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Monday, 4 November 1996
Page: 5045

Senator FORSHAW(7.43 p.m.) —Tonight I rise to speak regarding two matters—one is a celebration; the other one, unfortunately, could well be an impending devastation. I want to speak about the community of Helensburgh, a town situated south of Sydney in the Royal National Park. Helensburgh has been a very close-knit community for well over 100 years. It has the distinction of being one of the few areas within the Royal National Park where persons are permitted to live. As I said, it has been a very close-knit community.

On 9 November this year, the Helensburgh Workmen's Club will celebrate its 100th anniversary. The workers club was first formed at a meeting of a group of miners back in November 1896. The miners met to establish the club because they resented the attitude of the publicans who ran the local hotels at the time. As a result of that meeting they resolved to establish the Helensburgh and Lilyvale Workmen's Club and Mutual School of Arts. I am advised that in present day currency, the entrance fee was 25c, with a quarterly subscription of 12c. Obviously, if you paid by the year you got a discount. In its early days, the club struggled to compete against the local publicans. The miners, in the great tradition of mining workers of this country, banded together and kept the club going.

I also understand that the motto of the club in the early days of its existence was `Taste and try before you buy'. Apparently this was a reasonably cheap means of increasing the rather meagre revenue for the club. Within a 14-month period in 1903-1904, the committee of the workers club had written for and sampled, free of charge, no fewer than 11 different wines as well as a range of beers. If nothing else, the committee of the club at the time showed a great sense of ingenuity.

The club was not only a place for a quiet drink and a chat with your mates but also a place where one could listen to lectures given by prominent members of the labour movement. I am reading from an article in the Worker's Journal. I am also advised that the great Australian poet and balladeer Henry Lawson was a regular visitor to and speaker at the club.

The club has gone on to bigger and better things. Last Saturday extensions to the workers club at Helensburgh were opened by Gough Whitlam. When Gough Whitlam first entered parliament he was the member for Werriwa. In those days the seat of Werriwa stretched from about Wollongong in the south, from Cabramatta and the Liverpool area in the west, through to Cronulla on the coast. Helensburgh was one of the many areas in the electorate that had a strong Labor and union presence.

It was great to go down to Helensburgh on Saturday and see the people of the town taking pride in their history and in the important role that the workers club plays—like many other clubs in New South Wales and other states—in its local community. I was certainly very privileged to be there, not specifically as an official guest but rather as a person who has often visited that quiet lovely area within the national park. Sadly, after the celebrations on Saturday, I paid a visit to a picket line at a Helensburgh colliery called the Metropolitan Colliery, which is run by the company Denehurst. The picket line was established by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union because of the impending closure of the colliery. It was sadly ironic that on the same day that we were celebrating the establishment of that club which was created by the miners, we also had this impending devastation facing the workers at the colliery and, indeed, the community. The colliery still employs about 150 workers and is an integral part of the work force of the township and, indeed, of the great history and tradition of this town.

The company Denehurst has placed the colliery into voluntary administration. I understand that a meeting will be held as early as tomorrow to determine the fate of the mine. Unfortunately, there is every prospect that the mine will be closed. I hope that does not happen. The community and, of course, the workers do not want that to happen. It will have some devastating consequences, not only on these workers' employment but also on a lot of other families and on the community that depends very much on the existence of this colliery.

It was appropriate that just before the adjournment debate we were debating the provisions of the workplace relations bill. The attitude adopted by the company on this issue has been nothing short of disgraceful. They had entered into an agreement with the miners federation not so long ago with respect to a continuation of the wages and working conditions, et cetera that applied at this site. As I understand it, they had also signed an agreement with respect to bonuses. Only a couple of weeks ago the union went in to negotiate with the mine management about the level of bonuses for the ensuing period. The response they got was, `There is no point talking to us now because we have just placed the mine in the hands of an administrator.'

There is no doubt that it has been due to the very bad financial and planning management of the company that the colliery has reached this stage. The workers at Metropolitan Colliery have proved themselves amongst the best, if not the best, in terms of producing record tonnages of coal far exceeding the expectations of the colliery management and what those workers were told at the time was required in tonnages to ensure that the pit would remain profitable.

The workers have done their part to keep this colliery operating. There are still substantial recoverable resources of coal in the colliery. But, unfortunately, because of bad management, the company has got itself into a situation of debt and it appears that the ultimate losers will be the workers. If the mine is closed, 150 workers will be retrenched. Also it appears that there is no money available to pay out the retrenchment pay as well as long service leave, holiday pay and other considerations. Somewhere in the vicinity of $2.4 million would be owed to these workers if that sad situation were to eventuate.

I just finish by saying that here we have an example of bad management and also an arrogant disregard by a company for the fate of its workers; workers who have not only worked in one of the most strenuous industries in this country but have also put a heck of a lot into a local community. (Time expired)