we’ve seen in quite a while, and it’s coming from members right across the country.

For decades, NSW has been regarded as the most ‘anti-trucking industry’ jurisdiction in Australia.

To see NSW going out of its way to provide some fairness on rego and some relief on costs for trucking operators is remarkable. And yet this is exactly what Roads Minister Duncan Gay and State Treasurer Mike Baird have done.

When a State as big as NSW announces such a change of heart, the effects won’t just be felt locally.

The O’Farrell Government’s registration and stamp duty announcements are going to have an impact on the policy climate around the country.

The example being set by NSW is going to be studied closely by neighbouring jurisdictions – and that’s going to be good news for all our members, no matter where your business is based. The flow-on effect may not be felt overnight, but it will happen.

… justice for Road Trains

NSW is now the fourth State to acknowledge that the recent national charges recommended by the NTC delivered a profoundly unjust result for road trains. It’s something that we’ve raised repeatedly with Ministers, their advisors and their officials, right around the country.

Like South Australia, NSW is delivering targeted concessions to help road train operators.

In NSW, the concessions for road trains are set at:

  • 100% rebate on the national charges for a tri-axle dolly; and
  • 50% rebate on the national charges for a tandem dolly.

In NSW, many road train operators will also qualify for the small operator excess trailer concession (see below).

In South Australia, there’s now a 100% rebate for all dollies. That was announced by SA Minister, Pat Conlon back in May.

In both States, those concessions apply from 1 July this year (in other words, NSW is making their decision retrospective!).

In WA and the NT, of course, the governments have flatly declined to implement the national charges. In both those jurisdictions, the excessive impact of the national charges upon road trains was cited by the relevant Ministers as a key concern.

… justice for small operators

The real breakthrough in last week’s announcement is a reform that delivers justice for small operators.

In NSW, small operators will be eligible for a 50% rebate on their ‘excess trailers’, and can get that discount on up to five trailers per operator.

  • What’s a small operator? It’s someone with one or two prime movers (or rigids, for a truck and dog operator).
  • What’s an ‘excess trailer’? It’s any trailer which puts you beyond having one trailer for each prime mover (or rigid). That means, if you run a double road train, you’ll pick up the discount on one of your trailers, as well as the dolly discount. If you run a B-Double, you’ll get the discount on the B-Trailer.
  • Once again, NSW will be applying these arrangements with effect from 1 July. They’ll be retrospective.

As President Beer highlighted last week, this policy really comes into its own in the Bush. So many rural carriers are one or two truck operators who have to own a full set of tippers, a full set of stock-crates and some other trailers as well.

The ALRTA has been raising this problem since 2010. When we first started campaigning on A-Trailers, we also started raising our concerns that trailer registration charges – which are supposed to be a ‘road use charge’ – are too often an over-the-top parking fee for many small rural operators.

It’s an issue which WA and Tasmania have understood for some time now. Both of those States established roughly similar schemes many years ago.

Bringing this approach onto the East Coast of Australia is a huge breakthrough.

Sadly, government officials in the Eastern States often just aren’t aware of what’s available in WA, nor in Tasmania. But NSW shares borders with almost every mainland jurisdiction. This reform is certain to be closely studied by operators and officials in all the adjacent States.

… showing a way forward for the NTC

Down at the NTC, the staff are currently gearing up for a ‘review’ of how the national charges are calculated. As they prepare for the year ahead, we hope they’re taking careful note of these developments in NSW and other States.

The fact that four jurisdictions have been so strongly concerned about road trains really should give the NTC pause for reflection.

Four out of the five jurisdictions where road trains operate have said they couldn’t simply roll over on the NTC’s recommendations for road trains (and if Queensland hadn’t been caught up in the turmoil of an election and a change of government, who knows what they might have done).

One of the official ‘principles’ which is meant to guide the work of the NTC is to ‘maintain equity for regional and rural Australia’.

Here’s the lesson: if you cannot get the charges for road trains to come out correctly, then it’s pretty much impossible to say that you’ve fulfilled that principle.

Earlier this year, the NTC seemed to have taken its eye off the ball, but Ministers certainly didn’t. It didn’t matter what side of politics they’re from, every Minister from a road train jurisdiction took a very close interest in the road train issue.

Any official who thinks ‘it’s too hard to get road trains right’ absolutely needs to rethink this issue. Looking out for ‘rural and regional communities’ is deeply ingrained in Australia’s culture and it’s something that elected politicians expect to see public servants being able to deliver.

Meanwhile, there’s a huge opportunity for the NTC to lead a national discussion about how to deliver fairer charges, sooner, particularly for smaller operators.

In our submission to the NTC on the A-Trailer issue, at the very start of this year, we pointed out that, for five years now, governments have been talking about moving to so-called ‘direct’ or ‘variable’ charging; an approach where, the more you drive, the more you pay.

It’s been an incredibly slow-moving debate with almost no real, on-the-ground results, despite millions of dollars being spent by the NTC and the States on ‘incremental pricing trials’ and ‘elasticity studies’.

In one simple move, NSW has delivered real results, and showed a way to make progress by turning that reform agenda on its head.

Instead of looking for operators who ‘drive more’, and trying to make them ‘pay more’, NSW has identified a group of operators who ‘drive less’ and found a way to let them ‘pay less’.

That’s actually a step towards ‘variable charging’ – but it’s not facing in the direction that officials have been thinking about.

There’s an opportunity here for the NTC.

In our submission at the start of this year, we urged the NTC to expand their horizons and take up the challenge of developing nationally-consistent ‘concessions’, which they could then recommend to Ministers.

Back in February, the NTC flatly declined to take up that opportunity. They were adamant that this wasn’t part of their job.

But in May this year, the nation’s Transport Ministers asked the NTC to undertake a fundamental review of how the national charging system works. The rules of the game are now up for grabs.

It’s time for more creative thinking down at the NTC. The NTC needs to fix its approach to road trains, and they really should be looking for opportunities to make themselves more relevant to the 85% of Australian trucking operators who are small businesses.

One way to do that might just be for NTC to give more thought to the benefit that nationally-consistent concessions could bring, in order to make this charging system work more fairly.

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