Wednesday, 5 December 2018
Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources; Report
I rise to talk about the report of the Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources inquiry into the mining and resources industry. It's entitled Keep it in the regions: mining and resources industry support for businesses in regional economies. Having read the recommendations of this report, I think it is quite remarkable that government members, who will not lift a finger for workers in this parliament, want to pretend that they support recommendations providing support for workers in this sector of our economy and in their electorates. We've been watching now for some time members of government asserting support for workers in their electorates, and yet, whenever the opportunity arises to support workers in the parliament, they go missing. They go missing because there's a big difference between word and deed. It's one thing to say something; it's another thing to do something.
The member for Dawson, who has now just joined us, and the member for New England, who of course has suggested they support workers in Queensland and around the country, are really just outrageously lying to their electorates. The reality is: the member for Dawson is someone who says one thing and yet refuses to support workers when he is here. We saw that with his confected support for penalty rates. We saw the member for Dawson pretend to support labour hire workers. Of course he doesn't support changing labour hire arrangements; otherwise he would support Labor's position on 'same job, same pay'. He does not. We've heard the member for Dawson say he supports restoring penalty rates, but, when his bill was moved by the opposition, he refused to vote with the opposition except if the motion was going to fail. In fact, he pretended that there was going to be back pay arising from that order, which was never true, as his justification for no longer supporting a position he said he was supporting in his electorate.
We have heard, time and time again, the member for Dawson saying one thing to the constituents in his seat but acting very differently in this place. This recommendation, which, as I understand it, has been ostensibly supported by the member for New England and the member for Dawson, is in keeping with that. They say one thing and yet do another. There have been ample opportunities in this parliamentary term, and indeed in the last parliamentary term, for members of government, if they were interested in looking after working people, to cross the floor and support Labor's position. The Leader of the Opposition moved a private member's bill to restore penalty rates. Where was the member for Dawson when that private member's bill was being considered and when we were seeking to have that private member's bill enacted? He was voting with the government to stop bringing that bill on in the House to be enacted. Again and again, the member for Dawson—and now we've got a new arrival, the member for New England—pretended to be the workers' friend. Well, we know that is not the case, and increasingly the constituents of Dawson also know that is not the case.
Labor, of course, have been announcing policies to respond to the fact that wages are falling in this country in many sectors of the economy. Wages have been flatlining as a result of the failures of the government to respond to any concerns of working people, and we have seen the growth of insecure work.
The government likes to pretend there's been no change to casualisation. I'll just use one statistic. The ABS has said that 29 per cent of Queensland's workforce are deemed to be casual. Add to that other workers who are not getting enough work, part-time workers who are not getting sufficient hours and so-called independent contractors who are not genuinely independent contractors and you see a problem in the labour market that's not being addressed by this government. In some ways, the government members who choose not to support this have more integrity than the member for Dawson, because the member for Dawson says one thing but does the exact opposite in parliament. At least those members of the government who don't want to do anything don't go and tell their constituents that they will do something. That's what the member for Dawson does; he says one thing and does another.
For the last five years, Labor has been announcing policies to respond to two key areas. Firstly, we need to see Australians get a pay rise. This government has presided over the lowest wage growth in a generation. For the last five years, wages have been flatlining and they continue to be a real problem for households. That's why household debt is growing in this country.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 16:51 to 17:38
I want to continue to reflect upon the recommendations of this committee's report. As I understand it, the committee has done some good work, and you'll hear about that from some Labor members of parliament who sat on the committee. To that extent, I'm happy to defer to the committee members in relation to the good work done on the recommendations that have been made. But I think it is important that I point out the disingenuousness of the recommendation that's been initiated by government members, even though it's certainly supported by my Labor colleagues—
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 17:39 to 17:51
As I was saying, I understand there was some good work undertaken by the committee and I'm sure other members will reflect on that. But I just wanted to make clear that whilst government members have supported a recommendation that would appear to respond to problems in the labour market, we have real difficulty believing the sincerity of those government members. There are real problems in the labour market. Job security is a growing problem for many, many workers. Wage growth is at an all-time low; it is the lowest wage growth in a generation. But we don't see the government attending to these things, and I think that's chiefly because they have a callous disregard for working people—an indifference at best. They have an enmity towards unions that might represent employees, and it is that ideological predisposition that really does underline their motives and their inclinations.
