Senate debates

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Employment, Renewable Energy

3:12 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Employment (Senator Abetz) to questions without notice asked by Senators Urquhart and Singh today relating to employment in Tasmania and to the Renewable Energy Target.

My question, I thought, was quite straightforward, but obviously the Minister for Employment was not able to answer it. The closure of the Henty mine was announced on 7 July, with the loss of 150 jobs, sometime around 2015. The immediate closure of Mount Lyell mine was announced on 9 July. The minister said that Mr Whiteley had done a lot more than say to the workers, 'Go to Centrelink'—and I would be very interested to know what that was. In a press release that Mr Whiteley put out on 9 July, he said he would expect that the Premier will request that challenges confronting the west coast be put on the agenda for the next Tasmanian Economic Council meeting, to be held in the next few weeks. So there did not seem to be a lot of urgency from the member for Braddon to get on and look at what help they could provide to the people on the west coast given the announcement of the closure of the mine.

My question was going to whether the government had thought about maintaining the local employment officer—that position will be axed from 30 July. In May, Central Coast Mayor Jan Bonde put out a press release and there was a story in TheAdvocate. Responding to a question about the position of the local employment officer, James McCormack, being axed, she said:

James, along with Sarah Jones from Enterprise Connect, has been a catalyst for change in the region. In my experience, they are the two best operators in terms of helping to transform our regional economies. He has been able to build relationships with all tiers of government and the key employers and industry groups.

I would have thought that that role would have been extremely helpful to people on the west coast of Tasmania Mayor Bonde went on to say:

Jobs Services agencies operate under a competitive model and it is impossible for councils to work collaboratively to help improved employment outcomes without someone likes James acting as the point of contact.

He has the ability and relationships to cut across the silos and other boundaries to help create a more co-ordinated approach to identifying and addressing challenges.

So the local mayor talks about how important someone in that role is. But Mr Whiteley does not think that that is important. Without somebody in the local area to help pull all that together it is a very difficult and tough time.

The regional coordinator put together a regional employment plan, and in that regional employment plan there are five goals. Within those five goals there are 19 strategies. The report, Regional Employment Plan: North West/Northern Tasmania Priority Employment Area, talks about things like supporting employment, workforce participation and skills development, including through maximising government investment; helping retrenched workers transition into new employment and/or training; facilitating employment and training opportunities for job seekers, including disadvantaged groups, with a focus on industries experiencing skills shortages; facilitating opportunities for employment in new, emerging and growth industries; and developing industry and community partnerships to increase participation in employment and training. I would have thought that those key areas contained in that priority employment area plan were all things with which the west coast could dearly use the assistance of someone like a regional employment coordinator. But, no, the government does not seem to think that it is important.

But I am heartened because, after a lot of calls, today, at around 9.30 am or 9.40 am, Mr Whiteley gave a speech in the other place in which he said:

At the request of the state government, I have committed to working closely with my good friend Adam Brooks MP, who is leading the group to an outcome that results in this region restored as the economic powerhouse of Tasmania as it once was.

So we had the announcement two weeks ago that the mines were closing and the member for Braddon has now got up and said that he is actually going to be part of that. (Time expired)

3:17 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Employment) Share this | | Hansard source

I am delighted to take part in this debate and remind Senator Urquhart of a little bit of history. James McCormack, the local employment coordinator to whom she refers, did a great job for Tasmanians in that particular area. But there was something that Senator Urquhart forgot to tell the Senate. Chances are she did not forget and she deliberately withheld, but I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Do you know how long Mr McCormack—who did all this wonderful work—was contracted for by the previous Labor government? It was until 30 June 2014. So the very last budget for which Labor senators, including Senator Urquhart, voted for would have seen the stopping of his contract as of 30 June 2014. We implemented the Labor Party's approach in this area. So please, Senator Urquhart and other Labor senators, do not come into this chamber crying crocodile tears when you had no intention in any way, shape or form of continuing that position, as you did not make any money available for it beyond 30 June 2014.

