Don’t let important issues get buried under Covid-19

With media around the world focused, it seems, solely on the subject of the global pandemic Covid-19, it is easy to forget that life goes on and there is a general election in New Zealand on 19 September 2020.

On Friday last week, 1 May, Justice Minister Andrew Little released the complete and final version of the Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill. This replaces the previous draft – which RTF had criticised as woefully incomplete – and will not be further updated before it is voted on by the public in a referendum at the 2020 general election.

The wording of the cannabis referendum question has also been confirmed as a straight Yes/No question:

Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

Yes, I support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

No, I do not support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

I worry, that at a time when people are both consumed by the health crisis that is Covid-19 and are largely being fed news specific to that only, this important referendum vote will not be exposed to the sunlight necessary for informed choice. Covid-19 is not the only health risk we should be focused on.

There are many aspects of this legislation that concern those of us in safety sensitive industries. And our objection to this legislation is based on the principle of safety – on the road and in the workplace.

There is no consideration for workplace and road safety in a country where the number of people being killed on the roads by drug impaired drivers is higher than those killed by drivers above the legal alcohol limit.

We have some of the strictest workplace health and safety laws in the world where responsibility ends with business owners and boards. You can bet this legislation will mean massive increases in insurance premiums.

We have a drug problem in New Zealand. Road freight transport companies know that and have drug testing regimes to ensure safety within their companies. But if this legislation passes, there will be no guarantees for those professional drivers going out onto the road where there are other road users who are legally high.

We care about road safety and cannot see how this Bill will in any way contribute to safer roads.

We want political parties to be clear on how road and workplace safety, particularly in safety sensitive industries, will be managed on the back of this potentially binding referendum (if the current Government is re-elected).

We want to know exactly what is planned by all parties for this draft legislation and the referendum result.

We want the public to understand this referendum is about recreational, not medicinal marijuana.

This is a huge social shift for safety sensitive issues such as road freight transport. We don’t want these implications buried under the Covid-19 blather.

This is another very important reason for New Zealand to come out from under the carefully crafted daily messaging around Covid-19 and get back to some kind of normal life where people can focus on other things that matter.

We would contend that the health impacts of this legislation are also worth consideration, expert opinion, credible data and open debate.

The full Bill and information about the referendum is available here.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Let’s revert to our Kiwi “can-do” reputation

What can we do to salvage the New Zealand economy from the scythe of Covid-19?

At the moment, all we hear from Government is what we can’t do. We are told this very firmly, every day, at 1pm. If we try and do anything we can’t do, we are told there will be consequences – our curtain twitching neighbours will dob us in and the Police, or some other relevant enforcer, will come and stop us from doing anything.

This is disappointing. New Zealand is supposed to be a nation of creative thinkers, innovators, solutions-focused inventors and engineers, and people who will just get on and do it. We were that “can do” nation at the bottom of the world that punched above our weight. Now we are being overwhelmed with a culture of fear and a barrage of “can’t”. Apparently, the world outside our home is not safe, so we should just not do anything at all. Above all, we should not question what is going on.

We are staring down the barrel of our worst unemployment rate in many generations. The economy is on its knees. Businesses that were the fabric of our society – small and locally owned – are bleeding and dying. A whole generation are having their education interrupted to the point that for some, there will be no recovery. If ever there was a time to dig deep and find that “number 8 wire can fix it” mentality, that time is now.

That means the Government moving the country to a level where businesses can effectively operate and businesses stepping out from the shadow of Government. The Government should focus on those who most need help – the young, unemployed, and unwell (a giant task ahead) – as well as boosting the economy with the things within their control at all times, not just Covid-19 times, such as big-ticket infrastructure.

Government should let businesses and the markets do what they do best, that is, respond to supply and demand, export and import, move things to where they need to be and get on with rebuilding the economy. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Government intervention comes at a price – over-regulation and control ruin motivation, innovation and creativity.

Unfortunately, we are seeing the ugly head of anti-globalism rising in New Zealand and some parts of Government wanting to control businesses, markets and prices – to push for a domestic market at the expense of where the country makes its money, exports. This is what President Donald Trump is doing in spades in the United States – protectionism and anti-globalism that threaten the very rules-based fabric of the modern trading world. We need to remember we don’t have the scale of the US. New Zealand is made up of islands in the middle of nowhere, with hardly any people, and the only way we can survive is to trade – to be better, faster, more agile and more clever than other nations.

Other parts of Government want to free the way for exports as fast as they can. They want to encourage new thinking, products and markets, while doing what they can to preserve the existing. They understand the only way out of this mess is exports. They are working hard to preserve trade rules and agreements and forge new ones. They are our “can-do” people. They want to open doors and clear the way, not wait till you are close to the door then slam it in your face.

