STRAIGHT talking NSW Nationals Senator John “Wacka” Williams is set to become Chair of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport (RAT) Legislation Committee, to replace retired NSW Liberal Senator and Junee farmer, Bill Heffernan.
Senator Williams is a former pig farmer, sheep shearer and truck driver with a reputation for bringing lived experience of the land and regional Australia to his political duties.
He said the RAT Reference Committee would continue to be chaired by WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle - also a former truck driver and highly experienced Committee member - who has served on numerous inquiries into farming and rural policies.
Senator Williams said both appointments in the new parliament would represent, “a good result for rural and regional Australia”.
“We don’t play politics, we just get on with the job,” he said.
“It’s the most bipartisan Committee I’ve been on.”
Ahead of the double dissolution election, several RAT Committee inquiries lapsed and it will now need to be determined whether they will continue in the new parliament.
The list of investigations under a cloud includes one by the References Committee into the effect of market consolidation on the red meat processing sector which tabled an interim report in May, just before the election was called.
One of the interim report’s five recommendations asked the Senate to extend the inquiry’s reporting date to December 20 this year.
That extension will allow the Committee to consider findings from the Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) market study of the red meat sector, to help strengthen final recommendations.
The Senate inquiry was instigated in March last year following allegations of collusion linked to a controversial boycott of the Barnawartha cattle saleyards in regional Victoria, by nine buyers.
The ACCC also investigated the incident and was unable to uncover sufficient evidence to lay formal charges and gain a conviction - but expressed concerns about anti-competitive practices occurring, not covered by current legislation.
Earlier this year, ACCC Chair Rod Sims told the Senate inquiry if the government adopted a Harper competition review recommendation on concerted or facilitating practices, his agency would have had greater powers to assess the Barnawartha matter, under the Competition and Consumer Act.
But he has said the ACCC remained hopeful the parliament would endorse the government’s recommendation to introduce tougher competition laws.
During the Senate inquiry, Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan repeatedly asked witnesses for their views on the merits of a regulatory code of conduct to address saleyard competition concerns like cattle buying agents representing multiple clients.
The interim report’s first recommendation called for a transparent pricing mechanism to be introduced at livestock saleyards and for Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) - in cooperation with the livestock and red meat industry - to establish a national price disclosure and reporting system.
Another recommendation called on the Australian government to introduce legislation to prohibit concerted practices as soon as practicable.
Senator Williams said he’d also spoken to Senator Sterle about an inquiry into labour hire exploitation to investigate why workers weren’t being paid at award wages, despite farm businesses paying the contracting companies the required amount.
However, the Senate Education and Employment Committee has recently investigated labour hire concerns during an inquiry into the exploitation of temporary work visa holders, which tabled a report in March this year which made 33 recommendations.
One recommendation was to establish a licensing regime for labour hire contractors, with a requirement that a business can only use a registered contractor to procure labour.
It also said there should be a public register of all labour hire contractors that must also meet and be able to demonstrate compliance with all workplace, employment, tax, and superannuation laws in order to gain a license.
“In addition, labour hire contractors that use other labour hire contractors, including those located overseas, should be obliged to ensure that those subcontractors also hold a license,” it recommended.
The report said the committee received “harrowing evidence” from temporary visa holders who had been exploited by unethical labour hire contractors.
“It is clear from the evidence, that some of the worst exploitation of temporary visa workers occurred at the hands of labour hire companies,” it said.
“The committee is of the view that a licensing regime for labour hire contractors is vital to disrupt the current business model of unscrupulous labour hire contractors in Australia (who use their connections with labour hire agencies located overseas) to supply vulnerable temporary visa workers to pre-allocated jobs in Australia.
“In this context, labour hire licensing can be seen as an essential element in restoring Australia's global reputation as a fair society.”
The RTA References Committee’s inquiry into aspects of road safety in Australia also lapsed due to the election.
Senator Williams said he’d spoken to Senator Sterle who had championed the Senate inquiry into road safety standards and wanted it to continue with a focus on investigating foreign driver training standards.
In March, Senator Sterle made an impassioned speech about road safety concerns and driver training standards, based on the television report of an incident in February where a 42.5 tonne semi-trailer jackknifed on a major highway.
He said the vehicle was heading down the M5 in Sydney and approached a bridge but the drivers stopped to see if the truck could fit under it.
“This pair of clowns - and those are the nicest words I can use for them - got out of the truck and then thought, 'We'd better back up,' on three lanes of highway,” he said in an impassioned Senate speech.
“They could not even back up the semi; it jackknifed.”
Senator Sterle took aim at Scott’s Transport and promised the Committer would investigate the incident further.
“I am going to take 20 steps out to my right, and I am going to go for Scott's - I am not hiding behind parliamentary privilege,” he said.
“Before you all start jumping up and down, foreign workers are always welcome in this country, but they are not welcome, in my view, when they are doing Australians out of jobs by working for lower wages and lesser conditions.
“I want to find out who employed this pair and put them behind the wheel of a 42.5 tonne rig running up and down our highways with other road users when they cannot even unhook it or back it.
“There is absolutely no way on earth that any Australian politician can accept that we have people on our highways who are not trained.
“These two peanuts do not have the skills to back this rig or unhook this rig and yet they are licensed to drive this rig.”
In a submission to the inquiry, Scott’s said it did not directly engage heavy vehicle drivers who were in Australia on 457 visas.
The company’s submission said the media report that angered Senator Sterle had also incorrectly referred to the vehicle’s driver using that class of visa.
It said the driver was engaged by SPS Transport Pty Ltd to tow the company’s trailers, pursuant to terms and conditions set out in its sub-contractor agreement.
“The driver was required to transport freight from Petrie in Queensland to Botany in NSW,” it said.
“The driver was provided with a Safe Journey Plan by Scott’s Transport Industries and did not comply with that Plan as he was travelling “off route” when the incident occurred.
“As a consequence, SPS Transport Pty Ltd was in breach of its obligations to Scott’s Transport Industries.”