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Exchange Plaza, Perth, 10 February 2000: transcript of media conference [National Textiles; job figures; Esmeralda disaster]

Kim Beazley - Media Conference

 

Subjects: National Textiles, Job Figures, Esmeralda Disaster

 

Transcript - Exchange Plaza, Perth - 10 February 2000

 

E & OE - Proof Only

 

BEAZLEY: John Howard has allowed the office of Prime Minister to be diminished by a clear perception of conflict of interest. Not even John Howard can deny this widespread perception of a conflict of interest in relation to the National Textiles situation since he himself felt obliged to call a press conference today to explain the discussions he has had with his brother over this matter. This is not a recent view on my part. When I addressed the workers at Rutherford earlier in this week I suggested that consideration of this matter should be placed in the hands of the Deputy Prime Minister.

 

So, the Prime Minister has allowed his office to be diminished by his involvement with what is a perception of a clear conflict of interest. And he must rectify that situation now.

 

I would remind him that he obliged one of his Ministers early in his term of office who had, not an actual, but a perceived conflict of interest to stand aside on that occasion.

 

I should stress that the Opposition supports the workers at National Textiles getting every cent that they are entitled to. We are of that view on this occasion and throughout this dispute.

 

And it all would have been easily solved if the Prime Minister had accepted our advice, some months ago now to proceed with a national scheme. Not a national scheme that was a burden on taxpayers, but a national scheme of insurance involving employers, who, after all, are the people responsible for their workers' entitlements. He said that he would have that in place, or his Minister on his behalf said that he'd have that in place by 1 January this year.

 

Had that been so, these concerns in relation to the workers would not have arisen.

 

However, the schemes were not in place. And, therefore, it is a matter that should have been handled at arm's length from the Prime Minister.

 

JOURNALIST: Has he intervened in any other way?

 

BEAZLEY: Well, I don't know the detail of the Prime Minister's conversations in this regard. Except to say of course, that he considers himself to have a problem with perception here otherwise he wouldn't have been out there today talking about it. What I would say that the Prime Minister ought to do now because there is a deal of water to flow under the bridge on this matter, he must place this matter in the hands of the Deputy Prime Minister out of his own.

 

JOURNALIST: There is some suggestion though, that he placed pressure on the administrators not to inquire into National Textiles and his brother's involvement.

 

BEAZLEY: I see that that allegation has been made. That allegation could only be made while this perception is maintained. The Prime Minister apparently said to the Cabinet - that he had a potential conflict of interest there and he invited his Cabinet colleagues to determine whether or not he should have remained in the room while these matters were considered and the associated matters which may have arisen in relation to what was being obliged of the administrators in the case of National Textiles. The Cabinet unwisely, in my view, allowed the Prime Minister to stay. They should not have. And even if the Cabinet had said that he could stay, he is after all the Prime Minister and he should have exited at that point anyway.

 

JOURNALIST: So do you agree with sentiments in The Australian that seemed to indicate that he was going to bail his brother out?

 

BEAZLEY: I don't have the evidence. Only the Prime Minister knows exactly what has transpired between himself and his brother and others associated with National Textiles. Suffice to say the sorts of allegations that appeared in The Australian could not have appeared if the Prime Minister had placed this in the first instance in the hands of either his Industry Minister or the deputy Prime Minister. That is what he should have done. You know, we have a situation here where workers have, or may well get their just entitlements and we would want to support that. We would want to support that for all workers. We wanted to support that for the workers at Braybrook in Victoria where they did not get their full entitlements and circumstances not all that dissimilar from those that we are considering here. And indeed we note that Mr Reith promised that he would have a scheme in place by the 1st January. The Scheme that they have come up with is worthless, absolutely worthless. And it does the wrong thing it puts the burden on tax payers. It is not a tax payers responsibility in the final analysis, it is an employers responsibility. And we put forward a scheme, we don't operate in a non-constructive way here we have had three Bills in Parliament concerning this and we have also put forward a scheme that would do the job and do it affordably for Australian business and it is a pity that they did not act on their undertakings it would have saved the Prime Minister a deal of angst as far as this particluar issue is concerned but he could have saved himself a whole lot more if he had had this matter in the hands of his Deputy.

 

JOURNALIST: So you feel the scheme should be extended to cover the workers of Braybrook?

 

BEAZLEY: I think the scheme should be extended. The scheme that we are advocating should be extended to cover all workers because that is the people who would be covered by it. It is not that hard to get in place. What we have suggested is that there should be a point one addition to the superannuation guarantee levy. It is interesting to note that in the National Textiles case this would have been an imposition on the company of about $15,000 a year. The Directors insurance scheme at National Textiles, and we don't object to the Directors having an insurance scheme to protect themselves against a suit in regard to their responsibilities as Directors. It is costing the Company $26,000 a year. It is not an un-affordable prospect. It is of course not un-affordable because it would be universal in its application. So we think these things should have been done. But we get back to the main point here and that is that the Prime Minister has allowed his office to be diminished by the appearance, the perception of a conflict of interest in his handling of this situation.

 

JOURNALIST: What should he do now?

 

BEAZLEY: What the Prime Minister should do immediately and we are yet to have an opportunity to examine the facts that he laid out today. But what he should do immediately, because this is not yet a concluded matter is to say today that he is placing all further consideration of this matter in the hands of the Deputy Prime Minister. So that anything that is done from this point on, the relationship between the Government and the Administrator, the dealings with the workers in terms of retraining arrangements and in relation to pay outs from this point on at least is out of his hands completely.