So whilst it may well be that government members, members of a government divided, seek to resonate in their communities about the real crying need for labour market reform, we don't see anything happening in the chamber. We don't see anything happening on the government benches. They're not to be believed. In the end it's your deeds, not your words, that you should be judged by, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe government members are genuine in their concerns about job security, whether Australians get a pay rise or ensuring that workers get a place at the bargaining table. There are no policies enunciated by the government that reflect these concerns. For that reason, whilst I wouldn't agree exactly with its construction, I agree with the tenor of the recommendation that goes to making changes to the Fair Work Act and making improvements to workers' lives. We have great difficulty believing it is a proposition genuinely held by those government members.
As the member for Gorton skulks out of the chamber, I would say I agree with a couple of things he said. One of them is that deeds speak more than words. If you have a look at the member for Gorton's record, he's someone who gets up here, puffs his chest out and says he's a champion of the worker. What a fraud and what a phoney. He's like the dog that bites the hand that feeds it. What did he do about the casualisation issue, which has been going on for years and years and years on end, while he was a minister in the Gillard and Rudd governments?
I'll tell you what he did for the workers as a minister in the Gillard and Rudd governments. He was actually the immigration minister who presided over a lot of the rorting of the foreign visa system, the 457 foreign worker visa—
Ms Chesters interjecting—
I hear 'changes'. These changes that apparently happened under his watch still allowed the rorts, because they still went on. We were the ones that actually ended the 457 visa system. So what a fraud; what a phoney! The only thing that that fraud and phoney said that was correct was that the report was a good report and did have good recommendations.
I'm proud to speak to that report, as a committee member of that inquiry. The report, Keep it in the regions: mining and resources industry support for businesses in regional economies, is a result of the outstanding work done by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources—an inquiry which I actually urged the committee chair, the member for New England, to undertake, and I urged the resources minister to provide the terms of reference for the inquiry. The mining and resource sector is a huge influence in the local economy of my North Queensland electorate, due to the proximity of the Bowen Basin and the soon-to-be-opened Galilee Basin. Again talking about frauds: these champions of the workers can't bring themselves to support the opening of a new coalmining basin; they want to dog the workers in Central and North Queensland again. These frauds come to the table and pretend that they're the workers' friends but they will never stand up for coalminers. Well, I will, all the time.
Thousands of residents in my electorate have raised concerns about a range of issues, calling my office, writing letters, sending emails and signing petitions. The biggest issues have been extended payment terms adopted by mining companies, the casualisation of the mining workforce, and the 100 per cent fly-in fly-out workforces at some of the mines. I'm pleased to say that these issues were well canvassed during the inquiry. Members gained a greater understanding of the impact that these issues have on local communities. As a result, this report now provides a number of recommendations to the government that fully address those issues, and I want to talk through some individually.
On payment terms, we had a situation where businesses—small businesses, mainly, but there were even medium-sized ones and some large local ones—were coming to me in my electorate saying that they had cases where they were waiting 90 days, 120 days and in excess of 120 days, which was clearly ridiculous. How long is a business supposed to wait to get paid by a multinational? How long would we let it go for—up to a year? That would be inconceivable. So we had to do something about this. The standard that the public expects and the standard that the suppliers of these mining companies expected was 30 days. They have to do it sometimes in less than that—in seven days, and sometimes payment on delivery—but the mining companies get payment as soon as supplies are loaded onto a boat or just beforehand. If it's good enough for the mining companies to have that arrangement, it is good enough to provide 30 days. I ran a campaign alongside this inquiry where I urged people to go onto makeit30days.com.au and sign up to that. Recommendations 5 to 9 of the report effectively call for legislation to have minimum payment terms—the time in which you have to pay—of 30 days.
