FRIDAY, 11 MARCH 2016
SUBJECT/S: Queensland Nickel workers; ABCC; Election timing; Chaos in Turnbull Liberal Government; Pat Dodson
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well, good afternoon, everyone. I've arrived in Townsville on a very dark day, a dark day for 550 employees of Queensland Nickel, and indeed, I think, for another 1600 people who earn their livelihood indirectly through the operations of this very important refinery. I'm here today with representatives of the Queensland Government and also Cathy O'Toole Labor's candidate for Herbert.
Now, this morning, I've had discussions with Mr Turnbull, with Mr Palmer, with Cowboy Stockham representing the union and workers at the refinery and I've also had a pretty good briefing from the administrators at Queensland Nickel. My first comments today have to go towards the 550 employees of the company who found out yesterday that as of five o'clock tonight their employment is terminated.
This is catastrophic for Townsville and North Queensland. This is just not another day at work for a lot of people. Today, people have found out that they're not working; they have no income after today. This will put stress on families; this will affect the ability of people to make their mortgage payments and their car payments. Income stops today because this company is in dire financial circumstances. And the ripple effect of the decisions and the closures and the sackings today come on top of 237 people losing their jobs in very recent times and another 1600 people whose main livelihood is derived from the economic activity of the refinery.
Townsville and North Queensland cannot afford to lose 2,000 jobs without the Federal Government acting. We'll hear in a moment from our colleagues from the Queensland Government, but this morning I've put a plan towards Mr Turnbull to make sure that at least the 550 people losing their jobs and the other 237 who've been stuck in limbo for weeks and weeks, at least they can get some help. I put forward a plan today also about longer-term help for Townsville. But specifically, today's the day that Mr Turnbull can show if he really cares, if he really cares for the jobs, if he really cares for Townsville and Queensland.
Now, I've offered him political support for the following solution; there is a law which allows for - it's called the Fair Entitlements Guarantee. It allows, where a company goes into liquidation, a safety net where the Commonwealth stands in the shoes of the employer and pays people their entitlements, you know long service leave, annual leave and the like, until that can be recovered from the administration or the proceeds of the liquidation of the company. So it's a safety net.
Now, I used to be the minister in charge of the scheme so I'm aware of how it works and I introduced it into Parliament. What can be done is that the minister of the day can upon request from the administrator, grant a discretion or use a discretion. You don't have to wait till liquidation for the safety net to be paid, if the administrator forms the view that liquidation's inevitable but it hasn't been triggered yet. So what I'm asking Mr Turnbull to do is show leadership. The administrator was very clear with me about the prospects of the company and they're not good in the short term and what we want to do is make sure that individuals who will have no money next week, not through any fault of their own, aren't left in the lurch.
The men and women who work at Queensland Nickel pay their taxes every week. 52 weeks of the year, they're there for the Commonwealth of Australia, the Government of Australia and the programs the Government runs. For once these people, these are not people who've been on a pension or who have been asking for government hand-outs, these are people on modest incomes. For once, people need help from the government. Now is the time for the Government to show that leadership. It's been done before under a Labor Government. It can be done now by Mr Turnbull.
But that's the plan. It's all above board. It works. And it will mean that at least the 550 people plus the other 237 who've already been laid off can get some sense, they can trust at least some institutions, and when I talk about trust, before I go to Coralee O'Rourke, I'll just make this point. Having had all the briefings, having spoken to workers, having spoken to the union, having spoken to the administrators, having spoken to all of the players, I will say this to Clive Palmer; you need to front up and sort this mess out. This is not just an issue for Mr Turnbull or the Government. Any corporate operations which operate in this fashion deserve scrutiny. I now have to say that I'm not satisfied with the explanations I've heard from Mr Palmer. I don't know if there's a go-forward plan to restructure other than some airy promises. I hope there is. But it's no doubt in my mind now that workers' entitlements and other small business creditors have been left stranded. There needs to be a full investigation into related-party transactions. I am not satisfied that some of the senior management at this company have shown any regard for their dealings with anyone who's affected by their decisions. Now, I understand that the Queensland Nickel dilemma's bought in part because of low nickel prices globally but I have to say in my experience of standing up for workers, helping businesses trade out of their difficulties, I am not satisfied that this is a business as usual arrangement. I do believe further explanation is required from Mr Palmer or his representatives. Now, what I'd like to do is hand over to Coralee O'Rourke to talk about the Queensland Government response then we'd be happy to take questions on this and other matters.
