Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17446

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (11:02 AM) —I suggest to the House that the Energy Grants (Credits) Scheme Bill 2003 is a sorry case study in poor public policy management and reform by the Howard government. The facts show that significant industries rely on these grants, and the truth of the matter is that the Howard government has been appalling at providing any certainty or clarity on the issue for the past four years. It is also fair to suggest this morning, as was evidenced in the proceedings in the other house last night, that the Democrats have been dudded on this bill.

This bill is the culmination of a deal that saw the GST delivered by the Democrats upon the Australian community. History also shows that, in the negotiations on this bill, the Howard government treated the Democrats with contempt. There were no negotiations. In fact, rather than negotiating with their GST partners, the Democrats, the Howard government only chose to—dare I suggest—negotiate with a Democrat rat, Senator Meg Lees. It was intended that the scheme provide incentives for cleaner fuels whilst maintaining the benefits to Australian industry.

Mr Slipper —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. It is not appropriate under the standing orders for the member for Batman to refer to a senator as a rat. That is an abusive term and is totally in breach of the standing orders. I ask that he withdraw that reference to Senator Lees.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. B.C. Scott)—I ask that the member for Batman consider what the parliamentary secretary has said and withdraw the use of the word `rat' when referring to a senator.

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —I withdraw that reference to Senator Meg Lees. I note that, as is always the case with the parliamentary secretary, Mr Slipper, he is a bit slow on the uptake. Perhaps he had a rather late evening. The truth of the matter is that the government chose to ignore the Democrats and, in essence, chose to concentrate their negotiations on a person who ratted on their former parliamentary party, the Democrats—namely, Senator Meg Lees. I suggest that the message to the minor parties in the Senate as a result of this process is that, when you sell your soul, the Howard government will use you up and spit you out and, in essence, move on to another minor political party that is prepared to sell their soul.

Mrs Gallus —Cheryl?

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —As I have said, the government has not focused on cleaner fuels. I note that the member for Hindmarsh refers to a former member and a member of the Labor Party. I remind the member for Hindmarsh that when Cheryl Kernot chose to leave the Democrats she handed her Senate seat back to the Democrats rather than merely ratting on her former political allies, leaving them one short and, in essence, walking away from her obligations to the people who elected her to the Senate to represent the Democrats.

Because the amendments focus on cleaner fuels, Labor supports the amendments as they bring forward in this bill an onus to promote and lock in the requirement for us as a community to embrace cleaner fuels. This requirement will now be included in this bill to hold the government to account on the promise that they have been trying to wriggle out of for four years. I also refer to the pig-headed games by the Treasurer over the last six months, which saw the Treasurer use every trick to deny the legislators information about this bill. I personally believe, and the facts will show when the regulations are made available to the public for general consideration, that those regulations are critical to the bill before the House this morning. In fact, they contain the quantum of the grant, bounties for the scheme and other important information.

I also take exception to the fact that, during consideration of this bill by the opposition in a most constructive way over an extended period, the Treasurer chose to give access to the draft regulations to 12 different industry organisations but denied the legislators— (Extension of time granted)

Until late yesterday, the Treasurer denied the legislators—the people elected by the Australian community to the House of Representatives and the Senate—information going to the nature of the regulations, creating further unnecessary uncertainty for industry. I compliment industry for sending a message to the Treasurer in no uncertain terms that a range of industry representatives disagreed with the pig-headed approach to this issue by the Treasurer and requested that he open his mind to proper legislative processes so as to ensure the smooth passage of this bill.

I report to the House that the Treasurer said that he believed that showing the opposition the regulations would create a precedent for his portfolio. The opposition proved this to be untrue. We cited examples to the contrary in our correspondence to the Treasury. I might also say that, in my responsibilities as shadow minister for transport and regional services, the people I deal with on a regular basis in the Department of Transport and Regional Services, with the assistance of the minister's office, go out of their way to cooperate with us in facilitating proper consideration of bills they bring before the House to guarantee the capacity of the government, often by agreement, to put in place necessary legislative reform which is to the advantage of transport and regional communities in Australia. That means that, as required, on a regular basis, we are given access to regulations which are part and parcel of the legislation brought before the House by the Leader of the National Party, the Minister for Transport and Regional Services.