Senator Polley interjecting

I will take Senator Polley's interjection, 'Well, why don't you make more money available?' I indicate to Senator Polley and the Labor Party the financial difficulties we face today is courtesy of Labor mismanagement. As we speak, we are borrowing $1,000 million per month just to pay the interest bill on the existing borrowings. Today we heard in question after question from the Australian Labor Party that their answer to all the world's problems is 'just borrow more'. If you were to follow the Greens as well, you would borrow more from overseas so we could pay it overseas. That is why this nation is in the financial difficulties that she is in. It is the Labor-Green legacy. And we have now been given the task by the Australian people to repair the damage. Regrettably, when you waste your money on pink batts, school halls and cash splashes, the day comes when you have to repay that money with interest. As a result, good people like James McCormack, the local employment coordinator, cannot continue to be funded. But, please, do not blame us for that decision; it was a Labor decision—and when we looked for money, regrettably, there was none there because of Labor's legacy.

The member for Braddon, Mr Whiteley—who is doing a fantastic job for the people of Braddon—from the west coast and right through the north-west coast of my home state of Tasmania—saw the state government acting very proactively with a task force to assist with what is a devastating blow to the west coast with the closure of two mines. Given that it was a state government task force, it is appropriate to make the appropriate inquiries to ascertain one's capacity to make a contribution to it. That is what Mr Whiteley has done, and Mr Whiteley is now going to make a positive contribution to that task force. That is the way sound, sensible government conducts itself.

If you listened to all the questions from the Labor Party today you would get the impression that the Labor way is 'see a problem, borrow money from overseas, throw a bucket of money over it and then walk away because you have somehow satisfied your moral obligation'. We say that that is the Labor way but it is not a responsible way. It is not the honourable way. The honourable way is to take a step back, take a deep breath and ask, 'How do you handle this situation the best for the long-term benefit of not only the west coast but also all the individuals impacted?' and then hear from those people what is needed and how we can assist—and that is exactly the approach that we as a government here in Canberra and the new Premier, Will Hodgman, are taking to this devastating situation in Tasmania. (Time expired)

3:22 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

What we have heard here in the response to Senator Urquhart's questions by Senator Abetz, a Tasmanian senator himself, is: 'Don't blame us when it comes to workers and their families losing their jobs on the west coast of Tasmania. Don't blame us. We're just the government. We can't do anything.' Senator Abetz wants to keep going back in time and holding onto this thing of 10 months ago when Labor was in power, trying to blame every single lack of government policymaking that they currently have on Labor. Well, this is the government that is in power and this is the government that can do something right now to support those workers on the west coast of Tasmania.

Senator Urquhart asked a very specific question of Senator Abetz. He failed to answer it. She asked specifically about the employment coordinator position that no longer exists on the west coast of Tasmania. We know that these positions do not exist in fact anywhere in the country—the whole 21 of them have gone—except for in the electorate of Corangamite, in Sarah Henderson's electorate. I have got a press release here from Sarah Henderson, which she only put out on 2 July—I think it was following her appearance on a Q&A program. Senator Abetz came to her rescue. In relation to the Alcoa workers, Senator Abetz decided to come up with the $500,000 to reinstate the employment coordinator for the Geelong region. It is all right for Geelong. It is good enough Geelong, but it is not good enough for his own state of Tasmania. He is turning his back on the workers in his own state. He gets up here in the Senate and tells those workers, tells the Tasmanian community, that it is not the government's problem, that they are not going to do anything about it. It was okay for Geelong, but it is not okay for the west coast of Tasmania.

In relation to the member for Braddon, Brett Whiteley, we know all about him. We know he is all about bluff and blunder. He is not about action. He has got the mouth. He goes out there spreading the words, but they are not followed up with any action. Having said that, Senator Urquhart has informed the Senate that, after two weeks, he is finally going to do something and get involved with the working group, unlike what he has said in the past, which was: 'You're losing your job. Go to Centrelink. Don't come to me. I'm just the local member. I'm just the government. I can't help you.' That is what we get to hear from Senator Abetz and from Mr Whiteley.

