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Wednesday, 19 September 2001
Page: 31001

Mr BEVIS (3:30 PM) —What we have seen for the last few months is policy on the run over workers' entitlements, but that is not new. That is the approach that the government have adopted since they were confronted with the Oakdale miners dispute. We have had the Stan policy—the special Stan policy for National Textiles. That is the Stan-alone policy; no-one else gets into that one. That is where the Commonwealth put in not just their normal general-fund payment but a special top-up payment—an extra payment out of a different bucket of money that has never, ever to this day been accessed by a single worker anywhere in Australia other than the workers at National Textiles. The government then brought in a general policy that was a safety net, but it has been so inadequate that it has become patently obvious even to the government that it is a complete and utter failure. The Prime Minister's admission after the special cabinet meeting last Friday that they had to change the system was a belated recognition of what we have been saying for the last two years and what every Australian worker has understood: that the government's general scheme was totally inadequate and failed to provide anywhere near the sort of protection that workers were entitled to. Now we have mark III, which is the special Ansett arrangements, and we are about to get mark IV, which is the special general scheme for everybody: `It's a bit like Ansett, but it's not really the Ansett scheme; it's something different.'

Ansett workers, like all workers, want secure jobs. They want to be able to do the things for which they are highly trained and very professional. That is what they want. If they cannot have job security—if it is going to be ripped away from them—they want to have income security. They at least want to know that their entitlements that have been put aside for them—for many of them, their life savings—are actually going to be there and that the money that is owed to them will be paid to them. But they know, because they have seen it happen to other workers, and at Ansett they are seeing it at first-hand, that for too many workers that has not been possible. The Liberal response to that is to put in place a rambling set of policies on the run—four policies in two years, all of them designed to give back a little bit of what was all yours to start with. The government seem to think that if they give back a little bit of what was yours to begin with, that is good enough and you can walk away from it.

We need to correct a few things on the record today. During question time, the Prime Minister asserted that the offer had been made to get the Ansett pilots back into the air, but the unions would not allow them to fly on Qantas wages. That was totally untrue—it was a lie. That is not the facts.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)— The member for Brisbane will withdraw that remark.

Mr BEVIS —I withdraw it. The Ansett Pilots Association has categorically rejected any suggestion that it has been approached by Qantas offering any contracts to fly. The APA has not had discussions with Qantas about anything in the last couple of weeks. The Ansett Pilots Association is completely unaware of any approach to any Ansett pilot by Qantas offering contracts to fly. Qantas has not approached the ACTU regarding contracts for Ansett pilots and crews. Nobody has approached the Ansett Pilots Association suggesting that Qantas is willing to offer contracts to fly. Yet just an hour ago, the Prime Minister stood here in this parliament and asserted absolutely the opposite to that set of facts.

Mr O'Connor —It was untrue.

Mr BEVIS —It was untrue, it was misleading and it was unfair to those pilots and crew at Ansett who have enough problems to face today without having the Prime Minister of the country stand in this place and blackguard and misrepresent them in the way in which he has.

Mr Kelvin Thomson —Mean and tricky.

Mr BEVIS —The statements made today, as my colleague has said, were mean and tricky. The pilots and crew of Ansett do not deserve to be treated like that by anybody. They certainly do not deserve to be treated like that by the Prime Minister of Australia. In question time today I referred to one employee who is owed $100,000 and is going to get $20,000 out of it. He had worked at Ansett for 29 years. That is longer than the Prime Minister has been in parliament, and heaven knows he has been here too long. That fellow has worked at Ansett for 29 years. Under the enhanced scheme, not the old scheme that they now accept is no good but the brand spanking new scheme with stars and bells on it, he is going to get $20,000 out of the $100,000 that is owed to him. The government and the minister at the table say that workers should be happy with that and walk away with smiles on their faces.

Let me refer to a couple of others who are in a similar boat. Peter Campbell has worked at Ansett for 20 years—another long-term employee. Under the government's scheme, the new scheme that was heralded from the special cabinet meeting last week, he will get just over $27,000 out of a debt of $72,000. There is a third case. These are just a few; there are many more, because, to its credit, the workers at Ansett in the main are long-term employees. They joined the company with a career option in mind. They have stayed with the company, they have stayed in the industry, they have been loyal, hardworking, professional people, and for their trouble they have been penalised. Joe Gagliano has been with the company for 17 years. He is owed $71,000 and he will get back about $29,000 if the government give him all that they say he is due.

The government shroud this in a fiction. They talk about statutory entitlements as though it were an immaculate idea that there are statutory rights and that is it. Prime Minister, what they are entitled to is their legal rights, not some fiction that you create and call a statutory entitlement. They are entitled to their legal rights. They are entitled to the money that is in their awards and agreements. That is what they are entitled to—not a little bit of it, and not some formula that you concoct because you know that you are in trouble on this issue in the electorate. I might say that it took you two years, screaming all the way, after a series of collapses, to eventually get to the point where 16,000 workers lost their jobs in one day and it took all of that before this government were willing to accept what every worker in Australia had been saying about these matters, and they said that they had to change it. However, at the end of all that, the workers are left with about 20 or 30 per cent of their entitlements. Under their scheme, the longer you work with a company, the more disadvantaged you are. That is the kernel of their scheme. That is the reward you get as a long-term employee with the dedication and contribution of the people like the three I mentioned, and so many others, at Ansett.

