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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 7006

Mr CHARLES (4:10 PM) —I am afraid that the slogans have got this issue a little bit out of hand, because quite honestly this is a serious and difficult issue. All of us here are sympathetic towards the workers, and certainly we need to discuss the response that the government is giving to this matter.

The member for Prospect—and I have said this before in this place on this issue—comes into this debate with some form. For a long time she has been chasing this issue down rabbit holes and doing what she can to ensure that eventually we find a mechanism that will at least partially fix the problem. I will give her credit for that. I do not give the member for Brisbane much credit at all; fair dinkum, `workers' rights have gone up in smoke'!

Mr Bevis interjecting

Mr CHARLES —The member for Brisbane was a real smoking gun at the table today when he was up at the despatch box. I fail to see exactly what it is that the member for Brisbane achieved.

Mr Bevis —What about your company?

Mr CHARLES —I will tell you about my company; do not worry about that, Mr Bevis. You will hear about that. The member has come in here and delivered trite phrases like `workers' rights have gone up in smoke', when the member knows that this is a complex, legal issue which is tied up in state law, federal law, corporate law and law surrounding partnerships and individuals—an extremely complex issue.

It is a joint Commonwealth-state issue. Although the member for Prospect says that little has happened, a lot has happened behind the scenes. Work has progressed and is progressing, but it does depend on the cooperation of the states. The point has been made by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business—and I will make it again—that Labor did have 13 years to fix the problem if they thought they knew how. But they did not; they did not even come close. The ACTU and all those who come into this debate with clean hands and honest hearts acknowledge that it is an extremely complex issue. With the states bound up in this issue as well as the Commonwealth, I would be surprised if anyone could do a quick fix.

The member for Prospect has brought a private member's bill into this place which is based on a levy paid by all employers into a central fund or insurance fund. The workers of those employers who go bust will be protected and they will receive benefits from that fund for any outstanding wages owed, long service leave and sick leave not taken, redundancy pay in lieu or whatever.

The minister referred to the fact that this bill is of questionable constitutional legality. I am advised that that bill is probably constitutionally invalid, at least to the extent that it purports to rely on the Commonwealth powers to make laws with respect to insurance, bankruptcy and insolvency. The Commonwealth's constitutional power to make laws in respect of corporations would support the bill to the extent to which it required employers who were corporations to take out employee protection insurance. Similarly, the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to the territories would support the scheme in respect of unincorporated employers therein.

However, the bill purports to apply to all employers in Australia, other than Common wealth, state, territory or local government employers. To the extent that the bill purports to apply to unincorporated employers in the states, it is beyond power, and there is no question about that. That is precisely—although in other language—what the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business tried to point out this afternoon.

When we have insolvency or bankruptcy there is a pecking order for those who are owed money. Whatever the form of the money, it is in fact money. Those rules have been built up in corporate law over a long period of time. I am not saying that they are perfect; I am saying it is very difficult to change Corporations Law to say that employees have a greater security than the secured creditors who put up the money in the first place in order to back the corporation itself. This afternoon we heard from the member for Brisbane. He said something about there being no small business in the mining industry. I asked the member for Kalgoorlie about that.

Mr Bevis interjecting

Mr CHARLES —You said there is no small business in the mining industry. I say to the member for Brisbane that he ought to get out of downtown Brisbane. He ought to get out there and find out what the hell is going on in the community. There are hundreds of thousands of small business people involved in the mining industry in this country. Whether they are contractors or subcontractors, whether they own true small business ventures or whether they happen to be opal miners or suppliers to a mining company dealing with small companies, medium sized companies or large companies, the whole industry is full of people who own small businesses and earn small incomes.

Mr Bevis interjecting

Mr CHARLES —The member for Brisbane made no proposals to protect their income. Neither did the member for Prospect.

Mr Fitzgibbon —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order on relevance. This is an MPI about the government's failure to protect employee entitlements and the member is raving on about small businesses.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins) —Order! The honourable member for Hunter will resume his seat. There is no point of order.

Mr CHARLES —I was making the point that subcontractors and contractors come under fire constantly in contracts across all kinds of business all over this country and other countries. If a company fails owing a contractor money and the contractor fails owing the subcontractor money, or it goes back up the chain the other way, everybody suffers. We know that. I will tell you this: a lot of those people down at the bottom that are suffering are people that are on low and sometimes marginal incomes because they are subcontractors or contractors to other companies. They happen to work for themselves. They do not happen to belong to one of the big multiunions in Australia. They happen to be among the 75 per cent of Australians who do not want to belong to a union. They are happy to work for themselves and take some risks. Your proposal deals only with the ACTU and the affiliated unions and those that deal with big business. I am happy to talk about small business and medium sized business.

Mr Fitzgibbon —Mr Deputy Speaker, I am going to ask you to rule on the question of relevance. This MPI is about the failure of this government to protect employees' entitlements and the member is talking about the interests of small business people who contract to the mining industry.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member will resume his seat. The honourable member for La Trobe will continue.

Mr CHARLES —They do not like it. They cannot take it when the going gets tough. When it gets hot in the kitchen, you want to get out. Stick in the kitchen and find out what it is like, Sonny.

Mr Fitzgibbon —Mr Deputy Speaker, as the member refuses to return to the subject of the MPI—that is, the government's failure to protect the entitlements of workers—I draw your attention to the state of the House. (Quorum formed) (Time expired)

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The discussion has concluded.