CORALEE O'ROURKE, STATE MEMBER FOR MUNDINGBURRA: So what I'd like to say is that the QNI workers, those that lost their jobs at the beginning of the year and those that will lose their jobs today, they have been living with anxiety and uncertainty for way too long. Mr Palmer needs to stop playing games and realise that these are people's lives that he is dealing with. He needs to understand and he needs to provide the explanation that these families are looking for. I've had a briefing this morning from the rapid response team, who has confirmed that we will be holding forums this afternoon. There will be one at four o'clock and one at six o'clock, and I really encourage all affected workers to come along to those forums. They will be able to ask questions about support and services that they can access. They will also be able to register with Centrelink to provide the services that they may also require as they move forward. But what I do ask, I plead to Malcolm Turnbull to look at the eligibility requirements behind the Federal Government's Fair Entitlements Guarantee. These people have waited far too long. They can't wait any longer. I'd also like to say that the Palaszczuk Government has put $100 million on the table for the Stadium. Federal Labor has also put $100 million on the table. What we need is for Malcolm Turnbull to come to the table to provide some support for Townsville. We know that the stadium will provide up to 700 jobs and that's not to mention the flow-on effect that it will provide to our economy. I put the call out to provide the support, not only that workers need but our Townsville economy requires.
SHORTEN: Thanks. Are there any other questions on the QNI catastrophe?
JOURNALIST: You're confident that there will be no offers for employment for these workers next week?
SHORTEN: No, I don't know what Mr Palmer's going to do. It's a pretty good question you asked. But while Clive Palmer dithers, it leaves these workers in limbo. Now, the administrator gave me a commercial in confidence briefing so I won't to go all of the matters which she referred to and I think they're doing a good job, the administrators. But I have to say that a lot of people are going to lose their jobs definitely today. And a lot of these people have got decades of service. I was speaking to one chap, 31 years’ service. Where's his long service leave? Has Mr Palmer spent that? Where's his annual leave?
Now, I don't blame the Government for Mr Palmer's economic activities but the government has a role - I know what I would do if I was Prime Minister. I would intervene. I would use my discretion, because the point about it is, whilst Mr Palmer may or may not make promises, whilst he may or may not deliver on the never-never, and he well may, and I don't rule that out, until we see a clear plan from them, you've got hundreds and hundreds of people in limbo with no money coming in at all. This is a catastrophe. Now, some people in Mr Turnbull's Government may say well that's just - get out the right-wing economic textbooks and say that's just life in a modern society, people take their chances - that's not right. These workers did not take their chances. They're not informed property and investment speculators, with millions of dollars, shifting their money casually from one investment to the next. The only investment these people have is their job and it's just been taken from them by the actions of others. So, I do believe that the Turnbull Government needs to show, as I said, do they care - does Mr Turnbull - this is the day he shows, does he care? Does he care enough to step in, does he care enough about the jobs and about Townsville and about Queensland? And I will give him the political support that he deserves and I know this can be done because this has happened in the past.
JOURNALIST: The State Government had a chance to intervene before Mr Palmer took back the company, back when it was just $10 million, that's all the administrators wanted. Could we have avoided this mess if that was given?
SHORTEN: If your question goes to the blame game, I look at Mr Palmer first before I start blaming everyone else and I actually made clear in my earlier comments, I don't blame Mr Turnbull for the predicament of Queensland Nickel but what I do say is it's now time to act. The Queensland Government is not responsible for workers' entitlements. That's a Federal Government responsibility. And I've got no doubt that nickel prices being low make it hard for the business in the current climate. But there's no excuse for spending the money of workers' entitlements. Now Clive Palmer's got plenty of moves and he's got plenty to say and he's been a successful businessman in the past. But on this occasion, I'd just say to Mr Palmer: this is now your opportunity to step up and show leadership, not make airy fairy promises. 550 of your employees are walking down the road following another 237 who've already been let go. These are help who helped make your money, Clive. I think it's important that you're there for them when they need you too and in the meantime, Malcolm Turnbull can step in and resolve some of these matters. The longer point about reconstruction and support for Townsville which Coralee addressed, Federal Labor has a plan for Townsville and it isn't just providing $100 million for the Stadium. We also believe that the Government needs to speed up its infrastructure expenditure on the Bruce Highway, that generates blue-collar jobs. See, not every person at Queensland Nickel, whilst they're a good worker, is going to immediately move into either aged care work or start a dotcom start-up company. I'm not saying some won't but we need blue-collar jobs in this nation and we need blue collar jobs in Townsville. So you need a pattern of construction works. The mining boom has been ending for the last three years. It beggars belief that the Federal Government hasn't done more to provide federal infrastructure to soak up people displaced by economic change.
JOURNALIST: What's Mr Palmer told you about what's happening?