We saw the minister doing a doorstop yesterday to talk about his new scheme. It is instructive that the minister chooses to do these things by press release and doorstop. It is too much to expect him to come into the House and provide a ministerial statement which we might actually scrutinise and debate, let alone a bill or a piece of legislation to underpin all this. Let me remind members of this House what happened when this government were dragged, kicking and screaming, during the Oakdale miners dispute to do something about this issue—and that was one of the victories that the Minister for Finance and Administration had over the then Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, who thought the workers should get nothing. At that time, we saw the Treasurer weighing in, as it were, on the side of the Labor Party's argument in that debate.

During the Oakdale miners dispute, the Treasurer advocated that there should be a scheme to which employers are required to make a contribution to cover these entitlements and that the taxpayer should not have to pick up the whole bill. According to a press report at the time referring to the government's so-called proposed safety net:

The Prime Minister has backed the scheme, but Mr Costello said last week that he supported employers being held responsible in the event of insolvency leaving employees in limbo.

The government should have taken Peter Costello's advice last year. Had they taken the Treasurer's advice, they might have picked up Labor's plan, because two years ago we actually gave them the prescription to resolve this with a national scheme. They still baulked at bringing in a properly functioning national scheme to guarantee 100 per cent of workers' entitlements and of course they now intend to require the taxpayer to pick up all the bill to pay for the mismanagement of the corporate world.

At the doorstop the minister did yesterday because he could not bring in a bill, he was like his predecessor in 1999 when the government said that they were to have legislation in place before January 2000. Two years after Peter Reith, the then Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, made that commitment in August 1999, we still do not have one piece of paper before parliament. At no point in two years have they put one piece of paper before parliament to deal with employee entitlements. Two years after they made that promise we still do not have it. That minister and the current minister at the table have managed to put 1,300 pages of legislation into this parliament on industrial relations to take things away from workers. They can reduce people's rights—there were 1,300 pages of that—but not one page, not one line and not one word on a piece of paper in this parliament to discuss, much less underpin, their employee entitlement scheme.

It was little wonder that the self-defined L-plate minister at the table stood before a press conference yesterday to talk about the new scheme. He said:

We have indicated that we will extend the general scheme to mirror in broad terms the kind of protection that we are now offering Ansett employees. We have indicated that we will pick up 100 per cent of employee entitlements.

That sounds pretty good, but he then went on, in that mean, sneaky way that has become the trademark of this government, to say, `As guaranteed by the expanded scheme.' The people who heard him say `100 per cent employee entitlements' might have thought that they were going to get it all, but they are not. They are going to get 100 per cent of this magical formula that the cabinet has put in place, which is actually 20 per cent of the money they are owed. You will get 100 per cent of the formula, and the formula is 20 per cent of the dollars you are entitled to. That is the scheme, and if that is not mean and tricky I do not know what is.

The journalists were a bit bewildered by this. The journalists kept ringing me up yesterday afternoon trying to make sense of the gobbledegook the minister went on with, because they sure as hell did not know what he was talking about. The minister went on to say, `However, that doesn't mean that all workers would get their full entitlements.' Immediately after saying that they are going to get 100 per cent, when he was quizzed he said, `But they won't get all their entitlements if their employer goes into liquidation.' He said:

We are not putting any cap on Ansett employees' entitlements except for redundancy, but in terms of the general scheme, well, we might have to put some caps on.

He starts out saying that they are going to get 100 per cent and then he says, `It's only going to be 100 per cent of our formula,' and then, to make it clear, he says, `Well, you won't get all your money,' and then he says, `And we might put some caps on, but we haven't figured out what they are.' This might be described as policy on the run, as a minister flip-flopping or as a government on the back foot as they try to make some sense of a quagmire in which they have placed themselves.

There was another interesting comment on the wire yesterday from the other culprit in all this: the transport minister and Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson. He was asked whether the levy would be adequate to meet the cost and his answer was, `Yes, as we have defined the entitlements.' In other words, `We'll have enough money there to give them what we think they should get, not what they are actually legally owed.'

There is an alternative to this quagmire and mess, and it is Labor's national scheme that we have had before the government. We even gave the former minister a written submission to his inquiry in 1999 setting out in detail how it could be done. They have missed the boat and have missed their opportunity. They have missed the boat even to deal with the easy part of corporate restructures. This morning, the Leader of the Opposition sought to bring on his private member's bill which would have enabled the courts to deal with that problem. It is rather galling to see the Prime Minister and others talk about chasing Air New Zealand when they defeated legislation in this parliament to do just that. However, we know why that happened. It is because the government's heart is not in it and the Prime Minister's heart is not in it.

We know that the Prime Minister during the Oakdale miners dispute went on the Alan Jones program and repeatedly defended the rights of companies to use this worker fund for themselves—to use it as if it was some sort of unsecured, interest-free loan the workers had just handed over. It is not. At the election in a couple of months time people in Australia will know that there are only two ways to protect workers' entitlements in this country: you put Stan Howard on the board as chairman of directors, or you put Kim Beazley in the Lodge as Prime Minister, which is exactly what they will do.