Our road freight transport industry is very much in the “can-do” camp. Truck drivers, dispatchers and road freight operators have been quietly working throughout New Zealand since the lockdown, and more since the move to Level 3. Like many businesses that have been operating through the Government interventions to manage Covid-19, they have mostly been running at a loss. Some businesses could not operate through the lockdown, and they need a hand up.

But a hand up is different to a long period of handouts. We all pay, one way or another, for heavy State intervention. Increased taxes are the obvious first measure, but there is also the long-term damage to that “go getter” psyche we were once so proud of.

For business to survive and thrive we need to get out of Level 3. We need a clear view of the Government’s plans for how businesses will operate under Level 2 and Level 1 and we need that now. We are more than six weeks in and we know there is a massive team of public servants and highly-paid contractors working across the New Zealand Government on Covid-19 – they must have a clear plan of the way forward by now. And we believe we have the right to ask questions about that.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

More questions than answers on binding cannabis referendum

Remember the referendum that was Brexit, where people in the United Kingdom and Gibraltar merrily voted to leave the European Union, until they realised that that actually meant, and that it was binding?

In hindsight, quite a lot of people felt they didn’t really have enough information and didn’t quite realise what would happen after they made that tick on a referendum paper. Some were quite shocked it was binding.

We are worried that New Zealand voters will find themselves in a similar position come the 2020 general election day, 19 September, when they vote on whether or not to legalise recreational cannabis use in New Zealand. That’s recreational, not medicinal.

We believe there is not enough information to make a vote that the current coalition Government would consider binding.

The only information available from the Government is a badly written and half-finished Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill – Draft for Consultation. It looks a bit like a copy and paste job at this stage and I’m not sure anyone with a law degree has been involved to this point. This is a Bill that people will be asked if they support (yes), or not (no).

We were surprised to hear Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern answer a question in Parliament this week on the referendum by saying: ‘‘what we prepared is a draft bill so that there will be that full information to members of the public – that if they support the bill, that is the legislation that at least three parties in this House have said that they will then support to enact” (Hansard).

We think maybe the Prime Minister hasn’t read the bill. There are holes you could drive a truck through. Some of those for us are around road safety and workplace health and safety. The bill is silent on these matters.

In fact, the Minister who introduced the bill (Hon Andrew Little) was quoted as saying that exploring the risks of drugged driving and workplace impairment would be pushed back until after the referendum vote. Vote now and see what happens later!

We don’t believe that’s good enough. In this country, employers and Boards are bound by strict health and safety legislation – that if flouted can result in them going to prison – and we cannot see how this bill in any way correlates to that legislated responsibility.

This bill, if enacted, will have serious consequences for safety sensitive industries, such as trucking.

So, we think the general public should be well informed before they answer a yes/no question. The picture they are drawn should be broader than them sitting in their lounge room with a joint and not worrying about being arrested.

We all share the roads – that’s pedestrians, cyclists, car and truck drivers – and everyone wants their loved ones to come home from work each day. Yet already, the number of people being killed by drug impaired drivers on New Zealand roads is higher than those killed by drivers above the legal alcohol limit.

International research shows that with legalisation of cannabis comes higher use and new users. It shows that a lot of the people who currently purchase cannabis illegally, continue to use those suppliers after legalisation, because of price. It shows that people aren’t that well aware or informed of the impact of using cannabis and driving. It shows an increase in road accidents in areas where recreational cannabis is legal.

There is no harm minimisation. There are new markets and money to be made. And the black market remains as it always has.

Higher risk on the roads automatically means higher insurance premiums across the board – insurance is risk priced and you pay on probability. When households and businesses are already managing tight finances, they shouldn’t be surprised by expenses that should be made clear up front.

There is also a whole bureaucracy that will be put in place to manage cannabis legalisation. The bill references a Cannabis Advisory Committee, Cannabis Appeals Authority, and Cannabis Regulatory Authority for starters. How much will all that cost and will it be funded by the tax payer?

There are so many unanswered questions about unintended consequences.

We believe the referendum cannot be binding until people are properly informed on what they are voting for, or against. We don’t want ideology and social engineering. We want facts and figures. This is reality, not fantasy land.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Not enough information for cannabis referendum vote

At next year’s general election, the New Zealand public will vote yes or no to a referendum question around legalising recreational cannabis use throughout the country.

That vote will focus on the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, a draft of which was released by Justice Minister Andrew Little on 3 December.

