Documents released in the Senate today confirm that government officials advised cruise ship operator Bill Milby that if he wanted to remain competitive under proposed new shipping laws, he should sack his 50 Australian staff and replace them with cheap foreign labour.
They also confirm that Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss misled Parliament last week when claiming that no such advice was given to Mr Milby.
In sworn evidence to the Senate’s Regional and Rural Affairs committee last week Mr Milby, of North Star Cruises, said government plans to allow foreign flagged vessels paying third world wages to undercut Australian vessels on the Australian coasts would damage his business, which operates cruise vessels in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Mr Milby said that on May 20 and again on June 16, he had discussions with Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development official Judith Zielke, who told him the best way to remain competitive under the changes was to register his vessel overseas, sack his Australian crew and hire foreigners working on lower wages.
At the time, Mr Truss told Parliament that no such advice was given, despite the fact that Ms Zielke and another official, Michael Sutton, who was present at the June meeting, confirmed Mr Milby’s version of events to the Senate committee.
Today, after Labor moved in the Senate for Mr Truss to produce documents detailing discussions about of the Milby claims between his office and his department, Mr Truss produced a letter from Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development secretary Mike Mrdak, dated September 7.
The letter again confirms Mr Milby’s version of events, providing clear evidence that Mr Truss misled Parliament last week when denying the allegations.
Mr Mrdak’s letter also noted that Ms Zielke did not purport to offer the businessman commercial advice.
However, there was never any suggestion from My Milby that the Department was directing him to take a particular action – only that the advice was given.
Mr Mrdak’s letter makes clear Mr Milby was informed of various options and told “companies needed to consider the implications of these options in taking any commercial decisions’’.
As Mr Milby made clear, the option of reflagging was put forward as his only option if he wanted to remain competitive under the proposed changes.
On Monday, September 7 – after he received Mr Mrdak’s letter – Mr Truss told the Parliament that the advice could not have been given because it was inconsistent with the way his proposed changes would work.
Today’s letter from Mr Milby makes clear that in fact, the advice given to Mr Milby was consistent with the proposed changes.