We know very well the importance of Enterprise Connect. We know very well how important that coordinator position was in Tasmania and the work that was done by the former employment coordinator, James McCormack. That is why we are calling on the government to provide, right now, a regional employment coordinator for the west coast and the north-west coast of Tasmania, just as Geelong has been provided with, just as Sarah Henderson informed us, in her press release of 2 July, that she was provided with for her electorate of Corangamite. She knows the importance of the regional employment coordinator in the face of Alcoa workers losing their jobs. She says:

The funding will ensure there is a person on the ground in the Geelong region who can look at opportunities across our region to promote employment growth and better link job seekers and employers.

She knows very well that this job seeker initiative was a good policy that Labor started. That is why she urged Senator Abetz come forward with the $500,000. The only regional employment coordinator in the country is in the electorate of Corangamite. The rest of the country? Too bad. In Tasmania, Senator Abetz's own state, he says, 'Too bad.' Here are workers and their families whose livelihoods are on the line. They have been living on half-pay now for some time. They know that their future is bleak in that regional part of the state. There need to be those opportunities provided to them through the support of an employment coordinator. That is why Senator Urquhart and I, followed by the other Tasmanian Labor senators, are urging Senator Abetz to stand up for Tasmanians for once and actually come forward with this very small amount of money that will make such a difference to their lives. (Time expired)

3:27 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, congratulations on your ascension to the role. I have not had the opportunity to formally congratulate you before.

The circumstances on the west coast of Tasmania are indeed unfortunate. It is a very difficult time for people on the west coast of Tasmania. If Labor members and senators think that the only thing that can be offered to that community is a local or regional employment coordinator, if that is all they are asking for, it shows how shallow their approach to this very, very difficult circumstance is.

I might reflect on some other difficulties that have occurred in my region over the last few years. It is good that Senator Carr is in the chamber, because he was part of the process under which we lost two paper mills and a carpet factory. What was the Labor government's response to that? The Labor government's response to the circumstance where the paper industry decided they were going to review—

Senator Polley interjecting

Just wait and see what the response was, Senator Polley. The Labor Party's response was to call a meeting of interested parties.

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

Rubbish! Complete rubbish!

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me finish, Senator. Not only did they call a meeting; Senator Carr would not even come to Tasmania. He called the locals to go to him in Victoria. They had to travel to Victoria to meet with him. He did not have time to come to Tasmania. Then he put into place a committee to consider the future of the pulp and paper industry, alongside the decision-making process of the company. And guess what?

The committee he put into place did not report until after months and months, after the company had made the decision to close. He said at the outset that this committee would consider the industry in conjunction with the company itself, so that the company could be informed by the process of the committee, but the committee did not report until well and truly later.

We are consulting with the community. The member for Braddon has already spoken to the Prime Minister in the Prime Minister's office. He has also spoken to the office of the Minister for Industry—who will be in Tasmania next week. With the former minister, they had to go to him.

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

Where's the money?

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

As Senator Carr says, just throw a bucket of money at it and it will all go away. We are talking to the community. Interestingly, in Victoria, where the decisions have been known for some time, the community has had a chance to develop a plan. That process is only just starting in Tasmania. The Tasmanian Premier acted very quickly. He was quickly in Queenstown and quickly set up a task force to work with community members. The Labor Party think they can just impose themselves on the community. That is what they did with the carbon tax and that is one of the reasons industry in Tasmania has been doing it so tough. Simplot, for example, is a business which will be saved $4 million a year by today's action in this chamber. The previous government offered them money. They threw money at them. We can save them more money in four years than the previous government offered them just by throwing money at the problem. That is their only answer. They think throwing some money at the problem will sort it all out.

