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Monday, 19 June 2000
Page: 17665

Mr HOLLIS (9:25 PM) —One aspect of this budget funds the government's guilt plagued conscience for consistently refusing to do anything to protect the entitlements of workers from corporate insolvency. The Employee Entitlement Support Scheme is provided with $55 million in an attempt to be seen to be doing something. The government announced the establishment of this program in early February and has yet to gain the agreement of most state and territory governments. They have been asked to match funding for the scheme.

The EESS is flawed by imposing a cap on the entitlements of workers. Workers will receive only $20,000 in entitlement payments under this scheme. In protecting workers' entitlements there is one principle that must be applied: workers must have their entitlements protected in full—every single cent, no cap. It is their money we are talking about in the end. Why is it that the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business cannot bring himself to accept that employers have a legal obligation to ensure the ongoing funding of their workers' full entitlements?

The Howard government instead clings to this notion that there is no international precedent showing that national insurance schemes for entitlements work. The argument is a cop-out. If Australia had to rely on this defence for doing nothing about serious problems, we would never have introduced a national social security system which, despite government attacks to undermine it, is the envy of the world. If Australia used this argument, we would never have introduced Medicare in 1984, an innovation of the Hawke Labor government. Such a health coverage scheme ensuring the health care of every Australian man, woman and child, was a first in the world. There was never an international precedent for such comprehensive health service protection. Australia did it, nevertheless, and the world still looks at the Medicare system with wonder. Indeed, other countries have sent streams of public officials to Australia to examine the Medicare system.

If we can devise, implement and administer such a neat Australian public policy cementing the overall protection of an entire population in social security and health, why is ensuring the protection of workers' entitlements such an insurmountable challenge? The answer is simple and brutal. The Howard government does not care about workers or their entitlements. It would rather cop the critical headlines, the abusive editorials, than be seen to be doing anything that actually advantages workers or their families. As usual, the Labor opposition have a starkly different approach. We can protect workers' entitlements. We can do it in full and when our program is implemented Australia will create the international precedent.

I have raised before in this place a situation of 120 meatworkers from Parrish Meat Supplies Pty Ltd at Yallah in my electorate. They were paid only 30 cents in every dollar of their entitlement. They are still owed over $600,000. I have placed a series of questions on the Notice Paper to the Treasurer, the minister for workplace relations and the Minister for Financial Services and Regulations. Responses to these questions are beginning to trickle in. The Treasurer relies on privacy provisions to dodge the question about the ATO involvement in this debacle. The minister for workplace relations pleads sympathy but passes the buck to the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs. At least the response from the Minister for Financial Services and Regulation offers a glimmer of hope that ASIC will investigate a series of alleged offences against the directors of Parrish Meat Supplies.

The opposition has clearly laid out its policy priorities for industrial relations policy. We intend to restore the balance to industrial relations in Australia. We intend to restore fairness and job security. We intend to end confrontation for the sake of ideology. We intend to restore the powers of the independent umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. We intend to ensure that bargaining between industrial parties is undertaken in good faith. We intend to restore primacy to collective bargaining. Most importantly, we will abolish Peter Reith's Australian workplace agreements. These secretive documents, entered into with coercion and which reduce wages and conditions of employment, will go. We will also abolish the Office of the Employment Advocate.

Recently in this place I have raised the subject of an increasingly intractable dispute involving workers at Joy Mining in the Illawarra. These workers are still locked out of their workplace because they will not enter into an employer agenda for four separate bargaining arrangements that cover just one site. Labor's industrial relations policy will ensure that this dispute is put before the independent umpire for settlement. We will ensure that it ends. We will ensure that there is a balance and that negotiations take place between management, the workers and their respective unions. The Joy Mining dispute can be resolved only if there is some commonsense on the side of management. Instead of engaging as a cheer squad for confrontational workplace relations, management should sit down and talk out this dispute. This dispute already has the potential to generate a long legacy of bitterness.

I also wish to raise the issue of the crisis at HMAS Albatross and HMAS Creswell in the electorate of my colleague the honourable member for Gilmore. Workers are in dispute because of the awarding of a contract to a British company, Serco, for cleaning and hospitality services at this Defence establishment. This dispute clearly shows the impact of AWAs. Workers have effectively been sacked because they refused to sign AWAs. Workers were provided with a choice by a new contractor—sign or lose your job. Even the member for Gilmore, despite her chorus during the last sitting week in this place, actually heard those words at a meeting called to brief the workers on their new employment choices. I am told she was left dumbfounded after giving the workers a personal assurance in a prior meeting that this dispute was the total responsibility of Illawarra unions. The AWAs on offer reduced workers' hours and pay. One worker's story was published in the Illawarra Mercury. His hours of work have been reduced from a full-time worker to an $11.95 an hour casual since Serco won the contract. This is the bottom line with the Howard government AWAs—secret documents which reduce pay and conditions between the boss and worker—and the member for Gilmore actually continues to defend the government position.

Although there is much in this budget that I have been critical of, there are some aspects which I welcome. The child support system reforms announced in the budget will make it fairer and simpler. I am particularly pleased that the financial circumstances of second and subsequent families are finally recognised. I am supportive of the changes announced by the assessment procedure for overtime and second income jobs. There has also been a change announced to the income cap, which I believe, despite receiving some criticism, will stop any attempt by high income non-custodial parents to visit their accountants to deliberately minimise child support obligations. The budget measure in this area provides recognition of the cost associated with maintaining contact of children with non-custodial parents. There is overwhelming international evidence that a child is always much better off if they have regular contact with both parents in separation and divorce circumstances. I still believe that there is a long way to go in reforming the child support scheme to make it fairer, simpler and more transparent. But this measure, at least, begins that process.

The budget also provides overdue recognition of our Vietnam veterans. Measures announced include the $32 million package of assistance to veterans and their families. This assistance will mainly focus on illnesses that Vietnam veterans are particularly susceptible to. Alan Ramsey, political commentator for the Sydney Morning Herald, has published a series of articles on Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War in his regular Saturday column. I cannot help but agree with his views. History has proven that our involvement in Vietnam was wrong and a series of great mistakes which were based only on the assumption that this was a communist takeover rather than a civil conflict that could be resolved only by the Vietnamese people. Nevertheless, Australia sent young men to that troubled country to fight on orders by politicians made in this parliament. As the war became more unpopular and images flashed before us as it had in no other armed conflict we have known, our soldiers were treated disgracefully upon their return from active service.

For too long we conveniently forgot about them, their problems, their illnesses and their families. They are forgotten no longer. I similarly welcome the grant of entitlement to full repatriation benefits to nearly 3,000 veterans for their service during the Malayan Emergency and other South-East Asian conflicts in the long decades between 1955 and 1975. I do have concerns about the transfer of the Department of Veterans' Affairs to Home and Community Care for veterans because there was a funding cut evident in that transfer of services.

This has been the Howard government's fifth budget, another in the long line that delivers very little for the people in my region of the Illawarra. This is the first budget of a new decade but one that wastes opportunities. It is a budget with the GST at its heart, but the budget papers make no mention of this huge imposing tax. The budget, more than its predecessors, will raise prices, taxes and interest rates. Financial commentators are already saying that their money is on yet another rise in rates by the Reserve Bank. If it happens, and I suspect it will, interest rates will have risen for the fifth time since November of last year. The government's huge tax bribe of personal income tax that too many people fell for in the 1998 election is an illusion. Already the rises in interest rates and the rises in prices at the shopping centre have eaten into this proposed tax cut. It was a great fraud on the Australian people.