I raise these issues by way of comparison because they are important issues of principle. I very firmly believe that, in an endeavour to avoid the frustration of the parliamentary process, we should have some understanding that, when such regulations are available, as was the case with respect to the Energy Grants (Credits) Scheme, governments should go out of their way to facilitate proper consideration of the whole legislative package by enabling those involved in the debate—in the House of Representatives or in the other house—to have access to those draft regulations. In many instances, the regulations go to the application and enforcement of the legislation that might be considered by the House.

I found it surprising that the Treasurer not only initially refused us access to the draft regulations but also ignored a Senate return to order to table the regulations. This is a senior representative of the Howard government—the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, the major political partner of the coalition government—who often rants and raves at the dispatch box during question time about frustration by the Senate. All I can say is that it is about time the Treasurer led by example. His pig-headedness almost undermined consideration of the Energy Grants (Credits) Scheme and potentially could have denied the ongoing smooth transition of the application of very important grants to a range of industries, including many people in small business who are dependent on the proper processing and enforcement of the energy credit scheme.

This is a prime example of the lengths to which the Treasurer is prepared to go to obstruct the passage of this bill and to obstruct and undermine the proper operation of the House of Representatives and the Senate. I am pleased to say that, in spite of the Treasurer's action, this bill has passed in the other house. More importantly, we in Labor always said that we would maintain the benefit to the industry. I do not consider that the Treasurer embraced and supported the same approach. I argue that the Treasurer did his best to get the opposition to vote against the bill for his own short-term political purposes. I am pleased to report that he has failed yet again. Let him continue to play his small-minded political games. In the best interests of Australian workers, and especially those involved in small business, the Labor Party has risen above the small-minded games of the Treasurer and guaranteed the passing of this bill. (Extension of time granted)

It is for these reasons that Labor supports the amended bills. They are about putting in place the original undertakings given by the government some years ago—undertakings which go to the enforcement of grants which are very important to the operation of a range of industries, not only in the primary industry sector but also in the road transport industry, in mining and in forestry, to name a few; which are important from the point of view of my shadow ministerial responsibilities in transport; and which are exceptionally important to regional Australia. Businesses operating in regional Australia very much depend on the application and availability of these grants. I say to people in regional Australia this morning that they should point their fingers at the Treasurer—a city-centric treasurer, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party and would-be Prime Minister who was prepared to play political games which could have seen regional communities lose jobs and small businesses close because of his small-minded, pig-headed approach.

I also want to raise an issue of exceptional importance to a range of workers who are struggling to keep their jobs in Australia at the moment. I refer to the maritime industry. It is about time the maritime industry was given a fair go in Australia. In the Senate last night the Howard government opposed a Labor amendment to guarantee that we lock into the application of the Energy Grants (Credits) Scheme a level playing field for the maritime industry in Australia. Our amendment would have levelled the playing field for the Australian shipping industry—something that is desired and being sought by the Independent Review of Australian Shipping at this very point in time.

It is interesting to note that the independent review is being co-chaired by two former transport ministers: John Sharp, a former shipping industry minister—a transport minister—of the Howard government, and Peter Morris, a former Labor transport minister. Last week I attended an industry forum conducted at Parliament House under the chairmanship of those two people. The key objective of the report to which they requested that the Minister for Transport and Regional Services and I respond included a range of targeted initiatives which could be encompassed in a package which would go some way towards creating a level playing field in Australia to enable us to rebuild our coastal shipping industry and, at long last, give an opportunity to young Australians to pursue decent training opportunities in the maritime industry and eventually be involved in long-lasting and rewarding employment opportunities in the industry.

I supported the opposition amendment in the Senate last night because it completely accorded with the recommendations of the Independent Review of Australian Shipping. As I said to that independent review last week, I have a very open mind on it. But I must say that I was disappointed with the small-minded, short-sighted reaction of the Minister for Transport and Regional Services to the review last week. It seems that we have a government in place at the moment that is hell-bent on destroying Australian jobs and, worse, hell-bent on destroying many Australian jobs which are vital to the future growth and economic importance of regional communities. The defeat of our amendment last night means that foreign shipping companies working the coast under voyage permits gain a further advantage, to the disadvantage of Australian shippers and Australian workers, their families and their communities. (Extension of time granted)

The rejection last night of the opposition amendment to the Energy Grants (Credits) Scheme Bill 2003 relating to the application of the Energy Grants (Credits) Scheme to the shipping industry effectively means that the Howard government wants to create an environment which guarantees ongoing help to enable foreign shippers to compete unfairly against Australian domestic transport operators not only in the shipping industry but also in the road and rail industries. I already know of examples of Australian workers losing their jobs in the shipping industry—and in the road and rail industries—because of the special benefits given to foreign shippers on our coastal trade not only by foreign countries but also by the Australian government. When it comes to standing up for jobs I will always vote for protecting Australian jobs rather than taking the approach of the Howard government, which is about giving additional benefits to take Australian jobs and give them to people from the Philippines or the Ukraine, as is currently happening in the shipping industry in Australia.

