Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Before I speak on the matter that I am intending to speak on, I would like to place on record my heartfelt support for Senator Parry’s comments regarding organ donation and also the work of Australians Donate. I remind people that Australian Organ Donor Awareness Week begins on 18 February. I look forward to attending the Tasmanian event, at which I believe Senator Colbeck will be officiating.
I rise today to speak about a world-renowned iconic company in my home state of Tasmania—a company which started around 1870, nearly 138 years ago, with imported materials and a few skilled workers. The decision on 16 January by Australian bootmaker Blundstone to close its Tasmanian operation and go to India and Thailand is a sad one, particularly for a company so steeped in history.
Blundstone began when John and Eliza Blundstone arrived in Hobart town from Derbyshire, England, in 1855. Initially, the Blundstones imported footwear from England, but they were soon crafting boots in Hobart strong enough to handle some of the world’s toughest terrain. Their boots are renowned for their quality and reliability. Blundstone stood proudly with many great Australian products. Whilst Blundstone will continue to be Australian owned, the manufacturing of the famous boots will now be done largely in India and Thailand.
We are all only too well aware of other Australian icons that have left Australia’s shores, such as Uncle Tobys, Arnotts and Bundaberg Rum. Arnotts was sold to the US company Campbell Soup in 1997, Bundaberg went to the UK in 2000, and last year the Swiss company Nestle snapped up Uncle Tobys—just to name a few. So much for enduring Australian icons. I think it is safe to say that there would be very few Australians who have not owned at least one pair of Blundstone boots. Australian backpackers have trekked the world in them and thousands of tradespeople swear by them. Their hardy and long-lasting qualities are sought after worldwide. In the United States the good old ‘Blunnie’ was the preferred choice of scores of Hollywood celebrities. Sadly, the tradition is soon to end in Tasmania.
On the day of the Blundstone announcement, my colleague the member for Denison, Mr Duncan Kerr, and I went to the Moonah Blundstone factory and talked with the Chief Executive Officer, Mr Steven Gunn. Mr Gunn explained that, while it was a sad and difficult decision, Blundstone ‘shares the disappointment many people are feeling’ and that ‘it has been a very difficult decision for us’. The company said that they had tried their darnedest to make a fist of local manufacturing at the expense of profitability. What I and many others would like to know is: did Tasmania’s only federal minister, Senator Eric Abetz, go on site and talk to management or was he too involved in getting approval for his seven-metre floodlit flagpole outside his office in Hobart?
Federal minister Ian Macfarlane was typically vague when the Blundstone closure in Australia was announced. After the announcement, Mr Macfarlane declared: ‘I am confident the 300’—and there are around 350—‘Blundstone workers will find new positions locally.’ I hope the minister is right. I can assure him that my colleagues and I will be keeping an eye on the situation and will be reminding him of his declaration.
The minister seems to have a simplistic approach to the problems confronting the industry, foremost among them the exodus of Australian companies overseas. That was reason enough for Mr Howard to have included him on his reshuffle hit list last month, but, surprisingly, the minister survived. Mr Macfarlane’s approach to Australia’s industry sector borders on Dickensian and, like the thousands of workers in the lost jobs he has overseen, the minister should have been shown the door.
Interestingly, last September the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Mark Vaile, a staunch supporter of slashing tariffs, was talking up Blundstone’s prospects. Mr Vaile was speaking before the ASEAN meeting in Hobart on the free trade agreement. Mr Vaile said:
The agreement helps great companies such as Blundstone become even more competitive by helping to create a more favourable international trade and investment environment.
It is now time for Mr Vaile to tell the Tasmanian people, and especially the 350 Tasmanian workers who will lose their jobs in the next six months or so, what has happened since he made those comments. What has happened? It would appear that, in this case at least, those words have returned to haunt Mr Vaile. The ‘more favourable trade environment’ he refers to is a myth; the reality is far removed.
Labor has vowed to protect manufacturing jobs. Federal Labor is looking at increasing tax concessions for manufacturing companies that invest in research and development, and would equip them with better skills and training. Federal Labor is all too aware of the pitfalls facing Australian manufacturers. As articulated by my colleague Senator Carr, shadow minister for industry, innovation, science and research, Labor believes:
Australian industry should be supported, through the proper industry policy settings, to make things here, and we will work to create an environment in which this can happen.
We believe that government should support industries of strategic interest—industries in which Australia should have a competitive advantage, industries that will create fulfilling jobs for our children.
Why is the Howard government so quick to throw a lifeline to some industries, such as car makers in South Australia, but failed to act on Blundstone? This is a fair question and Tasmanians are entitled to expect the Howard government to answer it. Blundstone reports that it made its decision to move its operations offshore before last November. I would like to know, as I am sure many others would: were the Tasmanian Liberal senators warned of Blundstone’s decision? When did the federal government know of Blundstone’s decision? Did the federal government attempt to convince the Australian icon to stay on home soil? What action, if any, did it take to head off this decision prior to the announcement?
Blundstone’s workforce will join the more than 43,000 textile, clothing and footwear, or TCF, workers who have lost their jobs since the Howard government took office. While some may see it as just another medium sized factory closure, there is a human side that is often ignored. The morning after the announcement, the local newspaper ran a poignant front-page picture of a soon to be released worker with his two young sons, aged four and seven. As is often the case in company closures, this worker got the message through the grapevine and had dismissed it as a prank by workmates. The young father has a mortgage, and the prospect of mounting debts is a daunting one for a man employed for his boot-sewing skills. They are valued skills for Blundstone, but few if any other Tasmanian employers would require them.
It is hard also on the husbands and wives who worked together at Blundstone to support their families. I understand that, ironically, a number of workers volunteered to cut short their Christmas-New Year holidays to return to work to fill extra production shifts. You can imagine their shock when they were told they would soon be out of a job.
To the credit of Tasmania’s state Labor government it has acted quickly by providing support and will be working hard to get workers back into the workplace. Mr Graeme Sturges, Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier, has been given responsibility for developing a comprehensive response, which hopefully the federal government will be involved in. Mr Sturges says the welfare of the workers and their families is a matter of priority.
It is the state government’s intention to get a positive result for every single Blundstone employee affected by this decision. With that in mind, a network of employers, employee advocates and support groups has begun identifying opportunities in consultation with Blundstone workers, management and unions. These include: direct employee assistance programs helping workers to find employment, working with TAFE on reskilling, workforce transition support, hotline support for businesses affected by the closure, immediate consultation with unions and workers to prepare a way forward, and supporting an application for aid through the TCF structural improvement program.
I understand also that a federal government representative has met with Blundstone to discuss support for workers. The National Secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union, Mr Tony Woolgar, wasted no time in getting to Tasmania to talk to workers after Blundstone’s bombshell. Mr Woolgar says only a dramatic shift in government policy can save more industries going the way of Blundstone. Mr Woolgar talked to Blundstone management but says it is too early to say what the future holds for the majority of the workforce given that the company is going to phase out positions over the coming six months or so. I understand that the redundancies will be staggered and occur in groups of anywhere from 20 to 70 to begin in May.
Tasmanian Liberal senators should remember that the No. 1 priority sought by the union is federal government assistance through the TCF structural adjustment package. It is essential that any request for assistance is not hamstrung by red tape and government inaction. I would like to think that Tasmanian Liberal senators will fly the flag for Blundstone workers in Canberra. (Time expired)