We are making regulatory reform which will reduce the cost to industry and business and allow them to flourish. It will give them the opportunity to grow. It is a very, very unfortunate circumstance on the West Coast of Tasmania and we all feel very much for the people. The Labor Party are playing base politics with this issue, in stark contrast to what we did when Caterpillar workers were being put off, when we worked alongside the then local member for Braddon, Mr Sid Sidebottom. We did not criticise the government because there were difficult decisions being made in the industry; yet, as soon as the tables are turned, the Labor Party return to base politics. They are not prepared to listen to what the community want. They just want to play dirty base politics with a very unfortunate circumstance. They are not interested in listening to the local community and are not prepared to chip in and play a sensible and responsible part in what is a very difficult situation. (Time expired)

3:32 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

It is extraordinary when an issue is affecting our home state of Tasmania that we have the so-called 'power senators' from Tasmania, who have all the senior positions in this government but they cannot get up to defend their decision to stand by and do nothing. They do absolutely nothing. To have people in this chamber today blaming the mining resource tax or the carbon tax for the closure of those mines is absolutely outrageous. When it comes to what Senator Colbeck has just said in relation to Labor's view of saving jobs, that it is about throwing money at it, that is unbelievable. We want an immediate injection of funds into that community and we want a long-term strategy to ensure that we can invest in the future and can invest in jobs.

Today in the House of Representatives we have Mr Brett Whiteley as the member for Braddon. We also have what are known as—they gave themselves the name—'the Three Amigos'. We have been waiting for the Three Amigos to ride into town in Tasmania and they have never arrived. What they should really be known as is 'the Three Stooges'. The problem is, they are not funny. The situation on the West Coast is not funny. On this side we have seen the action of Senator Urquhart and the shadow minister Julie Collins going on the front foot with this issue. Our representatives have been there talking to the community. We have been in contact with the unions.

I have regular contact with the Australian Workers Union, who are down there at the coal face listening to those workers. They have had to survive. They are not living on six months of half pay; they are trying to survive. We know and I would have expected that those opposite as Tasmanians would know their community and know how hard it is there in terms of unemployment. We have—

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

So what did you do for the pulp mill workers and the carpet mill workers?

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

We were there and investing in Tasmania.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

They've gone.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

They have gone. You had the opportunity, Senator Colbeck—through you, Mr Deputy President. Show us the way. Why are you not doing something? Why are you prepared, because one of your members goes on Q&A, to throw money into Geelong and have a coordinator there? Why is it that one of your members has to go on Q&A? I very much doubt that that is the way the Tasmanian community are going to have any respect for this government because we are not interested in invasion, which has been demonstrated here today. We are not interested in posturing, we are not interested in vague media releases where the local member says to the people who have lost their jobs, 'Go and see Centrelink,' when they know full well that they would not be entitled to the sort of support that they need now.

When we debate this, we have inaction from those opposite, but we want action. We want action now for an immediate intervention to help these people and then we need a long-term plan and strategy to assist that community. We do not want Queenstown to become a ghost. Those on the opposite side come into this chamber every week talking about small businesses. What are you doing to ensure those businesses in that region are able to succeed? What are you going to do to assist families trying to pay their mortgage? Today after questions in relation to the GST, Senator Abetz said, 'No, it is not government policy to support an increase in GST to 15 per cent,' but he did not say anything about not broadening that tax.

We have seen from this government through their budget that they are callous and heartless, and the Tasmanian Liberal senators and the Liberal members of the House of Representatives have proven once again that they are out of touch. They don't listen, and Senator Colbeck says, 'We go down there and we talk to the people.' That is right: you only do the talking. You never listen to the community. You never listen to the experts and you have not even been there.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

Tell us what they want!

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

You should be there. They want action. They want some leadership. They want some vision, but we know that this government is incapable of showing leadership. We know they are incapable of having any vision and we know they are incapable of having a strategy and supporting the Tasmanian community. (Time expired)

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Urquhart be agreed to.

Question agreed to.