Worse still, we should consider who is now being forced to pay for these special benefits which mean that Australian jobs are going overseas. Guess who it is? It is Australian taxpayers. This legislation means that Australian taxpayers—people who slog their guts out to make ends meet—will now be paying for special benefits to subsidise overseas shipping companies and, in essence, subsidise the export of jobs from Australia. I consider this to be a major issue not only for the opposition but also for the Australian community. Whenever I talk to people in local communities they say to me as a member of the House of Representatives, `Your first responsibility is to Australia. Your first responsibility is to guarantee job security and training for Australians. It is not your responsibility to support legislation which effectively means that we subsidise the export of Australian jobs.' This ought to be seen as a major issue. I believe that this benefit adds to the existing high level of advantage given to foreign operators through the permit system.

The opposition have been asking how these bills apply to foreign vessels and we finally got a few answers this week. It is now clear that significant benefits accrue to foreign shipping companies, and it is for this reason that we oppose Australian taxpayers being forced to pay for those benefits. In the Senate last night we learned that 3.8 per cent—not an insignificant amount—of the Diesel Fuel Rebate Scheme goes to marine purposes. This effectively means that millions of taxpayers' hard-earned dollars—potentially about $20 million, on my estimate—are going to foreign vessels that are shafting the Australian industry and shafting Australian workers and their families.

This is yet another disgraceful example of the Howard government's priorities and its endeavours to prop up foreign operators by abusing the coastal permit system. The permit provisions were in the Navigation Act under previous governments, but let us deal with how they were applied. They were designed to be used in extreme circumstances for domestic coastal trips when—and this is the key point—an Australian-licensed vessel was not available. Interestingly, for 13 years the Hawke and Keating Labor governments never issued a single continuous voyage permit. (Extension of time granted) What has happened since the election of the Howard government? Let us deal with the facts on the issue of these permits, firstly in relation to single voyage permits. In 1996, 518 single voyage permits were issued; in 1997, 695; in 1998, 741; in 1999, 648; in 2000, 623; in 2001, 675; and in 2002, 664. This is a sorry state of affairs, because the intention under the Navigation Act was that these permits be issued only when an Australian-licensed vessel was not available. But even worse is the clear decision by the Howard government to extend the operation of these permits on a continuous basis and not a single voyage basis.

On this issue of continuous voyage permits for every year since 1996 the facts speak for themselves. They show a very clear decision by the Howard government to prop up overseas shipping companies in receipt of very considerate tax benefits from foreign countries aimed at smashing employment in the maritime industry in Australia. In doing so, I suggest to the House, the government has undermined our capacity to maintain a viable coastal shipping industry, which is exceptionally important in terms of the defence of Australia and also, I suggest, in maintaining quality vessels, which are part and parcel of maintaining our pristine coastline. People should not forget that the debate about the maritime industry is also a debate about how we protect our environment. It is not just a debate about jobs and training for Australians; it is also a debate about the ships of shame—those rust buckets that are foreign flagged and that have the capacity to destroy not only our coastline generally but also that wonderful icon, the Great Barrier Reef.

It is a very important debate for Australia. It ranges across a number of portfolios and, more importantly, it goes to issues of vital concern to every Australian—jobs and training, the requirement to actually care about our environment and the necessity to put at the forefront of our consideration of defence issues maintaining a viable coastal shipping industry that we can call upon in times of need. For that reason I take us to the issue of continuing voyage permits. In 1996 and 1997 there were none issued and then, all of a sudden, there was a change in policy. Perhaps it can be traced back to a change in minister. At about that time there was a change in minister, related to the travel affairs rorts, which saw a number of Howard government ministers disappear from the front bench, as you can recall, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, because you were actually a colleague of some of those people. Then in 1998, 15 continuous voyage permits were issued; in 1999, 59; in 2000, 84; in 2001, 115 and in 2002, 89. What a shameful example of the misuse of the longstanding act—the Navigation Act—the provisions of which were about guaranteeing that, in times of need for trade purposes, we could give a permit to an overseas operator when it was proven that an Australian licensed vessel was not available, when it was proven that Australian workers were not available to do the job. That policy has been reversed. (Extension of time granted) It is no longer a requirement to prove that the vessels are not available. The policy effectively says, `If there is a foreign ship available then we are going to give you the inside running because, in essence, we couldn't give a stuff about a viable coastal shipping industry in Australia and jobs for Australians.' That is the Howard government's approach to the maritime industry in the 21st century.

