Who's Who

Kirk Coningham OAM on COVID-19 and freight and logistics


Kirk Coningham is the CEO of the Australian Logistics Council, an organisation working to improve the efficiency and safety of Australia’s supply chains. Prior to this role he was National Executive Director of the Urban Development Institute of Australia.

The freight and logistics sector has been noticeably busy, as evidenced by empty supermarket shelves after panic buying by the public. Kirk has provided iMOVE with his thoughts on what has happened, why, and what needs to be done to safeguard Australia’s supply chain future.

What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in freight and logistics?

Freight transport and logistics providers have been at the forefront of keeping local communities supplied with essential goods throughout the pandemic. In the early days of the crisis, when panic buying was an issue, there were logistics companies that were busier that they normally would be during the pre-Christmas rush, particularly in the sector. That has now eased as consumers have ceased ‘panic’ behaviour and adjusted to the new normal.

There has also obviously been a significant increase in demand for home deliveries, as households respond to social distancing requit\rement by securing delivery of items that they would otherwise go out to procure for themselves. That has placed pressure on delivery networks – and that pressure has been exacerbated by massive reductions in commercial flights, which normally play a significant role in freight delivery.

It may seem off to talk about positives that have emerged as a result of a global pandemic, but I think the level of cooperation between industry and governments has been a real plus. When you’re dealing with things like the closure of state borders, the potential for significant supply chain disruption is very real. While there have been some teething issues around those, they have been worked though methodically and resolved in a relatively short space of time.

What changes would you like to see in the freight/logistics sector when the world rights itself post-pandemic?

Maintaining that same spirit of cooperation between governments as we move into a recovery phase would certainly go a long way to securing some of the reforms our industry has long pursued. One thing the pandemic has unquestionably done is elevate the community’s (and perhaps a political) understanding of just how central efficient supply chains are to their day-to-day lives.

One of the most important changes that allowed supermarket shelves to be replenished quickly during the panic buying early in the crisis was the suspension or removal of curfews, which ordinarily prevent deliveries overnight, particularly in urban communities. Industry has said for many years that those curfews prevented operational flexibility – and gaps in supermarket shelves proved that. Once the curfews were gone, operators were quickly able to overcomes those problems.

If we want supply chains that are more resilient, we need to make these sorts of changes permanent, and not revert to the old ways. I think increased community awareness of, and support for, our industry’s activities gives scope to do that.

Clearly, there are cost savings and other efficiencies to be gained by moving towards a single set of laws across jurisdictions governing environmental regulation, workplace health and safety, workers’ compensation, and drug and alcohol testing for the freight and logistics sector. The new-found spirit of cooperation engendered through the National Cabinet process should now be harnessed to secure that outcome.

The pandemic experience has also given governments and the community greater understanding of the importance of freight visibility, and also ensuring that we’re making the right infrastructure investments, so that we can overcome pinch-points in the freight network and enhance our international competitiveness.

That makes the design and effective implementation of a National Freight Data Hub more urgent than ever. Again, the spirit of collaboration that’s been evident across our supply chains throughout this pandemic – the sense that we’re all in this together – also needs to be harnessed in this respect, so that industry concerns about data-sharing can be addressed.

And what changes do you think will happen in transport post-pandemic?

There is clearly going to be a major focus on infrastructure projects as a means of providing economic stimulus. We need to make certain that such stimulus spending isn’t all just about ‘new’ infrastructure, but also includes projects that allow existing infrastructure to operate more efficiently.

I’m thinking particularly of works to strengthen bridges or widen key freight corridors to enable greater use of high productivity vehicles (HPVs) in our freight network, and ensuring rail connections to our ports are optimised to allow more freight to move via rail and thus reduce road congestion, particularly around ports adjacent to our major cities.

Given the important role that data will play in the future operation of our supply chains, I think it’s also important for governments to think about investing in the story of infrastructure that enhances the security and reliability of data. That includes guarding against threats from bad actors, but also things like ensuring proper mobile telecommunications network coverage in regional areas.

Like this interview? Click here to see the rest of our interviews about the effects of COVID-19 on the transport sector.

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