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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2151

Mr GIBBONS (9:46 AM) —On 28 June, Frew Abattoirs in Kyneton announced that it would shut down most of its operations, resulting in 150 employees losing their jobs. This company has succumbed to the pressure caused by large export abattoirs dumping excess export products onto the domestic market at a much reduced price. Frew Kyneton provided meat products totally for the domestic market. The company has always enjoyed a good relationship with their employees and the union and the decision to scale down their operations was a bitter blow to the company, meatworkers and their families as well as the Kyneton economy.

Kyneton meatworkers with families who received part of their termination payment from the previous financial year run the risk of incurring substantial Centrelink debt under the Howard government's unfair family payment system. Some former employees at Frews in Kyneton received part of their termination package last financial year and obviously did not factor in the amounts when previously applying for family payment benefits under the current system. These workers could not have predicted the situation they now find themselves in and, through no fault of their own, will have to pay back large sums under the government's grossly unfair family payment system. Added to that, the likelihood of not being able to immediately claim unemployment benefits because of these payments initially made their situation far worse.

I have written to the relevant ministers and departments to try to get some concessions given these appalling circumstances, but so far I have received very little by way of response. This is yet another example of just how callous and unfair the Howard government's family payment system is in its current form. Recently we witnessed a blatant vote-buying scandal by the Howard government in allocating the so-called $600 family payment dividends and baby bonuses. As usual, this government comprehensively botched the delivery of these funds resulting in many families receiving multiple amounts in error. Because of this vote-buying stunt by the Prime Minister, they have stated that there will be no requirement to pay back any overpayments, while Kyneton meatworkers, thousands of pensioners and others who have innocently understated their incomes for family payment and other benefits are forced to repay the amounts.

This is nothing short of scandalous and I call on the Howard government to provide the act of grace scenario as outlined in a letter I received from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration on 2 July. These workers have worked hard under difficult circumstances and, through no fault of their own, will be penalised—in some cases many thousands of dollars—because of this government's incompetence and dishonesty. In this election environment, I will continue to push hard to ensure that the government acknowledges its incompetence and provides necessary adjustments to ensure that these workers get a fair go. Centrelink, on my request, provided an information seminar for those affected on the Thursday following the closure announcement. I want to place on the record my appreciation to them for providing those services. I seek leave to table three letters to the relevant ministers outlining this appalling situation.

Leave granted.

Mr GIBBONS —There is one letter to Senator Kay Patterson, dated 30 June; one letter to the former Minister for Employment Services, Mal Brough, dated 1 July; and one letter to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration, Mr Slipper, dated 5 July.