Feb 6, 2007

Questions without Notice – Workplace Relations: Tristar

Questions without Notice – Workplace Relations: Tristar

6 February 2007

Mr RUDD (3.37 pm)—My question is again to the Prime Minister. I refer to a letter of 1 November last year sent by the Tristar workers to the Prime Minister, a letter which followed questions to the Prime Minister on the same matter on 10 August and 2 November last year. Why didn’t the Prime Minister bother to respond to this letter of three months ago and why did the Prime Minister ignore the indecent way these Tristar workers have been treated until their plight received media attention again this January?

Mr HOWARD—I deny having ignored their plight and deny having not replied. It so happens that a question that I was asked in the House last November was asked by the opposition in the presence of a large number of the Tristar workers. I am aware that there are some Tristar workers here today. I should also inform the House that, on my behalf, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations met the people from Tristar.

I take this opportunity to tell the House that the dispute at Tristar is not caused by Work Choices. That is a fact that was acknowledged this morning by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition when she said, ‘It’s true that the immediate Tristar industrial issue is not a product of Work Choices.’ I understand that the workers’ redundancy entitlement was in an agreement under the pre-Work Choices system. That agreement has been terminated by the AIRC—the umpire under the old system rules. But, due to a change to the Work Choices legislation, the redundancy entitlements remain protected for an additional period of a year. In other words, under the system Labor had wanted us to keep, these redundancy entitlements would have disappeared with the decision of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. So, as a result of an amendment moved by this government, the old redundancy entitlements remain on foot for an additional year. That was not the old law; it is the new law. I think even the member for Batman, as a former president of the ACTU, would understand the significance of that.

In relation to the treatment of Mr Bevan, I have previously said that the company, although it may have behaved within a law which has applied to redundancies for decades under both governments, behaved well outside community expectations and decency. That was made very clear by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who, on the day he was appointed, was out there talking to the workers.

Ms King interjecting—

The SPEAKER—The member for Ballarat is warned!

Mr HOWARD—So don’t you come up here with your phoney pro-worker hand-wringing exercise. It was this government that gave the redundancy another year. It was this Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who, on his first day on the job, went out and talked to the men and women. So don’t you come here professing a concern and suggesting that we do not care. I do not believe that companies should treat their workers badly. I think companies should treat their workers in a very respectful and a very precious and proper way. I would remind those opposite and those in the gallery that all the laws in the world will not legislate or dictate—

Mr Albanese—Mr Speaker, I—

Mr HOWARD—Here is another phoney point of order when it is going badly for them.

Mr Albanese—Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. This is a serious question.

The SPEAKER—The Manager of Opposition Business will come to his point of order.

Mr Albanese—It is on relevance. The Prime Minister was asked what he did between August and January to help these workers up here.

The SPEAKER—The member will resume his seat. The Prime Minister is very much in order.

Mr HOWARD—As I indicated a moment ago, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations met the Tristar workers—and I acknowledge their presence in the gallery.

Opposition members interjecting—

Mr HOWARD—Mr Speaker, I have been asked a question by the Leader of the Opposition and, because they do not like the answer, there is a constant barrage of interjections from the frontbench. Is that the way this place is going to be—

The SPEAKER—Order! The Prime Minister will resume his seat.

Mr Adams—Your answer is so poor that—

The SPEAKER—The member for Lyons is warned!

Mr HOWARD—The minister met the Tristar workers prior to question time and he did visit the site two weeks ago. He has also been in regular touch with the company management. I understand Tristar claim that there is still work at the factory for the workers—a claim that the Industrial Relations Commission, the independent industrial relations commission which the Labor Party regards as the answer to every problem, upheld four weeks ago. I do not know whether that decision was right or wrong. I am not in a position to make a judgement. But the independent umpire of Labor Party esteem and dreams upheld four weeks ago the claim of the company that there was still work at the factory.

Ms George interjecting—

The SPEAKER—Order! The member for Fowler will remove herself under standing order 94(a).

The member for Fowler then left the chamber.

Mr HOWARD—I understand that this claim is disputed by the workers, and I can understand that. From what I have seen and been told, it seems to be an understandable view. But I have to point out for the accuracy of the record that the Industrial Relations Commission, which we are always told is the repository of all wisdom in these matters, found in favour of the company. I understand further that, on the basis of the concerns of the workers, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations has asked the Office of Workplace Services to investigate further, and I am told that that investigation is progressing well.

The government is not in the business of shutting down factories. However, if there is no work, the workers should receive their current entitlements—which, by courtesy of the changes that the government introduced, are more generous than what they would be if the old law had obtained. I know that is a rather difficult thing for the opposition to accept, but it happens to be a statement of fact in relation to this issue. I also think it is important to remind the House that one of the reasons the company may have suffered financial adversity is that it lost many contracts with car companies following the 2001 industrial action at the company, which resulted in 12,000 employees in the car industry being stood down, with an estimated loss to the Australian car industry of $230 million.

I want the truth of this matter resolved. If these men and women are being kept physically at work in the hope that the company lasts out the 12-month period so that the company does not have to pay the more generous redundancy which is available under a Howard government amendment, then I want that truth made known to the public. On the other hand, if that is not the case and there is work available, I want that known, because we are in the business of treating both workers and employers fairly. I simply say to those who sit opposite: you have not tried, at any stage, to really champion the cause of the workers but rather to score a few cheap political points, and you have been found out in the process.