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COMMITTED: Steve Shearer in his role with South Australian Road Transport Association.
COMMITTED: Steve Shearer in his role with South Australian Road Transport Association.

FOR a scientist with an biology bent who went on to work in counter-terrorism in the nation's capital, Steve Shearer has somehow ended up carving out a no-nonsense reputation in the uncompromising national trucking industry.

For more than two decades, Steve has been renowned for calling it as he sees it - always has, and always will.

As executive officer of the South Australian Road Transport Association (SARTA), the former shoe salesman has developed a reputation for going into battle for the small independent trucking operators against the might of the big end of town.

It's has been the classic David and Goliath battle, built on the back of hard work, dogged determination and an unwavering desire to protect the small business owners/operators in a notoriously tough industry.

Steve's steely determination and commitment was literally carved out more than 30 years ago while cutting his teeth in the working world.

Commencing work as a shoe salesman, stretched for cash and having recently moved out of home into a tiny flat, Steve stumbled on some old timber sleepers dumped in a nearby empty block.

With the help of a mate - the same mate who would years later tap him on the shoulder for the SARTA job - he transported a timber sleeper home.

"I didn't have anything in that flat. I used to go to the local fast food outlet and steal their plastic knives and forks,” Steve said.

"I earned $38 a week and rent was $21 - fair to say I wasn't home most times the landlord visited,” he said.

"Anyway, I saw these sleepers and thought 'I haven't got a coffee table at home - I can make one with one of these sleepers'.

"I had nothing to cut it with except a single-bladed hacksaw blade.

"So for the next three weeks straight, every night after work I sawed this sleeper with the blade.

"I was just determined to get it down... I do know when something's a lost cause, but the blade was working its way through the sleeper... so that wasn't a lost cause.

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"I've never been afraid to put in the hard yards or the long haul if there is a successful outcome.

"It's the philosophy I had then and it's the same philosophy I've used in my 20-odd years at SARTA - and boy, have some fights needed determination.”

It's fair to say Steve, 62, didn't have what you'd call a conventional start to a working life in the trucking industry.

After leaving school, he joined Coca-Cola in Adelaide as a clerk.

His boss quickly recognised his intellect and encouraged him to go to university to study accounting - which he did for about a month before realising "numbers” weren't for him.

Quitting before being found out, Steve's next job was as a sales assistant in a shoe store - quickly climbing the ranks to store manager.

Fast forward a few years and with his wife, Beverley, now beside him, Steve realised it was now or never - if he was going to get a university degree he had to make a decision.

"By then I was 20 and married. I said to Bev 'I think I should go to university and get a degree and see what happens',” Steve recalled.

"I love biology - it's in my blood. It stems from my mother and her love of biology and ecology. Her father was one of Australia's pre-eminent surveyors. My mum and her sister grew up in tents along the River Murray.

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"Then she turned our backyard into a national park - and I was fascinated.

"At school it was the subject I didn't need to learn for - it just came naturally to me... so it was a no-brainer that that's what I should study.

"So at uni I immersed myself in it and got more involved in the areas I loved - microbiology and ecology.”

Graduating with honours (his thesis was on three species of skink lizards in the Adelaide Hills), Steve tossed up whether to continue university life and complete a PhD or "get a real job”.

He did the latter - and was accepted into a highly competitive and sought-after graduate's entry program being run by the Federal Government out of Canberra. 6500 people applied, 350 were successful and by the end of the first year about 50 - including Steve - remained.

It was another decision that would define who he is today, and one which several years later led to him to head-up a counter-terrorism unit within the Special Minister of State department.

"You worked really hard with really smart people and you quickly learned about the stuff that makes a difference - how a government works and the role policy plays in making the government of the day function,” Steve said.

"It's where I got my first real taste for politicians and policy and politics - for a person just out of university it was bloody fascinating.

"It was one of the first lightbulb moments for me.

"It really switched on my thinking why politicians behave the way that they do.

"And the motivation of politicians has been a guiding concept for me ever since - and a lot of people in the industry don't understand that.

"Politicians just do enough to keep an industry like ours quiet.”

Another time: Steve Shearer has been a spokeperson for SARTA for a generation and has a history of building political bridges.
Another time: Steve Shearer has been a spokeperson for SARTA for a generation and has a history of building political bridges.

At the end of 1990, Steve and Beverley decided to return home to Adelaide to take up a role as state manager for a Federal Government department.

Then in 1993, the same mate who helped Steve "relocate” that timber sleeper all those years ago - and who was on the SARTA Board at the time - casually let Steve know about the job.

The mate knew Steve was the right person for the job, and Steve knew a challenge when he saw one.

At the time SARTA was on its knees - it was virtually broke, had fewer than 40 members, no income stream or sponsors, and according to those around at the time, was irrelevant to the trucking industry.

Again showing the steely determination for which he is known, Steve got down to business, quickly establishing a business around advocacy and industrial relations.

Drawing an income from his own superannuation for the first two years so as not to drain on the strained resources of SARTA, Steve targeted some of the more influential trucking businesses in SA to convince them the association was again relevant.

It worked a treat. Today SARTA has more than 300 members and more than 30 sponsors.

"People quickly learned there was a new guy at SARTA and something was happening... but you had to be careful,” Steve said.

"You can't endorse a specific product though... we just create the opportunities, and it's worked.

"The trucking industry is a bit like the old Ford v Holden - you either love Kenworth or hate them.

"You have to be careful not to queer your pitch by tying yourself to a brand that a section of the industry doesn't like... it's not rocket science.

"You also have to ensure that sponsors get value for their generous support.

"What governments and ministers along the way have learned about us is that we are very persistent.

"It's partly my personality - and partly the industry.

"One of my strengths in this industry is that I simply do not give up.

"If I'm fighting for a cause I believe in, I will not give up.

"The 12 and a half years it took us to break down the privacy barrier and get the SA Government to allow police to tell owners about their drivers' dangerous on-road behaviour is a good example - and an Australian first.”

That tenacity - and Steve's commitment to the sector - was recognised in 2014 when he was awarded an OAM for services to the trucking industry.

Away from the hustle and bustle of advocacy, Steve has found solace in water-colour painting - something he stumbled on five years ago, absolutely loves with a passion, and has discovered he's very good at, even holding some exhibitions.

"It keeps me sane.”

Topics:  road transport south australia

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