The road freight transport industry has serious misgivings about this draft Bill. It is woefully incomplete, dangerously naïve, too narrow in focus, and lacking in critical detail. It is too incomplete to vote on and people need the full picture before such a vote.

For safety sensitive industries such as road freight transport, we cannot see how this Bill will in any way correlate to the strict health and safety legislation in New Zealand. In fact, in the section (8) that outlines the “Relationship between Act and other enactments”, there is no mention of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, which holds employers and Boards strictly liable for the health and safety of their workers.

The road is the truck drivers’ workplace, so we care a lot about road safety. We cannot see how this Bill will in any way contribute to safer roads, which is allegedly of critical importance to this Government. We already have a situation where the number of people being killed by drug impaired drivers on New Zealand roads eclipses those killed by drivers above the alcohol limit.

Indeed, in releasing the Bill, Minister Little was quoted as saying that exploring the risks of drugged driving and workplace impairment would be pushed back until after the referendum vote.

That is not good enough. People should be given all the facts before they vote on this Bill.

International research shows that where cannabis is legalised, consumption is higher and new users enter the market. So potentially, we have more drugged drivers on the road.

Deloitte has done a number of reports on Canada, which has legalised the use of recreational cannabis nationwide. They make for interesting reading.

The Deloitte report, A society in transition, an industry ready to bloom, surveyed current and likely cannabis consumers across Canada in early 2018, to gain insights into how consumption levels might change, what kinds of products consumers would be interested in, and how and where they’d like to purchase. They found that purchases by current and likely frequent cannabis consumers were set to rise up to 22 percent after legalisation.

The report says: “We see a more significant change in behaviour among less frequent consumers, both current and likely. After legalization, purchase frequency in this group is poised to raise 121 percent”.

It is incredibly naïve to believe that where there are commercial imperatives, anyone involved in making money from cannabis sales will in any way be focused on reducing consumption.

Research in the United States shows an increase in road crashes in states that have legalised marijuana, compared to states where marijuana is not legal. There is a need for more research in this area, but it is important to note. This evidence is incongruous with the New Zealand Government’s Road to Zero road safety strategy.

We don’t believe the Government is giving the full picture of the direct and unintended consequences of the Bill. Some big impact questions for safety sensitive industries need to be answered, particularly around liability when WorkSafe fines for workplace accidents are now well into six figures.

There are too many unanswered questions and after the referendum, that this current Government would consider binding, is too late for those answers. That’s what they call closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Illegal and unsafe behaviour must be stopped

The road transport industry has been hit by some publicity recently that could be seen to put industry employment practices into a dim light and I want to address that.

There is video footage in the public domain that appears to show practices the Road Transport Forum (RTF) considers completely unacceptable in the trucking industry. We believe the behaviour on the video is not indicative of wider industry practices. The video footage relates to a matter before the Courts and I will not comment on that.

I will say, that we strongly support endeavours to weed out illegal behaviour that compromises the safety of workers and the New Zealand public, including the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) increasing its regulatory and compliance audits on the industry.

All road transport employees are employed under New Zealand law and their contracts and work conditions must reflect that. As such, employees are entitled to regular breaks, which they must be allowed to take. Employers cannot ask their employees to break the law. As part of good employment practices, employers should ensure employees are aware of what they can do if they feel unsafe in the workplace.

There’s information about employment on the government’s Employment New Zealand website (www.employment.govt.nz) and at Employment Agreement Builder to assist employers in meeting the law and getting it right. The RTF does not accept workers being employed without contracts as that is against the law.

I also want to be very clear that as an industry body, we advocate on behalf of road transport businesses to allow for workers from overseas to come to New Zealand to work for them. We want to support employing New Zealanders first, but there is simply too big a gap between the jobs that need to be filled and the New Zealanders available.

Any migrant workers are covered by New Zealand employment law. They have the same rights as citizen workers and should not be exploited.

It’s important that the trucking industry – and all industries – understand that it’s likely that sourcing migrant labour will become harder as the Government focuses attention on training and employing Kiwis as a first priority. Rules around this will likely become more evident over the next few months. As I have said above, investing in training all staff, paying them fairly, and allowing them their rest and break periods, should be non-negotiable for all trucking operators.

As an industry body we work with government regulators to ensure the road transport industry is constantly improving health and safety. We believe that technology that is available now, and will be developed in the future, will contribute to this. For example, electronic logbooks can ensure an appropriate record of hours worked and breaks taken, as per employment law, particularly if aligned with GPS information.

At RTF we are working hard to attract workers to the road transport industry and to show career pathways that are rewarding. That can quickly be derailed by bad publicity, even if that publicity is only reflective of one or two industry players. Perception is reality.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum