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Thursday, 27 May 2004
Page: 29404

Dr EMERSON (4:00 PM) —Statements by government ministers and the member for Indi, through the last hour or so, are false. It is a fact that government minis-ters in this parliament are constitutionally incapable of telling the truth. The small busi-ness minister invited me to deny claims that I told COSBOA at a meeting the night before last that I had not hired staff—

Dr Nelson —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I ask the member to with-draw that reflection on government minis-ters. I will not repeat what he said, but he should withdraw his comment in relation to ministers telling the truth.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—It was in general, and I do not think it was towards an individual. There is no point of order.

Mr Hockey —Mr Deputy Speaker, on the point of order: we took offence at the com-ments and we ask that he withdraw them.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I just ruled that it was not out of order.

Dr EMERSON —The small business minister invited me to deny claims that I told COSBOA at a meeting the other night that I had not hired staff for fear of unfair dismissal laws. I deny that claim. I deny that claim here and now. I denied it this morning at 9 o'clock when I made a personal explanation, a copy of which was personally delivered to the minister's office, and I deny it here again now.

Mr Hockey —You personally deny it?

Dr EMERSON —I deny it here again now, Minister. Which part of that can't you understand?

Mr Hockey —The whole lot.

Dr EMERSON —Which part of that can't you understand?

Mr Hockey —Deny that you ever said that.

Dr EMERSON —The minister invited me to deny it. I do deny it—as I did in that personal explanation. We might just explore the circumstances. There was a COSBOA meeting to which I was invited, along with around 15 or 20 members of the business community—and a staff member of the small business minister. I wonder who the source in this secret meeting might have been. `A little bird', I was told by Dennis Shanahan. He originally said, `A little bird told me,' and then he said, `Oh well, it was a big bird'—big bird Hockey. Big bird Hockey went up to Dennis Shanahan and said, `I've got a secret—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Rankin will refer to members by their seat or by their position.

Dr EMERSON —He said, `I've got a secret to share with you. At this closed secret meeting the member for Rankin said the following things.' That is the source—the little bird who then spoke to the big bird who then spoke to Dennis Shanahan of the Australian. So let us have a look at the claims in the Australian. They include: `... claims that he himself did not hire staff for the same reason' and `... some claim he said that when he ran his own consultancy business he did not hire staff because of his concerns about the laws'. And it goes on to say:

According to several people at the meeting, Dr Emerson then said he had not employed extra staff for his small business because of fears about the unfair dismissal laws.

All that is absolutely false. I deny it absolutely. When I spoke to the journalist in question, I made that clear.

When the journalist rang, there were in my office two members of COSBOA, who were at the meeting the night before, following up a number of matters that we discussed—in front of your Liberal Party staff member, Minister. I said to them, `I've just had a call from Mr Shanahan, who claims that I said that I did not put on staff for fear of unfair dismissal laws,' and both said, `That's completely untrue. What can we do about it?' I said, `Perhaps we could get someone to ring Mr Shanahan'—and so they did. The man who in fact rang Mr Shanahan was Rob Mallett. Rob Mallett rang Mr Shanahan to say, `The statements that are attributed to Craig Emerson are untrue—were never made.' Mr Shanahan, the journalist, said to me, `I have now been rung by Rob Mallett, who has advised me of the contents of his conversation with you.' I said to Mr Shanahan, `He has advised that the statement attributed to your source is untrue.' Mr Shanahan said, `Thanks for the emails. I have spoken to Rob Mallett and will include his denial.' The official spokesperson from COSBOA—

Mr Hockey —Official spokesperson?

Dr EMERSON —rang Dennis Shanahan and Dennis Shanahan said, `I will include his denial in the story.' I looked for the denial in the story—which I would think would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do, given that Mr Shanahan said that he would include the denial—but I could not find it. So I contacted Mr Shanahan again and I said, `You failed to keep your commitment as set out in your email to me. In that story there is no mention of Rob Mallett's denial. I also provided you with the phone number of Alan McKenzie. Why didn't you ring him? I could have provided others too.' Mr Shanahan said in response, `I don't have final say on what bits of the story appear in the paper.'

Dr EMERSON —So there you go: he filed it and it was removed. But COSBOA denied the claims when they spoke to Mr Shanahan—and COSBOA are right. The COSBOA spokesperson contacted Mr Shanahan and said, `This is untrue.' I heard the member for Indi use the word `b...s...'. In fact, when I rang this particular fellow, he said, `That is b...s....'

Mr Hockey —Which fellow?


Dr EMERSON —And he was not talking about bachelors and spinsters, I can tell you.

Mr Hockey —Which fellow?

The SPEAKER —The minister is warned!

Dr EMERSON —Mr Mallett said it was b...s... —and it is b...s...! The truth of the matter is that the government, since the paper appeared this morning—

Mr Swan —You are in trouble, Joe.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Lilley will be in just as much trouble!

Dr EMERSON —has been hammering members of COSBOA, trying to get them to put out a statement and even produce statutory declarations, and members of COSBOA are pretty unhappy about this. They are pretty unhappy about the intimidation by this government to try to get them to put out false statements—and they will not put out false statements.