We have always had a proud maritime history in Australia in maintaining proper standards with respect to the employment and training of those people, in giving support to the Australian shipping industry to actually build ships in Australia and support a range of regional communities, including Newcastle, Williamstown and some in South Australia, plus major shipbuilding activities in Western Australia and Tasmania, and we have always gone out of our way to put Australia first. No longer when it comes to the maritime industry does the Howard government put Australia first and the needs of Australian workers and the Australian community first. Let us be square about it: these permits allow foreign vessels to operate for periods of six months in our domestic trade—not a week or a fortnight, but six months. We are effectively saying that we are going to let them in willy-nilly and we couldn't give a bugger about the impact of that decision on—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. B.C. Scott)—Order! There was use of unparliamentary language, and I ask the member to withdraw that word.

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —I withdraw that word, Mr Deputy Speaker. In essence, it effectively means the Howard government could not give a stuff about the application of its maritime policy on Australian industry and workers.

Mr Randall —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The vernacular that the member opposite is using is totally inappropriate language in the House. I ask that he be brought into line. It is street talk; it is not the talk of the federal parliament.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Member for Batman, your language is offending some members, and I ask you to desist from using such language.

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —Mr Deputy Speaker, I find it surprising that my language would in any way offend the member for Canning, given the standards he has applied in the House in the past. As I was saying, it is about the Howard government not giving a damn about the potential impact of its maritime policy on not only the Australian maritime industry but also the shipbuilding industry, the environment and our defence.

These voyage permits operate for six months. But guess what? More than ever, they can now be extended. We have examples where these vessels have been operating for periods of over two years. In the year 1996-97 almost four million tonnes of freight carried was under these permits but, starkly, in the year 2000-01 that figure had risen to almost 10 million tonnes. Foreign vessels with foreign crews are operating under these permits with workers from countries such as the Philippines and the Ukraine competing directly, with big advantages, against Australian companies and Australian workers in the shipping, road and rail industries.

Let us deal with a couple of those advantages, which are added to by the continued application of the energy credits benefits under the bill before the House this morning. Firstly, they are not required to apply Australian award wages and conditions. I wonder what the view of the National Party would be if, all of a sudden, a foreign agricultural company came to Australia and set up an operation on the farm next door to the farm operated by the Deputy Prime Minister, the member for Gwydir. That company would have no requirement to pay Australian taxes and no requirement to pay Australian wages and conditions of employment; it would merely take what it could when it could and undermine the capacity of the Deputy Prime Minister's neighbours to compete on an equal playing field in primary industry. I can tell you that cockies corner would be screaming. They would say, `This is wrong; it is unfair. We want a level playing field.' But, as usual, when it comes to issues that do not affect them, cockies corner is silent. (Extension of time granted) That is what it amounts to: one rule for primary industry but another rule for the maritime industry.

It is not just about wages, conditions and extra benefits under the energy credits bill. Guess what? These overseas operators are not required to pay the same tax as Australian operators—no superannuation tax, no FBT. There is a range of tax measures. That means further benefits for these operators intent on destroying the maritime industry in Australia and intent on destroying jobs and training opportunities for young Australians. I often hear the government talk about the importance of apprenticeships and I, for one, completely agree. We have terrific opportunities in the maritime industry for young Australians who want to go to university and those who want to pursue an apprenticeship opportunity.

In Launceston, in the electorate of the member for Bass, we have a maritime college that we should all be proud of. It was established with one primary objective: to train Australians to work in the maritime industry. I frequently visit that college as part of my shadow ministerial responsibilities. I am dismayed to report that, in this day and age, under the Howard government, representations from that college are made to me, more often than not, not about opportunities to train young Australians but more than ever about how to free up the visa system for overseas students to enable the college to train people from beyond Australian shores to maintain the viability of the college. As an Australian, I think that is a disgrace. I agree with the concept of education as an export. I agree with initiatives that have been put in place by a range of universities to pursue the training of students from overseas, but I believe that our education institutions, first and foremost, should exist to train Australians. They should exist to train Australians, be it in the maritime industry or any other industry, to guarantee that they are skilled and capable of gaining long-lasting employment. That is why we are here. That is why this parliament exists—to operate in the best interests of all Australians.

