ABC 612 BRISBANE – MORNINGS WITH STEVE AUSTIN
FRIDAY, 11 MARCH 2016
SUBJECT/S: Queensland Nickel workers
STEVE AUSTIN, HOST: The Federal Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten is in Townsville today. Bill Shorten, good morning to you.
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good morning, Steve.
AUSTIN: Bill Shorten, what have you seen?
SHORTEN: I have been talking with the representatives of the workers, the AWU and Cowboy Stockham. I have also met with the Mayor of Townsville, Jenny Hill. They have been explaining the consequences beyond even just the catastrophic news that 550 people are losing their direct jobs.
AUSTIN: What are the consequences?
SHORTEN: Well there are lots of indirect jobs, 1600 plus indirect jobs who earn their livelihood out of this refinery. So you're talking about an economic meteor hitting Townsville of about 2000 jobs really badly affected. And let's not forget, 265 people have already been laid off from the refinery. This is the size of a car factory closing and it really requires that sort of seriousness of a response. But my first concern today is talking to the administrator, understanding how has it got to this situation where the blame game is about and Townsville and lots of hard working people and families are going to have incredible pressure thrust upon them through no fault of their own.
AUSTIN: It's said that the knock-on economic activity from that refinery is nearly $1 billion. What can be done? The administrators have no choice but to sack the workers and everyone is waiting to hear from Clive Palmer about what he is going to do and if he is going to rehire any of those workers. So what can be done, Bill Shorten?
SHORTEN: Well, the first thing is whether or not Clive Palmer is going to rehire these workers. I have to say, Clive Palmer has got some explaining to do to do here. I'm going to go and catch up with the administrators, so I'll have a clearer set of facts. But from talking to Cowboy Stockham, who represent a lot of the refinery operators, the men and woman who work there have been lead up and down the garden path. In terms of what can be done, the first thing to do is make sure they get the money that's owing to them. Now, I've contacted the Prime Minister Mr Turnbull overnight and I've encouraged him to fast track the safety net scheme which exists and make up the short fall on workers entitlements. But beyond that I think more needs to be done. There's the Townsville Stadium project, there's big roads and infrastructure which can be fast tracked. I think that the upgrade to the Bruce Highway needs to be moved along quicker than they are. I'll be talking with Townsville business and the Mayor Jenny Hill has got plans to see how we can start trying to make the best of this very diabolical set of circumstances.
AUSTIN: Bill Shorten, the federal law has a thing called the Fair Entitlement Guarantee and as I understand it that's now in limbo because the company is technically no longer in liquidation and as a result that entitlement guarantee cannot be activated. Can you address that at all?
SHORTEN: Yes, you can. I was the minister who introduced these laws into Parliament. I believe there is discretion. The problem you're describing is that there is a safety net scheme which is triggered when a company is liquidated, the problem here is that men and woman have lost their jobs and whilst the company is not technically liquidated these people are going to be unemployed and that's the black and white fact. So I believe the Commonwealth should put themselves in the shoes of the workers. Provide the safety net scheme rather than waiting for liquidation and then they can take over the rights as a creditor, that way if the money is forth coming from the company the Commonwealth gets reimbursed. To me, the cash flow issues of family budgets really matters, it might not seem like a big thing if you're sitting in Canberra in the Government, but if you're used to a pay packet of $1000 or $1200 a week and all of a sudden it's just not there, well you know, you've got school fees, power bills, the car repayments, you've got pressure. So I think that if we've got a safety net scheme then we should actually lower the lifeboat and send it out to pick up these people rather than relying on technicalities, and I encourage Mr Turnbull to show leadership and to exercise this discretion. It's been done in the past, I know because I’ve done it.
AUSTIN: But I mean if it's not lawful, there's legislative trigger for the Fair Entitlement Guarantee?
SHORTEN: No, it's lawful. The Ministers can exercise discretion, it depends on the circumstances and all of the facts, and you know sometimes in life you've just got to show some leadership. If you want to wait back until everyone else in every other forum says it's okay to do something, I just put myself in the shoes of the men and women at this refinery and the question which I want to be able to answer is how are they going to pay their bills?
AUSTIN: Well that's a question for everyone who’s been sacked and the Resources Council has pointed out that nearly 20,000 to 22,000 people have lost their jobs in North Queensland is because of the overall downturn in the resources sector. Why should the workers get special treatment when nearly 20,000 in the whole of North Queensland have lost their jobs in the last 18 months?
SHORTEN: Well to being with I don't accept that what's happened at this refinery is just the ebb and flow of commodity prices. I think that's letting the management of the refinery off too lightly. I think there's more here than meets the eye and I don’t think that workers - and yes I am a Labor guy so I am on the side of workers, I don’t think that workers should be the meat in the sandwich of some corporate play about insolvency. So this is not business as usual, this is not just global coal prices, the matters here are much more complex and much more I think tricky and I do think if these circumstances have been replicated in another facility in Australia I'd be saying the same thing there as well.
AUSTIN: I appreciate your time this morning Bill Shorten, thank you very much.
SHORTEN: Great Steve, thank you very much.