As a consequence, you may see a statement from COSBOA saying: `This was Chatham House rule but we do not want to enter into it.' That is fair enough but, of course, it was never Chatham House rule—God bless their little cotton socks! They said it was Chatham House rule, but I point out that a Liberal Party staff member was there. So I conducted a conversation lasting 2½ hours, in front of a Liberal Party staffer, knowing I was in a public meeting. At the end of the meeting, they said, `We reiterate that this was Chatham House rule.' I said: `Again, Mr Chairman, there is no prospect of it being Chatham House rule, nor do I want it to be. As far as I'm concerned, this is a public meeting because a staff member of the Minister for Small Business and Tourism has been at the dinner table all night taking notes'. And I anticipated that he would do what they always do, which is to rush back and say: `I've got a little secret. No-one noticed that I was there.' Of course, we did notice that he was there, and it did not bother me in the slightest. I was participating in an open meeting and that is why I absolutely deny the statements attributed to me, that I said that I did not hire staff as a result of concerns about the unfair dismissal laws. There is one other objective fact that refutes this: I did hire a staff member—

Mr Hockey —A casual worker.

Dr EMERSON —Oh, it was only a casual worker. Is that right, Mr Hockey? I thought you were pretty keen on casuals. He says it was only a casual worker. We hired a staff member for a specific project, and when the work on that project was completed we terminated the employment. She was quite happy. She got some money. We terminated her employment with no difficulty. How could I possibly have said that I did not hire any staff because of fear of the unfair dismissal laws when, in fact, I did hire staff? That is what I set out in the personal explanation this morning. Big bird went up to the press gallery all in a flap. He went to Dennis Shanahan. Dennis Shanahan said to me, `The big bird told me.' He went up there in a flap and said, `There was this secret meeting, and—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Rankin will refer to members by either their title or their seat.

Dr EMERSON —Minister Big Bird went up there flapping his wings—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Rankin will refer to people by their title or by their seat.

Dr EMERSON —as if he had some great secret. This is the minister who was demoted because he was the only person in the government—or just about anywhere else in the business community—who failed to see the HIH collapse coming—`I didn't know anything about that. I am only the responsible minister!'

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Braddon is warned!

Dr EMERSON —The fact is that the government's policy on unfair dismissal laws is absolutely opposed by Labor. We believe that every working Australian, whether employed in a bigger business or a smaller business, has a right to protection against being dismissed unfairly. In the form of a private member's bill, we have put forward a proposal to streamline the processes. But we will continue. When are you going to get the message? You say it is 40 or 41 times. When will the government get the message that we will not pass that legislation?

If that legislation were somehow to pass, and that remedy were not available, two remedies still are available. One of them is the common law right to claim against being dismissed unfairly, and the other is the antidiscrimination process. If people go through the antidiscrimination process it will be much more protracted, much more expensive and will defeat the entire purpose that this government says it has in exempting small businesses from the unfair dismissal laws. That is why we will not support it. We expect that every Australian has a right to be protected against unfair dismissal, whether they are in a big business or a small business. In any event, if the government were to get the legislation through, it would not be better for small business; it would be worse. It would be much worse for small business. The fact is that this government continually and deliberately misrepresents Labor policy. Why do I say that the government misrepresents Labor policy?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Rankin will withdraw `deliberately misrepresents'.

Dr EMERSON —The government misrepresents Labor policy. This minister is a habitual offender in misrepresenting Labor policy. He said earlier in the year:

... the Labor Party intends to force employers to provide additional benefits to casual employees, such as holiday and sick leave. This ignores the fact that many casual employees already receive loading to compensate for these benefits.

The ALP intends forcing its solution on the workplace, where many employees have chosen casual employment for the flexibility it offers.

Mr Swan —Another lie.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Lilley will withdraw that comment.

Mr Swan —I withdraw.

Dr EMERSON —It was completely untrue. Then, on 6 May, the same minister said: `The fact is, Labor's proposals would be compulsory.' That is also completely untrue. He then said that Labor has a plan for a national portable long service leave scheme. That is also completely untrue. Just recently, the member for Dobell sent a letter—no doubt drafted in the ministry of truth, in the minister's own department or office—which said the following about Labor's industrial relations laws:

1. Labor will force employers to pay long service leave to employees who have accrued that entitlement in previous jobs under different circumstances.

That is completely untrue.

2. Labor will coerce small businesses to convert their casual employees to part-time permanents, with all the extra costs involved.

Completely untrue.

3. Labor will extend the power of union officials to enter businesses, including home based businesses.

Untrue. We will not be extending the powers of unions to go into homes. The letter goes on to say that Labor will allow unlimited strikes. That is also completely untrue.

The fact is that this government is getting desperate. This government knows that it is in its last months, perhaps in its last weeks. Do you know what this government does when it gets into trouble? It makes misleading statements—and I am being very polite. It made untrue statements in relation to the night that I shared with members of COSBOA and, ever since, has sought to intimidate them into putting out false statements about what I said.

This is the government that said there would never, ever be a GST. We all remember that. It is the government that said there would be no $100,000 university fees. Who said that? The Prime Minister of Australia—not once, not twice; many times. This is the government whose former health minister, before the last election, when asked on Meet the Press whether the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme was sustainable, said, `Yes, of course it's sustainable.' After the election the government introduced legislation to increase payments by families in relation to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, a measure that we have blocked. They also said that health insurance premiums would fall as a result of measures they had adopted.

But probably the most infamous statement was to do with the `children overboard' affair, when they knew that children had not been thrown overboard but went to the election saying that they had been, because it suited them. This is a desperate government that has no grasp of the truth. It is a government that is constitutionally incapable of telling the truth. It is a serial offender and it should be condemned for bringing this motion into the parliament.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Rankin!