We have got to a point where that wonderful maritime institution in Tasmania, a Labor government initiative, is no longer viable because of the Howard government's policy on maritime—again, reflected in the energy credits bill. It is not related to the training of Australians but to the training of overseas students. If I were on the other side of the House, I would hang my head in shame. What a failure of government policy. It can be fixed. All the government has to do is have an open mind about the shipping industry report prepared by those well-respected former ministers for transport, John Sharp and Peter Morris.

They were delighted when I went along last week. I basically said that, given my past history as a trade union representative, there were a number of issues in that report that challenged me. But I clearly reported to them that I am prepared to have an open mind, because I actually care about Australian shipping, I actually care about our need to have a viable coastal shipping industry, I actually care about workers having an opportunity to be trained and employed in that industry, I actually care about having ships that are not rust buckets, I actually care about our environment and, importantly, I care about our requirements in terms of defence, especially as more than ever we are now an international terrorist target. We should not walk away from the fact that our backyard, the region in which we live, is now a region of major turmoil. Even today we as a nation are considering sending troops to the Solomon Islands, not far from our own coastal lines, to try to put in place a proper process to assist in, I suppose, securing the future of that nation.

Mr Slipper —Do you oppose that?

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —The member for Fisher wants to play cheap political games. These are major issues of importance. If he cares about defence he will actually be supportive of the comments that I have made today. (Extension of time granted) As you will appreciate, Mr Deputy Speaker Wilkie, because you actually serve on the treaties committee, these are key issues to the defence of Australia. Anyone who cares about defence should stand up, support and fight for a viable coastal shipping industry.

That is why I am dismayed this morning to report to the House that foreign shipping companies, crewed by people from places such as the Philippines and the Ukraine, are going to have under this bill a continuation of grants paid for by Australian taxpayers which do not guarantee Australians a fair go. These vessels being given these concessions are flag of convenience vessels posing, as I have said, significant risks to our marine environment.

I must say that I am also dismayed at the fact that the Democrats had indicated that they supported the Labor amendment with respect to the application of the grants to the maritime industry but, when it came to the crunch last night, the amendment went down because Senators Bartlett and Cherry were not in the Senate chamber. The record speaks for itself. If they actually cared about the maritime industry, all the Democrats would have been there in support of the opposition amendment. I have therefore reported the failure of Senators Bartlett and Cherry to attend the other chamber last night to a range of maritime workers today so as to enable them to get the facts with respect to why this amendment failed. It failed not only because of the position of the government but also because Senators Bartlett and Cherry failed to front up and make sure that they helped secure the passage of this amendment.

I conclude by saying that the opposition is yet to hear a credible argument in the face of this evidence as to why Australian taxpayers should give these operators an excise holiday. That is what it amounts to: an excise holiday. I believe these benefits are worth something of the order of $20 million. I know that $20 million would go a long way in my portfolio. Just by way of information, the Commonwealth is at this point in time $20 million short for its 50 per cent share of the Pakenham bypass. That $20 million would enable us to commence the important feasibility work on the Deer Park bypass. It would enable us to do a hell of a lot of work in a range of regional communities doing it tough.

This bill proposes taxpayers' money goes to overseas operators. That is why the opposition objects to it, and the force of our amendment was to remove that benefit. The opposition believes in a fair go and fair competition. Australian transport operators continue to be dudded by the Howard government with respect to the liberty and access it gives to the domestic transport market. The Howard government has unfortunately continued to exploit every law to advantage foreign ship operators in the name of cheaper shipping costs, not the public interest, not the nation's interest, not Australia's interest. It is a pity that more of the government's time has not been spent dealing with critical issues, such as policies to ensure cleaner fuel, and doing the work to implement commitments that it gives.

I support the bill. The Labor Party has campaigned to ensure its safe passage. It was the pig-headedness of the Treasurer that almost frustrated those endeavours. But I am ashamed as an Australian that this bill uses taxpayers' money to subsidise foreign shipping companies taking Australian jobs from Australians. Taxpayers' money can be better spent.