This committee has already paid huge dividends. As a result of the pressure that I've put on companies through that petition website and through the release of this report, companies have voluntarily brought their payment terms into line with what the community wants—30 days. Peabody is now doing 30 days, Anglo is now doing 30 days and BHP is now doing 30 days—and Glencore and Adani were doing 30 days all along. So that has been a win. Hopefully that's going to continue. If it doesn't, if we find that others don't adopt it, the government will have to act in line with the recommendations in our report to legislate those minimum payment terms.
On casualisation of the mining workforce, Labor like to puff out their chest on this issue—it is a big issue—but they didn't do anything about it when they were in government. So it's quite rich for them to come in here and say, 'You're not doing anything.' We're fighting for those people. When you were minister, Deputy Speaker Laundy, we joined you and you did some fine work in helping end a lockout of workers at Oaky Creek. That was your work, your negotiation, that helped with that. So we've done our part in helping on this issue, and we continue to put pressure on. It's not ethically right for people to work for years and years on end, stuck in a job as a casual, when they actually want to be a full-time worker.
Recommendation 19 of this report is to amend the Fair Work Act to prohibit the replacement of directly employed full-time workers with permanent casual employees. It goes on to say that casuals should now get the right, after six months, to convert to full-time work. I have to tell you: the pressure of this committee, the pressure of my individual action on this, has led WorkPac, the biggest employer of casuals in the mining industry, to come to me to say they're writing to every single one of their employees and offering them conversion to permanent work within six months. That wasn't the Labor Party; they never did anything about it when they were in government. It was the pressure that we've been applying that's led to that.
I have to say that, as a result of that pressure as well, today, a couple of days after this report was handed down, BHP made an announcement of 350 new full-time permanent local jobs. They're offering it to local workers in my region who were once employed as casuals and are now going to be permanent workers. This is as a result of the pressure that we've been putting on. It's a result of this committee's report. It is going to be in mines which previously were 100 per cent fly-in fly-out. It will be locals who are permanent workers at those mines in Daunia and Caval Ridge. Fly-in fly-out is also a problem. Section 18 of the report wants to remove incentives for mining companies to employ FIFO workers instead of locals. Again, those 100-per-cent-FIFO mines are now going to have hundreds of people working at them who are locals with permanent jobs.
Other key recommendations in this report will provide major benefits to regional communities, including returning a serious proportion of the royalties from mining operations to communities in mining regions and giving local businesses a fair opportunity to secure business with those major mining companies, because sometimes the rigmarole they have to go through is so complex. It will ensure localism where there are mines. Where the hole is dug in the ground, we want to see opportunity and wealth created.
The chair of this committee, the member for New England, has said a few times: 'Where is the Dallas of North Queensland? Where is the Dallas of Central Queensland?' We don't have towns that have huge wealth like that, even though, over in Texas, Dallas was built off the back of oil. We need cities like that and we need wealth returned to regional centres like that from mining companies. State governments also have to take note of that because they rip out the royalties of mining operations and they don't return all of it to that area. They don't even return a serious proportion of it. It needs to change.
I thank the member for New England for taking it up. I thank the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia for giving us this report. I thank all of the Labor members who were on this committee. I think we worked very well together. We certainly got to grill a lot of the mining companies very well together. I think we can all be very proud to say that our report, even before the government has responded, has led to some serious action. It has led to an improvement in payment terms by big mining companies to small and medium business. It has led to decisions like BHP made today, where they're offering permanent jobs for locals, not casual jobs. It has led to, for instance, WorkPac saying that there can be a conversion after six months from casual to permanent work. It's led to some good outcomes which are going to improve regional areas. That's what mining should do.
The member for Dawson should get an award for creative writing! Talk about rewriting history and thinking that this report has led to a change in the culture and behaviour of the big mining companies! I beg to differ. I would like to begin by quoting from an article in the Daily Mercury that was published on Tuesday, July 17: 'Same job same pay: ALP vows to crack down on "dodgy labour hire"'. It states:
The Mackay region is "ground zero" for unfair labour hire practices, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten … has pledged to crack down on labour hire companies that "rip off and exploit" …
I could go on, because it goes on to outline Labor's policy announcement, which we made back in July. It is only because of the pressure of some hardworking Labor candidates in those regional seats in Queensland and the senators making this an issue that we actually got government members to agree to this recommendation in the report that's before us.
