Ask a Busy Person

In 2022 Paul Fellows was elected Chair of the National Road Transport Association (NatRoad). He speaks exclusively to Prime Mover about the future of the industry.

Paul Fellows has been involved in the road transport industry since 1981. This has given him a strong focus on safety, compliance and professionalism.

With his wife Jenny, he owns and operates a bulk transport and grain storage business based in Deniliquin in New South Wales. He is also Deputy Mayor on his local council.

Prime Mover: What are some of the issues being faced by a member organisation such as NatRoad?
Paul Fellows: There are a number, including the viability of the industry, the reform of the Heavy Vehicle National Law, the Road User Charge, and how we address a carbon-free future.

PM: What are your thoughts on the Road User Charge (RUC)?
PF: The current RUC is flawed. We are responsible for paying for the maintenance of the roads but there is no transparency where the money is actually going. We’ve had three wet years of above average rainfall and the effect of that rainfall on the roads. Basically, the transport industry will be paying for the effect of climate change for these last three years. And that’s not fair. If climate change is going to see huge changes in weather, why are we the ones who are going to be paying for it?

PM: What can be done to address the industry’s universal driver shortage?
PF: One aspect is diversity. Only four per cent of truck drivers are women. The problem is we can’t attract women to the industry where we’ve got roadside rest stops with no or poor facilities. If we want to attract more women, better security and toilet facilities could go a long way to solving the driver shortage. For example, in Victoria facilities don’t have to be an hour out of Melbourne, it would be better to have a stop just before Shepparton and another at Tocumwal where they can pull up, have a sleep, get out of the truck, use good facilities and it should be for both genders.

PM: You still drive the occasional trip yourself?
PF: I might do the occasional pre-load and meet up with the driver which increases utilisation of the asset and the driver gets two or three days off at home. I also do the odd Brisbane trip and driving to Brisbane is good because it enables me to see first-hand what our members are experiencing on the road.

PM: Does that help you suggest some of the agenda for the association?
PF: I am aware through industry research and first-hand experience that our declining profit margins are strangling the future for many road transport businesses across the nation. The increasing cost of fuel, tyres, and wages, combined with driver shortages and an ageing work force, plus the complex challenge of compliance and cumbersome regulations, have seen significant stress put on many operators. Running a business, particularly a small business, is hard enough if you only make small profits year-after-year. Basically, we are looking for answers, but it’s also important when you ask a question that you’re armed with information. In light of this, NatRoad is adopting a leadership position by commissioning economic research for our members to better understand these factors. This project will benchmark different businesses across the industry and will enable members to have an idea of how their business is really travelling in comparison with the rest of the industry, so they can make better business decisions to help them tackle issues that are vital to the viability of their business. This will also be a valuable tool in presenting figures to government to portray what is really going on at an operator’s level. NatRoad has always been a trusted voice for its members in providing advice on business issues and we believe this groundbreaking research will add real value to what we can provide and build on that foundation.

PM: Will this have an effect on NatRoad’s role as an industry association dealing with governments?
PF: NatRoad is apolitical and works with all sides of politics. We are essentially representative of the small business transport sector, and we are an association of people who employ themselves or relatively small numbers of people. While it’s fair to say we have not always seen eye to eye with governments of the left of the political spectrum, we also had some strong issues with the last government when they decided to strip away the fuel tax credit for six months. I’m not certain if it was a knee-jerk or uninformed decision, but we worked really hard to get it overturned. We are establishing a really good dialogue with the Labor government and although we’re not always going to agree, I think that’s healthy. We need to be objective and constructive. Basically, we’ve all got the same aim which is to work together and make the industry a better place. When we see something contrary to our members’ interests, we will call it out. If we see a pragmatic solution to a problem, we will suggest it. We are committed to working with the Albanese government. The reality is that COVID provided a great example of how adaptable the transport industry is and how much the general community relied on us to get food on shelves of supermarkets and how adaptable we are and we were able to keep our society fulfilled with its needs.

PM: How is the industry preparing for net zero emissions?
PF: Heavy Vehicles are a major player in emissions reduction and there are significant environmental, social and commercial advantages to achieve net zero. But we all need to deal with the realities of road freight and the investment involved by thousands of businesses. Change is coming, but it won’t happen overnight and not without significant policy change from government. The long haul segment needs a viable recharging network at the very least. Making the switch to batteries or hydrogen fuel cells must be both affordable and technically possible as well as practical.

Paul Fellows at the 2022 NatRoad conference.
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