House debates

Monday, 22 February 2010

Grievance Debate

Home Insulation Program

8:30 pm

Photo of Sophie MirabellaSophie Mirabella (Indi, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) Share this | Hansard source

I rise this evening to speak on issues of concern to my electorate, particularly how government policy action or inaction has adversely impacted on various groups within my electorate. Often country people do not complain. They put up and endure and try to do their best, but then it gets to the absolutely ridiculous point where they can do nothing but speak out against what has happened. We have seen this over several government programs, but I would like to begin today with the Home Insulation Program.

We have heard in the parliament today how the mismanagement and utter incompetence by this government—by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts and by the Prime Minister, who refuses to hold the minister accountable for his actions—has left thousands of Australians unsure about the safety of their own homes. We saw the sudden decision last week to halt the Home Insulation Program, without any industry consultation. This is in spite of at least 20 warnings spread over several months this year and last year. There was no consultation with the industry or any reasonable or well-thought out transitional arrangements. The whole industry has been thrown into complete disarray. Just as hastily as this poorly managed program was put together, the decision was made to halt the program.

Halting the program will see thousands of Australians out of work and individual employers and companies losing tens of thousands of dollars, totalling millions of dollars. It will have an impact on not just the insulation industry but the supply industries as well. We will probably, sadly, see significant levels of debt default by those servicing this program as well. All this is happening against the background of thousands of homes remaining unchecked and homeowners remaining unsafe in their own homes. I have had many constituents contact me about their concerns, about being safe in their own home and about being approached by dodgy operators.

The latest casualties are these businesses. I received an email only yesterday from a hard-working small business man in my electorate who geared up to service local people under this program. I will read just a select extract from the email. It states:

Can Peter Garrett tell me what to do with my staff (4) that will probably have to be put off. I spent $1,500 in retraining them all last Monday/Tuesday for the latest changes to the system …

This program was supposed to last until December this year. We have $12,000 of stock, two extra vehicles, two trailers, equipment …

The government still owes me over $8,000 in top-up payments for work completed in October, $6,000 in manual claims for work completed in December-January plus any other claims we have made and now I am told I will have to wait 6 weeks for anything I have not claimed because they shut the claims website down with no notice and sent emails telling everyone they had until Friday to manual claim or they will not get paid. My BAS will be due next Friday and, because I will not be able to pay, the government will charge me 14% interest. Do I get 14% off them for what they owe us?

And there are hundreds of operators like that, I am sure, right around the country.

I wanted to read those words because they are from a real person in the real world, not on some foreign planet of unaccountability and unreality with heads stuck in the sand. This is from the real world of people who have taken risks to run a business and to employ local people in rural and regional Victoria. Until the Prime Minister actually understands the human and economic scale of this mismanaged program, the more people will suffer. Until he appreciates the responsibility he has as Prime Minister to hold his minister accountable and to provide some answers and some solutions, not a political quick-fix to fix the disaster that was months in the making, then local people will continue to suffer economically as well as in other ways.

In what other ways are small businesses suffering in my electorate? They are suffering through the government’s new industrial relations laws that were supposed to simplify everything. They were supposed to make it easier for employers and employees to understand where they stood. But it has had the opposite effect in my electorate.

There is an example where local people in my electorate, both the employer and the employee, have been left worse off under the new legislation, and it is the case of the Bright newsagency. Mr Brian King from the Bright Newsagency spoke with my office this afternoon to explain his particular problem and frustration at the employment restrictions that have been imposed on him and his business as a result of Labor’s misnamed Fair Work Act. Brian employs a number of school-age children who work for him, obviously after school, for a couple of hours during the week. He has had to tell these employees that he can no longer offer them work after school.

In the country we try to instil the work ethic in our young people, whether it is working after school, on weekends, helping out on the farm, or helping out in the family business. All of a sudden these young people are confronted with the reality that they have lost their job. It is not because they have done it badly, not because they have done it unsafely, not because they have done something illegal in the workplace, but because the government has decided that those sorts of arrangements do not suit them. They do not have the flexibility and the link into real workplaces, into small business, to understand how small-business operates and the needs of local communities, small regional communities, and their particular employment needs.

So we see the government enacting legislation, removing the ability from the small-business owner to make decisions about his business, imposing legislation on this particular employer, making it difficult for him not only to employ local people and local young people but making the best arrangements for his business. This is at a time when the federal government is telling young people that they have to work longer and earn more if they are to qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance. It makes it absolutely impossible for employers to maximise their flexibility particularly in the country. So the result of this is that a lot of young people will not be able to do after-school work. Obviously this has left these young people and their parents very upset and with a sour taste in their mouths and a lot of local businesses uncertain about their capacity to offer employment.

But where else do we see uncertainty in the workplace? We see it in the recent decision by the industrial tribunal to order the reinstatement of a sacked worker from an employer just across the border in New South Wales, from Norske Skog, ordering the payment of $16,000 of compensation. This has left many local businesses absolutely dumbfounded. What we have here is a decision that has created a very dangerous precedent. The decision by the industrial tribunal to overturn the sacking and to pay compensation was not based on the facts or circumstances of the workplace; it was based on the personal circumstances of the employee and had nothing to do with events that took place at the employer’s worksite.

From this sort of judgement businesses are now expected to know the private and intimate details their employees including what mortgage they have and what level of education they have. These were factors cited by the tribunal, and the fact that the employee breached workplace OH&S regulations on several occasions was overridden. What kind of message does the government send out with this sort of decision? If you do not go to school, if you have a large mortgage, and if you do not act responsibly, you will not be subject to workplace rules. That is not good enough. We need certainty for employees and employers in the workplace. (Time expired)


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