Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 December 2017


Workplace Relations

7:24 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to do a quick shout-out tonight to the workers and unions that I met today in Parliament House. I had a fantastic meeting with a bunch of fellows, and Ruth from the ETU, who came to talk to me about their picket down in Longford, in Gippsland in Victoria, at Exxon—167 days now. It is one of the world's largest oil and gas companies. Indeed, I think it is the largest oil and gas company in the world. Basically, it is undermining their wages and conditions by using loopholes in the Fair Work Act, and sham contracts and contract companies. They're picketing for their jobs and their conditions. They pointed out to me today, and they want to point out to every other senator and MP in this place and, indeed, every Australian, that the company which employs them and which can't afford to pay them decent wages and conditions, this company that's penny pinching at every opportunity that it possibly can, is also not paying tax in this country. Despite being one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, they say that they haven't paid a cent in corporate income tax in Australia in the last two years, and possibly longer. They had revenue of $7.2 billion in 2016 and had increasing production and skyrocketing domestic gas prices in Australia.

They told me today that the Longford gas plant, where they've had their picket now for 167 days, and the related gas fields supply 19 per cent of the demand of the east coast of Australia. Exxon has stated that 2016, last year, was the highest gas production year ever. They also made it clear to me that ExxonMobil Australia Pty Ltd, the primary Exxon entity in Australia, is owned through subsidies in the Bahamas and the Netherlands. Remember the 'Paradise Papers'? Remember the debates that we've had in committees and inquiries about multinational tax avoidance? They've hidden their corporate structure from the Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance, which I happen to be on—in fact, I and the Greens initiated that inquiry—and they've failed to disclose the Dutch and Bahamian ownership in Australian filing. The same committee that I and other senators are on will be looking at Exxon. We have hearings coming up next year, and we're going to do our job and try to hold Exxon to account to pay the tax that they owe the Australian people.

Today, the workers and the unions also raised the issue of the petroleum resource rent tax. They want the resource rent tax changed. There is $238 billion in tax credits across our oil and gas companies in this country; that is $238 billion in tax that hasn't been paid and has been offset because of the overly generous—in fact, ridiculously generous—deductions that this government and previous governments have given the big polluters in Australia. Imagine what we could do with $238 billion if it was paid into our tax system. That's seven or eight Gonskis. It's incredible to think about how much money these oil and gas companies don't pay—and here they are, underpaying their workers, undercutting their working conditions. It really is outrageous.

I was really pleased to meet these guys today. I want to give a special shout out to Steve Dargavel from the AMWU Victoria branch—he's a state secretary—Ruth Kershaw from ETU Victoria, whom I've had many dealings with over the years, especially around the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, and the other five union reps and workers that I met today. Good on you, guys, for standing up for your rights and conditions and making sure that Australians and every member of parliament know that this giant, ExxonMobil, is not paying a cent in corporate tax. Of course, they're one of the many hungry polluters—petrochemical companies, oil and gas companies—in this country that don't pay any petroleum resource rent tax. Why is that the case?

The Greens support these workers. We support tackling multinational tax avoidance. Former senator Christine Milne was the first to initiate the Senate inquiry that has led to some fantastic legislation in this place and some changes. We've got a long way to go. I and the Greens initiated the current inquiry that's looking at the petroleum resource rent tax. We heard great evidence in our hearing in Perth about how Chevron don't pay a cent in tax, either. They have now been tackled by the Australia tax office. The Australian tax office, I hope, now have Exxon in their sights. The Senate committee certainly does. We'll be calling the CEOs of Exxon before us to explain why they're not paying any corporate tax and why we should have this system, the petroleum resource rent tax, which doesn't pay a single cent to the Australian people who own those resources, in this country.

7:29 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A few weeks ago, I spoke in this chamber about the attempts by Streets ice cream to play the Fair Work Commission system, trying to terminate the 2013 staff agreement and offering significant pay cuts and loss of conditions. Fortunately, since then, Streets has withdrawn its termination application to the Fair Work Commission and has reached an in-principle agreement that it will protect pay, shifts and conditions. This backdown was in response to the strong public support for the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union campaign to boycott Streets ice cream. I would like to acknowledge the work of the AMWU and all of the unions who drove that campaign, and the support of the Australian community to upholding Australian values and fairness. That is what unions are for, that is what they achieve and that is why it is so very wrong that the people in this chamber who sit on the other side attack unions every single day that we come to this place.

Unfortunately, Streets isn't the only one. There are other employers trying to work their way around the Fair Work Act in ways that are simply not fair. Tonight, I want to bring attention to the way that Esso, its contractors and its subsidiaries are trying to work their way around the Fair Work Act in a different but no less troubling way. I met with delegates from the ETU, the AWU and the ANWU this week who have been out on strike and locked out of their workplace for hundreds of days. Esso, the Australian subsidiary of ExxonMobil, processes oil and gas from the Bass Strait at their Longford plant in Gippsland. But in May—as long ago as May—the company that Esso outsources its maintenance to, UGL, suspended negotiations with around 200 maintenance workers. They created a process that required workers to sign new contracts with a subsidiary company—a shelf company no-one had ever heard of before—throwing all of the agreed pay conditions, all of the shift arrangements and all of the workplace conditions out the window.

The proposed enterprise agreement that was offered by this UGL subsidiary, MTCT Services, offered up to 30 per cent less pay and conditions, and no restrictions on roster arrangements. This isn't just a tough choice. It's no choice at all. This doesn't sound like negotiation in good faith. This does not sound fair. And this does not sound to me like it is in the interests of the Australian community. This is not how workplaces ought to work. Labor is committed to reform to stop employers gaming the system. Even more bitter for these communities facing difficult and challenging times are the allegations levelled about Esso's corporate structures, which, it is alleged, seek to minimise tax payments. If the reports are true, in the last two years Exxon has reported $18 billion of revenue whilst paying no corporate tax.

The Senate Standing Committee on Economics—I'm a member of that committee—has, for some years, been investigating corporate tax avoidance. Today the Senate has agreed to extend the reporting date of that inquiry to allow the committee to continue its work. In light of these allegations, in light of this analysis, my very strong view is that the committee should examine these allegations. The committee should examine the allegations that Exxon has engaged in aggressive corporate tax avoidance.

I fear that this won't be the last time that I rise in this chamber to talk about the ways employers are working around the safeguards of the Fair Work Act and it won't be the last time that I rise here to talk about the ways big companies are seeking to avoid their tax obligations—and, in doing so, seeking to deprive all Australians of the revenue that government needs to provide hospitals, schools, infrastructure and apprenticeships. I commit that I will continue to draw attention to these attacks on Australian workers and Australian families. A Labor government will fix the Fair Work Act to stop employer attempts to work around the principle of fairness. We will continue the reforms that we began in government to ensure that corporations pay their fair share of tax.