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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 6979

Mr BEAZLEY —My question is addressed to the Prime Minister. Prime Minister, do you recall your repeated claims over the past 18 months that you are `looking at ways to protect workers entitlements' in the event of their company's insolvency? For instance, on 2 March last year in this parliament, that you were looking at some kind of trust guarantee system; and, as recently as last Friday on Alan Jones's program, that you are `going to discuss the feasibility of establishing' a fund to protect workers entitlements? Are you aware also that your minister Peter Reith has been making repeated claims over the past 18 months that he is `discussing' this issue with industry and with others, from as early as 6 April last year to as recently as last week? Prime Minister, when are you going to stop looking at and discussing this issue and act to protect all workers whose entitlements are not being paid because of employer insolvency? As a first step, in the mining industry, why won't you agree to a one-off coal levy to fund entitlements lost by decent, hard-working and long-serving miners?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I am aware of those statements, and I am also aware of the fact that the Labor Party had 13 years to fix this and did not do so. The outrage which is now being demonstrated by the Australian Labor Party should be set against the fact that the Labor Party in government explicitly rejected the very change it is now advocating in opposition. I also recall the section of the shadow cabinet submission that was circulated in August of last year in relation to the private member's bill of the member for Prospect. It contains a note from John Angley, who I understand then was, and may still be for all I know, an adviser to the Leader of the Opposition, in which he said this:

The downside of the levy is that it is another cost on jobs. If it is a state-wide fund like workers comp, the cost per worker in the form of premiums inevitably grows. It also reduces the responsibility of employers/owners to fix their own affairs rather than fall back on the fund.

As a result of a cabinet discussion, the government has proposed an amendment to the Corporations Law which will create an offence whereby companies' directors who deliberately arrange the affairs of their companies so as to defeat the entitlement of workers and bona fide entitlees to particular benefits will be subject to criminal penalties and criminal liabilities. The weakness in the case being put by the opposition is the weakness of hypocrisy with a capital H. This opposition, on this issue, sat in government for 13 years and did nothing to cure the situation that they are now with confected outrage talking about.

As is well known, there is a delegation of people from the Oakdale mine in the building. Representatives of that delegation will meet the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business this afternoon as well as the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources. They will be accompanied at that meeting, as I understand, by the Minister for Finance and Administration, who is the local member for the affected mine. They will receive from those three ministers a very comprehensive and sympathetic hearing.

But I want the members of that delegation, when they meet those ministers, and if they have already met representatives of the Australian Labor Party or if they meet them afterwards, just to remember one fact: the Labor Party had 13 years. That does not disentitle them from now arguing for a change, but it does reflect rather profoundly on their bona fides as representatives of the working people of this country.

The Labor Party on this issue, as on so many other issues, is behaving in a very hypocritical fashion. I remind the House of what I said yesterday: in relation to the Cobar mine, as a result of action taken at the instance of the government through the Australian Securities Commission, 85 to 90 per cent of the entitlements of those men were recovered. I would remind the House, without making any claims of wrongdoing under the Corporations Law by the Oakdale companies, that similar action has been taken by the government, and no amount of head shaking by the member for Canberra can alter the fact that you had 13 years to fix this and you did nothing.