I want to acknowledge that those two paragraphs are a step forward by the Liberal-National Party, but they are only a recommendation. When the chair of this committee was the Deputy Prime Minister of this country, when those rorts were going on, he did nothing. And now we're lauding him because he's the chair of a committee putting forward a recommendation? When he was at the cabinet table, he could have put forward those changes—changes that Labor proposed back in July—and actually done something about it. And, when we talk about 'casual', it was the Labor Party at the last election that put forward the need to crack down on the misuse of the term 'casual' and to crack down on the exploitation of workers and the increase of insecure work.
I've had the opportunity in some of my duties to visit a number of the communities. I can remember being in Moranbah and speaking to the workers at the camps there. They were on a BHP camp, and most of them were labour-hire workers. Those workers talked to me about the fact that they were doing the same job as the person working beside them, the same job that they had done for decades, and yet were being paid less because they were working for labour hire. At the moment that is legal. This government has failed. Despite the fact that the workers raised it over and over again, this government has vilified their union, the CFMMEU, for speaking up about the issues. I also met a family in Moranbah. They lived there but worked at another mine. This particular worker had to fly to Brisbane to fly back to work in a mine that was 100 per cent fly-in fly-out.
This isn't new. This is what is happening, and all this government says, through the person who's now the chair of this committee, is: 'We've put forward a recommendation. Job done. Clear conscience.' Not good enough! Where is the legislation? Where are the changes? You've been in for five years, government. Where is the legislation and where are the changes to fix that situation? A family should not have to go through that. A worker who's got the skills should not have to fly to Brisbane to be flown back.
Then we talk about Tieri and what happened there. And there are the crocodile tears coming from the member for Dawson, the member for Flynn and the member for Capricornia! They stood up in the House and repeated an allegation that was false in question time because they wanted to dirty up the CFMMEU. Those workers were locked out. They were locked out by their company, and their company got to bring in labour hire and pay them less. That's a broken Fair Work Act. This government has not backed in Labor's proposal to end those lockouts, to fix that problem. No, this government's not doing that. Instead, those opposite are championing the fact that they've put forward a committee recommendation. That's not good enough. They've been in for five years. They should put forward the legislation to prevent what happened in Tieri from happening somewhere else. Far too many Central Queensland mineworkers—and not just Central Queensland; it's happening in mining everywhere—are being forced to do drive-in drive-out work for labour hire.
I also met some mineworkers in Rockhampton. One of the workers I met there told me that the company had redefined the term 'full-time equivalent'. This person worked for the labour hire company. They had 'full-time equivalent' next to their name. They had to do the same work and wear the same uniform; they had the same responsibilities and the same reporting structures, but they were paid less. They were paid just above the award but much less than their co-workers. It is a loophole that is being exploited by the mining industry, and this government have sat on their hands and done nothing about it for five years.
Another speaker brought up the changes around 457 visas: 'Let's laud us. We've done all the great things. We've cracked down on the fraud with 457 visas.' Well, who's the fraud? The 457 visas may not exist in those terms, but the 482 visa does—and guess what? Those numbers are back through the roof, and the exploitation is just as high. Who's the real fraud here? Changing the name has not changed the culture. But it doesn't just end with the exploitation of those on 482 visas who are coming into these communities and doing this work. We're also finding international students working in the mining sector. Can you believe it? They're here to study and they're working in the mining sector. Backpackers are working in the mining sector. The workforce issues in mining are out of control, and this government has done very little to turn it around. I reckon that a lot of the people in Mackay, Gladstone, Tieri and Moranbah are saying: 'It's too little too late from this government. It's backed in the multinationals for far too long.' They want a government that is going to stand up and reform this.
Labor has been active on this on the ground. In July we announced we would crack down on dodgy labour hire companies that rip off and exploit workers. We've also said that we would change the definition of 'casual' and establish an objective test of what it means to be casual to end this ridiculous concept of 'permanent casual'. We've also said that we will address the labour market problems that we have, where precarious work is increasing. This is our commitment. We want to see an end to what this government has created. We are heading towards a low-paid, easy-to-hire, easy-to-fire society where job security is being undermined. It's putting pressure on wages and families.
