The following conversation took place at the Royal Pines resort on the Gold Coast as part of the National Road Transport Association annual conference.
Prime Mover: Congratulations on receiving the OAM. Is it good to get that sort of recognition after a decade with the Regulator?
Sal Petroccitto: It was surprising. It’s been almost ten years but feels more like 30 and wonderful to be acknowledged by the industry for the efforts I made that, hopefully, contributed to a better outcome.
PM: You joined the NHVR in 2014 at a rather critical point in time and you impressed a lot of people in the industry by your language when you kept referring to it as “my” regulator. Do you still have that sense of passion?
SP: The opportunity came to have a say about how the future of this organisation could go, or not. It’s still ‘my’ regulator and it still needs to be, and I can say that without being arrogant. The passion was required to take an organisation which had lost support from the Queensland Government as well as industry and where the staff were really disheartened, to be where we are now in just under ten years to be nearly a thousand people and I think making a difference. If that passion wasn’t there, I don’t think we would have succeeded.
PM: Moving forward from those early times, has the focus changed?
SP: We are on our way to becoming more established in the way we do things, the way we interact, the way we engage and the diversity of the things we do. We’ve grown from about 110 people ten years ago to just under a 1,000 by the time we transition the Queensland work force. We’re servicing an industry of over 200,000 people, 50,000 drivers and everything else in between. I’ve always been adamant that the success of my tenure was the transition of the jurisdictions.
PM: From your background prior to joining the Regulator, was knowing how various levels of government work an advantage?
SP: It definitely has been beneficial. I have now worked in all three spheres, from local to state to federal. I’ve lost count now of how many federal transport ministers I’ve responded to, and how many state ministers we’ve had to brief. That constant churn and change is always difficult, but having the ability to tap into a senator or a Minister of Transport is really important and helps with credibility issues.
PM: Has it been a challenge balancing the administrative issues with initiating and following through with reforms?
SP: The Board really does need more authority and the power to implement the things that are in the HVNL. And that’s not to undermine the role that jurisdictions play, but the reason we establish independent statutory bodies is to allow them to be independent with the authority to do what they need to do.
PM: We’re not expecting the new law until next July. It’s been a very long drawn-out process. Is it going to be fit for purpose given that time frame?
SP: I’m really concerned about what that law would be and I think industry should be as well. This is not a criticism of the bureaucracies, but we did develop a national law that was based on the lowest common denominator rather than what we aspire to.
PM: Road managers can be the bane of many people in this room and probably an area of frustration from your organisation as well. What are some things that can be done to improve the situation?
SP: It has been a long journey and local governments were thrust into a role that hadn’t traditionally been at the forefront of what they did. Then the HVNL came out and made them truly accountable for their assets. But they are not resourced, they weren’t appropriately trained, and there are still some challenges there. We need to comprehend there are obstacles in the way they operate. They don’t deliberately try to be problematic. They are normally dealing with roads, rates, rubbish and anything else that might be thrown at them on any day. I think of the efforts and energies that the Regulator has put into supporting, educating and assisting them. The mere fact we have picked up $14 million from the Commonwealth to do structural assessments on local government networks starts to help them. At a state level I am seeing a genuine desire now to start thinking more at cross-border level, but at the end of the day the state ministers deal with state-based issues and I think the states are doing some good work in that space. I’d love some more resources to get out there and support local governments.
PM: Looking back over your time with the Regulator what are you most proud of?
SP: There are so many things, but for me I think it is the fact we survived when there was a genuine risk to this organisation. By adopting the ‘inform, educate and enforce’ approach we really want to start to look at what industry’s challenges are and to work with them to try to overcome these where we can. I think there is still an element that needs some corrections. Our commitment to our change in philosophy in the way we do enforcement and compliance. We’ve started to bring the concept of the ‘customer’ into the organisation. We will deal with nearly 60,000 customer calls this year. We have a 95 per cent satisfaction rating and you’re speaking to an Australian based operator within 30 seconds 85 per cent of the time. They’re some amazing achievements for a regulatory body.
PM: What would you have done differently?
SP: It was a difficult period when we had to rebuild, in my view, the credibility with the industry that we were set up to regulate. Potentially, we may have disengaged some of the jurisdictional relationships. And that was a hard call because we couldn’t do both. But if we didn’t build the confidence back with the industry, we would have lost the agenda, and some agendas that we had to drive probably created tension. So I don’t regret what we did.
PM: Was it a conscious strategy to move away from the ‘us and them’ concept?
SP: There were some cultural discussions in the early days with many industry participants around the table around what we should do and how we should do it. We have always said we would listen. We may not always give you what you want but we will have considered your position because we have to sift through to make the right decision. What you have to be cognisant of is I am accountable to seven ministers, I have seven jurisdictions, 400-odd local governments and there is a broader community in Australia we also have to consider in our decision-making. So not everyone is going to win. What we hope we will do is have balance in our approach that ensures that in most cases the most sensible and reasonable decision is reached to firstly ensure that we can keep everyone safe, keep this industry productive and in doing that provide a better service to the broader Australian community.