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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 7003

Mrs CROSIO (4:00 PM) —I rise today in support of the matter of public importance brought before the House. It was interesting to have the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business in this parliament questioning what Labor proposes to do about workers' entitlements. Well, Minister, I am glad that you acknowledged that I had introduced a bill in this House in 1998 and reintroduced that bill in 1999. At the same time as I introduced that bill I said to both the minister, who is running out of the House in shame, and his Prime Minister, `If you want to amend my bill, if you want to take credit for that bill, if you want to add your own flourishes to that bill, you are welcome to do it, as long as we get the results at the end of it—as long as Australian workers would never again have to fear being robbed of their entitlements in the event of company insolvency.'

What happened? The minister for workplace relations said, `Oh, the Crosio bill—we have legal advice that it's not legal.' I can tell the House that that bill was put together in consultation with a QC from South Australia who is involved in writing bills for both this parliament and other parliaments of Australia, so I can assure him that my legal advice is just as good as his.

When we look at what outcomes we want to see—including, I dare say, at times even the majority of members on the coalition benches—we want to guarantee workers' entitlements; we want to guarantee their just rights. We also want to guarantee that the Cobars, the Woodlawns, the Austral Pacifics and the Oakdales will never happen again in this country. For a short time, judging by the Prime Minister's expressions of sympathy towards the plight of the Cobar miners—we all remember that last year—I thought we just might get something up that would solve the problem. But, despite the many examples of the obvious pressing need for rapid action and reform, the Prime Minister and his government have done absolutely nothing but tread water on this issue during the last two years that I have introduced and reintroduced that bill. The miners rally—many of them from Oakdale—in front of Parliament House today is testament that this government has done absolutely nothing.

The Prime Minister got up in question time yesterday and attempted to give the impression that not only was his government sympathetic to workers robbed of their entitlements, not only was his government in the process of doing something about protecting them but also his government had been instrumental in reaching a settlement for the Cobar miners. Mr Reith said that today. But without any results, the Prime Minister's words are empty and so are his minister's. If the Prime Minister had really put his government into action 12 months ago, the Oakdale miners would not be without their entitlements today. If he had run with my bill, or something similar—or had amended it in any way he wanted to—we wouldn't have a situation where men who have worked down those mines for over 40 years are not only without a job but also without a future.

The Minister for Industry, Science and Resources exposed the government's lack of progress in this matter when he rushed out last week with a joint press release on behalf of himself and the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, who I said earlier has scampered out of the House. The minister for industry said in his statement that discussions `at a ministerial level directly with business organisations are needed' to help solve this difficult problem. Suddenly I was struck with a sense of deja vu. To my ears, the minister's words sounded strangely familiar—this is the minister for industry—and familiar they were. I went back to 1998 when we remember 6 April and the Cobar miners. What happened? I read a press release put out by the minister for workplace relations. Yes, you guessed it. He said, `The government will consult the business community on the issue.' That was 12 months ago and the minister tries to tell this House that they are moving.

To back this up, in answer to one of my questions on notice, the minister for workplace relations listed both the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry as the two main business organisations he had consulted with. Yet now, a year later, the minister for industry is embarking on the same consultation process but this time he has the minister for workplace relations in tow. So what has the minister for workplace relations been doing over the last 12 months or more? What did he discuss with the Business Council of Australia and the ACCI? Obviously not much.

The Prime Minister also likes to point to the current review on protecting workers' entitlements, involving the Workplace Relations Ministers Council—formerly the Labour Ministers Council—and the Ministerial Council for Corporations, as evidence that he is doing something, but in reality this `review' is nothing but window-dressing. The involvement of the Workplace Relations Ministers Council in this review process began on 1 May 1998. Over a year later we still have nothing concrete from them—no proposals, no recommendations, absolutely nothing. In November last year the council's general report on the problem, along with an independent report prepared by the NSW state government, was referred to the Ministerial Council for Corporations. And that was that. Until the Oakdale tragedy was thrust upon him, that is as far as the minister for workplace relations saw his responsibility extending. He had washed his hands of the whole matter. The report was in the hands of MinCo, out of his portfolio's responsibilities, and he could sit back and relax. And relax he did.

At the WRMC's last meeting on 19 May, its discussion on the issue of guaranteeing workers' entitlements amounted to just five lines in the minutes. Five lines is what they have produced! So much for the `other options' that the Prime Minister said the WRMC was pursuing in his answer during question time in this parliament yesterday. As for what is going on at the Ministerial Council for Corporations, the Treasurer has put forward two suggestions to amend the Corporations Law that really do not go any further than messing about on the margins of this problem. The Treasurer suggested that, firstly, criminal penalties should be created and levelled against company directors who deliberately avoid paying workers their entitlements and, secondly, that the `related party and insolvent trading transaction provisions' in the Corporations Law should be strengthened. These reforms would be welcomed but they will do nothing to offer complete protection of the unpaid entitlements of workers. Even with these changes, employers will still go insolvent and, without some sort of a guarantee, workers' entitlements will still be lost.

When it comes to my bill—and the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business made reference to it—or pursuing, as I gave him the opportunity, some other avenue that would offer real protection in this regard, the Howard government just cannot bite the bullet. They cannot bite the bullet because they do not want to upset the Liberal Party's natural constituency—the big end of town.

But the government does have another responsibility. It has a responsibility to ensure that the workers of Australia, if affected by company insolvency, get what is legally and morally theirs—their full entitlements. We are not talking about workers asking for an extra sweetener at the end of their employment; we are not talking about workers making unjust demands on the wage bills of their employers. We are talking here about the legal rights of workers in this country to be paid what they are owed for their labour—nothing more and nothing less.

This is not the money of the employers to lose; it is the money of their workers. I repeat—it is not the employers' money we are talking about; it is the workers' money. And it is not enough for the Prime Minister to seek solace in that other meagre argument he uses to justify his government's inactivity on workers' entitlements, and that is the presence of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

In the case of Cobar, ASIC was only able to help achieve some level of settlement for the workers there because the mine's parent company, Ashanti, had sent that letter of comfort to its junior partner. The unions were able to get hold of it, and without it the securities commission would have been powerless, just as it has been in the case of retrieving the entitlements of the Woodlawn miners.

We do not hear the Prime Minister crowing about his success with regard to the Woodlawn miners, and that occurred at the same time as Cobar. The Prime Minister and his government have spent the best part of 15 months avoiding the subject of how to guarantee workers' entitlements. How ironic that it was Alan Jones, on the radio last week, who actually took the Prime Minister to task for his idleness. Jones asked the Prime Minister:

How many more companies will go under leaving employees in the lurch before someone tells employers this can't happen?

The Prime Minister's response was:

Well, I can't answer that.

He cannot answer Alan Jones's questions because he will not answer them.

Just as the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business initiated discussions with business groups when the Cobar tragedy was in full swing and then dropped the ball when the media spotlight moved on to a new story, that is exactly what the Prime Minister is hoping will happen now with the Oakdale miners. He is hoping that a few inquiries here and there, a few meetings and a few minor changes to the Corporations Law will buy him an escape from actually doing something substantial to guarantee our workers' entitlements.

Prime Minister, the time has arrived when the workers of Australia will no longer let you get away with the legislative equivalent of a whistle and a prayer. The Oakdales, the Cobars and the Woodlawns receive our attention because of the sheer scale of the tragedy that affects these people and their families. But there are hundreds more Australians all around Australia who are without their entitlements because you will not act. The government must act now. (Time expired)