SHORTEN: Well, I've spoken to him twice in the last 24 hours. I have to say, sometimes when you speak to Clive Palmer you're no clearer at the end of the conversation what he said than before he said anything to you at all. Now, it's his business and he's a successful businessman and he's amassed millions of dollars. But I have to say, when I was out at Queensland Nickel refinery today, it's like a ghost town. This should be a place humming with economic activity. I saw the faces of very tough looking men. These are tough men. They're probably in many cases the chief breadwinner for their family. I've seen from personal experience when people have to go home and tell their families that dad doesn't have a job any more, that puts pressure on marriages, it puts pressure and anxiety for the kids, it makes people wonder where it next come from. Now, we know in Australia that change is part of life but the Labor way is to make sure that you don't leave people behind when change occurs. That's why I'm here today, I've been at the refinery, I've been talking to the displaced workers, the administrator, I've got on the phone and rung the Prime Minister, I've spoken to Clive Palmer, we've been speaking with Queensland Labor Government, I've been speaking with the union representatives including Mr Stockham. The point about it is, Mr Turnbull can show he cares today. All he to do is say: alright let's look into using this discretion to trigger the safety net before the company goes into liquidation. It's been done before. Malcolm Turnbull sometimes gets anxious about his popularity. I guarantee right here, right now we'll support it so there's no blowback on him for doing this. In the longer term, I think Mr Palmer needs to front up and explain what his real plans are and not blame everyone else and not have airy fairy but very unspecific promises and indeed in the longer term, Townsville needs a plan from the Canberra Government working with our Queensland colleagues to help create blue-collar jobs in North Queensland.
JOURNALIST: Did you get an indication from the administrators why they felt these workers will not be re-employed?
SHORTEN: The workers, the union, the administrators, I don't think anyone can reliably assume that Mr Palmer is going to front up with his investments tonight. I hope he does. Don't get me wrong and this is not some sort of Clive Palmer bash. But I do in the meantime, I have to say there's an alarming lack of detail about the future. The only fact we do know is that by 5 o'clock tonight, over 800 direct employees of QNI have lost their jobs, and they haven't been paid their entitlements.
JOURNALIST: How soon would the Federal Government be able to mobilise these entitlements?
SHORTEN: It doesn't take long. It doesn't take long at all. It just takes decisiveness and the willingness to make a decision. I have to say though that one of the things I hope is not distracting the Turnbull Government from making these decisions, is their excessive fascination about when to call an election. The Australian people want leadership from the Government. It doesn't matter who's in power, Mr Turnbull's currently in power. People want to know what the Government's going to do on the Budget, how they're going to talk about economic plans, not just for the cities but for the regions, including Townsville. This Government and Mr Turnbull spend more time worrying about their date of the election, worrying about what day they should have the after party for the Budget. Mr Turnbull needs to be much more decisive. It seems to me that Mr Turnbull wants to talk about anything, have any excuse to have an election, except dealing with the issues of economic competence and economic management. He seems very frightened to deal with economic competence and economic management and is instead doing everything he can to talk about everything else except those two fundamental issues.
JOURNALIST: On the election, should the crossbenchers support the ABCC Bill if it avoids double dissolution?
SHORTEN: I don't think anyone should give in to blackmail. In terms of the crossbenchers, what they do is up to them. What Labor wants is the Government to stop talking about everything else except the economy. I'm here today in Townsville where hundreds of people are losing their jobs. And there is no clear economic plan for Townsville, North Queensland, the regions, or indeed Australia. Mr Turnbull was elected six months ago. Six months ago on the basis of new economic leadership. He said he had to get rid of Tony Abbott because only Malcolm Turnbull could offer new economic leadership. That's test he set himself. Yet every time he pops his head up now, he talks, he theorises and waffles about the date of an election. All of that is a distraction from the Budget. He wants to talk about triggers to have an election, but he doesn't want to talk about the Budget, economic management, fair taxation and Australian jobs.
JOURNALIST: Are you confident you've got the numbers to defeat the Bill if it does go to the Senate?
SHORTEN: The Government haven't even put the legislation in the Senate to be debated. This is just one of the sort of great ironies of Mr Turnbull. He says he desperately wants to deal with an issue but to deal with an issue in Parliament, you've got to table the legislation for a vote. Whilst this may seem a boring detail, it's one that's eluded Mr Turnbull. He says he wants to have a vote and he's demanding if they don't have a vote on it, all sorts of consequences will flow. But Mr Turnbull doesn't even believe in what he's doing enough to put the legislation forward in the coming week of parliamentary sittings.
JOURNALIST: Just Pat Dodson is leaving the co-chair of the referendum council? Do you think that's going to set back the case for the Indigenous referendum?
SHORTEN: Pat Dodson at my encouragement, is running for the Senate for the Labor Party from Western Australia. Including Pat Dodson in the Senate of Australia is a big step forward in my opinion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. You can't close the economic gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians, economically or in terms of life expectancy or in terms of education or health, if we don't have the voices of some of the most respected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Parliament itself. Labor's committed to making sure that all Australians get the chance to serve in our Parliament from all backgrounds. And indeed, Pat Dodson is from northern Australia, so the good news for Townsville is that we're picking a northern Australian to be part of Labor's team for the next election. In terms of constitutional recognition, he will still be very involved in that and there are many other distinguished Aboriginal leaders who will step forward to fill his shoes.
Thanks, everyone. See you a bit later.