But the government is quite divided here. We've got some people on this committee saying there should be reforms to the Fair Work Act, yet the minister responsible is backing in big business when it comes to this matter and is intervening in Fair Work cases. The minister wouldn't intervene in the penalty rates case—'No, no, we have to respect the independence of the Fair Work Commission'—but is intervening in this case. She's intervening in the WorkPac case, a case where the unions and the workers won against the companies, saying, 'If you do the same roster and the same hours with the same expectations, and if you know 12 months in advance what you're going to be doing, then you're technically a full-time employee and not a casual.' While they won that case on the argument, the government is now intervening and backing in business.
That's the kind of hypocrisy we get from this government. When they feel under threat, when their own jobs are under threat, when we've got Labor candidates working really hard on the ground, setting the agenda, talking to people about what really matters, that's when we start to see a little bit of movement from this government. Well, they should go further: in the first week of February, let's see the legislation that makes sure that the same job gets the same pay. Put it up so that we can all debate it and see it happen. Let's make it bipartisan to ensure that we end the exploitation of casuals and that we see a restoration of the original definition of 'casual'. Let's see an end to permanent casuals. Put forward the legislation, and Labor will be happy to work with you to make sure we bring it about. We have far too many labour hire workers here in this country that are being treated poorly by major companies, who flick them away and say, 'You're no longer welcome here.' They don't even get the protections of unfair dismissal. The vast majority—84 per cent—of labour hire employees are technically casual, yet, in a lot of cases, they're doing full-time work. This has to end.
Whilst these two particular paragraphs in the report are welcome and it's an acknowledgement that some in the government understand this is a problem—they've finally woken up to what their communities are so upset about—they have to go further. Use this report to bring about legislation. Tell the minister responsible for industrial relations to back off her case, because whatever you've said today means nothing if she continues to back in the case with the Fair Work Commission and the employers.
I was and am a member of the Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources, and the member for Dawson is quite right—we worked very well together, both the members of the Labor opposition and the members of the government. I'd like to commend the member for New England on his chairing of this committee through this process. I think we were all dealt with very fairly. We all got to have our say and, indeed, make a very solid contribution to the recommendations. I think it was a very collegial process, and I think, as he mentioned in his speech or in his foreword, there are probably more examples of how the parliament works well in this way than people often think. People see in question time the vaudeville and the antics, but they don't get to see how the sausage is made behind the scenes, which is a bit of a shame sometimes.
I just want to quickly go through some of the recommendations. There has been a lot of attention on the issue of the recommendation to review casualisation and replace casual with permanent workers, which, of course, I support very strongly. But I just want to go to recommendation 1—and there is probably a reason why it's recommendation 1 and not further down—which is: what became clear through the inquiry is that there is an information vacuum. It was very difficult for mining companies, local communities, mayors and councils to really give any concrete answers as to what sort of information is out there, in any meaningful way. So the first recommendation is an important one, which is: let's find a way to collect the data in a meaningful way. It will have very big implications, if that is done, in terms of where dollars get spent—and we are talking about big public dollars when it comes to infrastructure and to social services in the regions. Knowing this sort of information is critical. I find it, frankly, quite surprising that it hasn't been done before. So I would certainly urge the government to take a very strong look at that first recommendation and find a way to make sure that that is implemented as government policy.
As to recommendation 2, the Nationals, I must say, were very keen to see this get in—and, indeed, those of us on the Labor side have seen how Royalties for Regions works in WA, and it has been kept by the WA Labor government because they recognise that it does work. It has been tweaked. There were some problems with the Royalties for Regions scheme in WA in its original genesis. A few too many gold-plated kerbs and roundabouts were built in some towns. I think the Mark McGowan-led government now in WA has a more sensible approach to how the Royalties for Regions scheme should be better implemented.
