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Wednesday, 8 August 2001
Page: 29435

Mr BILLSON (2:41 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business. Is the minister aware of a statement made by Labor premiers who refuse to join the government's workers' entitlements scheme? How will the actions of the Labor premiers in relation to this scheme make disadvantaged workers in their states even worse off?

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business) —I thank the member for Dunkley for his question and for the concern he has to protect workers' entitlements. Let me say, particularly to members opposite who support the Manusafe scheme, that the protection of workers' entitlements is a very important issue, but it does not justify shutting down a major Australian industry. You do not protect workers' entitlements by taking away the right to work of tens of thousands of your fellow Australians. I am aware that members opposite now think that the only way to protect entitlements is through schemes like Manusafe. But this certainly was not always their view. I have a letter from the then minister for industrial relations, Ralph Willis, who said:

The establishment of a wage-earner protection fund is opposed. It would impose an unfair burden on the greater proportion of employers who conduct their businesses efficiently.

He went on to say:

Such a fund may also act as a disincentive to some employers to conduct their businesses on a responsible and proper financial basis.

That is not all. I have here a document that was released in 1992, when none other than the Leader of the Opposition was minister for employment. This document was issued by the then Attorney-General, Michael Duffy, and dealt with this whole issue of the protection of workers' entitlements and the establishment of a wage protection fund. At the time when the gentleman opposite was minister for employment, Mr Duffy said:

... the fund would be a further imposition on existing successful businesses, and it would be better to retain and develop, where possible, existing employee priority provisions.

Mr Speaker, I table those two documents. The Leader of the Opposition needs to explain why a Manusafe type fund was so wrong when he was in government but so right now that he is in opposition.

Unlike the former government, this government has not neglected the issue of employee entitlements. The difference between our scheme and all the other proposals floating around is that our scheme does not cost jobs because our scheme is not a levy on payroll.

I am aware of a statement by the Labor premiers yesterday, saying that they would not join the government's scheme. That statement means that a South Australian worker who has lost entitlements gets twice as much as a worker in any other Labor state. It means that workers in Labor states are missing out on thousands of dollars—to suit the political concerns of the Labor Party. It means that the Labor premiers are refusing to pay a single dollar to workers who have lost entitlements and who are therefore facing perhaps the most calamitous time in their lives. The Labor premiers believe that the federal government scheme is less than perfect, but I say to them, `Surely, something is better than nothing.'

The Leader of the Opposition likes to quote people to the Prime Minister. Let me quote Mr Thomas Beard, who worked for a Queensland company that went broke and was unable to pay entitlements. Mr Beard said:

I have written to the Queensland state government asking them why they are not participating in the scheme. If they were, I would have got over $17,000 of what I was owed instead of only half that amount, $8½ thousand.

It is a fair question. Premier Beattie ought to answer it and all the other Labor premiers ought to answer it. If members opposite were really concerned about workers, they would tell their state Labor colleagues to join the government's scheme.