 

JOURNALIST: You speak and it has been noted about the perceived vested interest do you think there are grounds to inquire further in to it to see if that perception is actually reality?

 

BEAZLEY: Oppositions always call for inquiries and inquiries are often warranted. Inquiries in this case may well be warranted. We need to examine what it is that the Prime Minister has said at this point. We need to look at where he takes this matter from this point onwards before we go down that particular road. Needless to say, Question Time operates in a way that gives us a chance to raise this issue and we will see what further needs to be done. But there is something that needs to be done immediately - and what needs to be done immediately is that this perceived conflict of interest comes to an end by the Prime Minister exiting any further consideration of the matter himself and placing it in the hands of the Deputy.

 

JOURNALIST: On to Telstra, the CEOs flagged plans to possibly float its most successful business aspects, such as online and the like. Do you think that is a privatisation by stealth?

 

BEAZLEY: Telstra has to conduct its affairs as it sees fit. Our concern is with who owns Telstra now and our concern with Telstra is that we should maintain a majority Australian ownership in it now so that the Government can influence Telstra in doing the things that it ought to do in relation to providing services to all Australians but in particular to Australians who are currently deprived in the communications areas and those are Australians in regional Australia.

 

JOURNALIST: With the plans they are looking at floating their most successful aspects of online, mobile etc leaving just sort of the less profitable areas of Telstra. Do you think that is leaving them where...

 

BEAZLEY: Well, I think I would be disturbed by any floating of basic telephony. The business arrangements that apply to agreements that enter into in relation to other forms of services provided like - their online services, that is a matter that they have to consider. But any floating of the basic telephony that is Telstra's fundamental purpose is something I think ought to be looked at.

 

JOURNALIST: Your reaction to the jobs figures today?

 

BEAZLEY: Today's job figures are a sad commentary on where this government has left encouraging people into the workforce. The reduction in the unemployment rate is entirely a product, entirely a product of a lower participation rate and it is not as though our participation rate was going gang busters. It is way below where it was when Labor left office. People are being encouraged out of the workforce by this Government when everyone knows that the best way to secure your future is to be in the workforce and we now have, the Reserve Bank tells us, skill shortages coming up in a way that causes them to be worried in particular, about what we would argue is a GST impact on wage demands. And as a result of that we have interest rates going up and that is bad news for business investment. And business investment has been the ghost at the feast, if you like, of Australian growth over the course of the last few years.

 

JOURNALIST: What about the Esmeralda environmental fiasco..?

 

BEAZLEY: Well, quite clearly I think the company should accept some responsibility in relation to the clean up. Now, I don't know what the levels of responsibilities for the Romanian Government or for the firm but you would have to say prima facie if there has been a leak from the mine then the miners bear part responsibility for that and I would hope that they would take a view that they have responsibilities for it.

 

JOURNALIST: What about the delays in notifying the stock exchange?

 

BEAZLEY: Of this situation? I am not really familiar with what it is that they have done. So, I don't want to go around branding a company in regard to it, except to say if there was a link between something that they have done and an environmental disaster, they like any company anywhere, be they Australian or foreign ought to accept some responsibility for assisting.

 

JOURNALIST: Bob Brown and the Democrats have said that Australian companies operating overseas should be subject to Australian laws. What is Labor's position on that?

 

BEAZLEY: I think Australian companies operating overseas ought to operate to the highest environmental standards and to the highest workplace standards that we would regard as desirable. Now, of course, they have to obey the laws of the country in which they reside. But Australian companies carry with them, to some extent, the Australian badge when they go overseas. So when something like this occurs, then you would hope that the company would, as a company would here, accept responsibility and deal with it.

 

JOURNALIST: But do you think that should be enshrined in law?

 

BEAZLEY: I think, there is always a problem with extra territoriality in law. I do think that any company coming to this country ought to abide by Australian standards and any Australian company going overseas ought to abide by the standards that apply in that country. If you were attempting to argue otherwise you might start to raise sovereignty issues. But there is a wider obligation, a wider obligation and that is to conduct yourself in a fashion that does not threaten the environment. And I don't know the details here of Esmeralda's operation at all and we probably never will know the detail here of Esmeralda's operations because it is not being conducted under the Australian framework. But I would just hope, as good Aussies abroad, that they behave in a way in this regard, I don't know who's fault it is that this occurred and I don't want to attribute blame but there is obvious association with the operation of the mine and an environmental problem and they ought to be part of the solution.

 

JOURNALIST: Some people are saying that they have drawn the analogy with sex tourism. If it is good enough for us to legislate with sex tourism why not do it for environmental standards?

 

BEAZLEY: I think that sex tourism is posing particular problems in this country because in many ways those particular tours are advocated or sold or dispensed from within Australia and that puts some very particular obligations on us. The obligations here arise from responsibilities of the Romanian Government and to the central European situation generally. Australians are good miners. We are operating in many parts of the globe and we are operating good mines and I have got no reason to believe that this isn't a good mine too. I don't know the reasons for this spill. I don't think any of us know the reasons for this spill but suffice to say there is a relationship here with the operations of Esmeralda and they have got to be part of the solution to the problem.

 

JOURNALIST: How do you think this sort of thing impacts on our industries though in terms of how we are viewed overseas? Do you think it does have a reasonable impact?

 

BEAZLEY: You have got to be aware of it. And that is why when something like this occurs, which may be no fault of the company. You know, we don't know but whether the fault resides with them or not, or the fault resides in Romanian standards or not. We don't know these things but what we do know is that they are part of it and being part of it they have to be part of the solution.

 

Ends

 

Authorised by Gary Gray, 19 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600.