This is an important recommendation. It goes to the title of the report, Keep it in the regions, which is really about this: as the member for Dawson referred to, let's keep more of the money where the mines are dug; let's not truck it all out. We had a number of witnesses come forward to the committee saying that it broke their hearts sometimes to see the amount of wealth that was being trucked or railed out of their local communities to head to the big cities.
We've got recommendations here about true local procurement. This was a very big issue, with local suppliers feeling locked out of the supply chain. Importantly, we're not just talking about the big mining companies that are the principal operators. We're also talking about the second- and third-tier companies that get subcontracted to do this work on behalf of the big mining companies. We want to make sure they also have policies on local procurement. If the government can find its way to implementing these recommendations, and to talking to whoever they need to talk to, to make these things happen, I think that will go a long way to alleviating some of the concerns in the local regions.
We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars that could be poured back into local communities, simply by mining companies and their second- and third-tier contractors employing local firms to do their work. Don't fly in operators from France or other places. Don't bring in the big engineering companies from overseas. Contract it out to local suppliers. I think what that will do, of course, is increase economic activity in those local towns. Men and women will see that there's work available, not just on the sites themselves but in supplying those sites. That will increase the impetus for population growth in those areas, and not just in the short term but in an ongoing way. So this is a very important recommendation.
I'll go through more if I have time, but I just wanted to say: I think this is a really good report. I was very proud to be part of this process. The member for Dawson has probably stolen some of my best lines! But this report has made a difference already. Whether or not this ends up sitting on a shelf in the minister's office and not getting acted on—which would be a great shame—it has made a difference already.
We have had the mining companies come to us and, as a direct result of the hearings of this committee in places like Mackay, Rockhampton, Port Hedland and elsewhere, and as a direct result of the evidence about long payment terms to suppliers, they have changed their policies. We heard evidence that people were being blown out with their payment terms by 60 to 120 days. How a small supplier can manage that is just beyond the pale. In some cases, we're talking about millions of dollars outstanding. Men and women employees obviously have to continue to be paid by the local engineering firms and whatnot, and of course the owner of a firm would be waiting on the money from the company, but, if it hasn't come in, he's still got to pay the wages. A simple change like this means nothing to these big companies—to simply to pay their suppliers earlier—but it would have a massive effect. This is the testimony we heard: it would have a huge effect on local communities and local economies; it would give local suppliers confidence, it would give them certainty, and also, frankly, it would make them more willing to contract for the work. We heard evidence that some people can't afford to not tender for the work, but we also heard evidence that some suppliers said, 'I'm not going to tender for those mining contracts. It's just not worth waiting so long for the payment.' Of course, that depresses economic activity.
I strongly suggest that the government takes that very seriously—true local procurement and the payment terms—because, if we can get payment terms down to 30 days as a matter of course, not just for mining companies but across the board, and find some way, in terms of national policy, that big firms have to pay their local suppliers within 30 days, I think we're going to see a very significant economic improvement for small businesses. And same to you, Deputy Speaker Laundy, with Christmas coming! So there are a number of recommendations that I'm very proud of.
The other one that people touched on was the housing provision. We heard evidence about the FIFOs and the deleterious effect that the FIFOs have on communities—not just the communities but the workers themselves. We also heard evidence about how it distorts the market by having the workers fly in and fly out. There are recommendations about how we can best deal with that. We need to make sure that housing is looked after, not just for the workforce but for the local communities.
Principally, this is all about making sure that more wealth is kept in the regions. Being a member of parliament for the seat of Lyons in Tasmania, big on my agenda is keeping more money in the regions, more employment in the regions, more jobs in the regions and more services in the regions. That's what we need to do and that's what this report seeks to achieve.
I'm happy to say that we worked very well together with government members and I hope that we continue to do so, even when the next inquiry is announced for this committee. With only 10 sitting days of this parliament scheduled before the middle of next year, I'm not sure how much work will be done if an inquiry is announced before then, but we will take our chances.
It's not my role to commend this to the House, of course—that's up to the chair and the deputy chair, and they've done that—but I'm very proud to be part of this report. Frankly, no matter who forms government after the next election, I think there's a lot of really good reading in the report, and I think the country will be a lot better off if it takes into account the recommendations made by the committee. Thank you.