SPCA workers are cannon fodder in a different war

Behind a wages smoke-screen, SPC Ardmona jobs are being risked to pay for the sins of another sector. And if one backbencher's right, the decision goes against Cabinet's majority view.

Something very dangerous is happening within the debate over the government's decision not to 'co-invest' $25 million to upgrade SPC Ardomona's Shepparton plant.

SPCA workers earning around $50,000 a year are being used as cannon fodder in the Abbott government's war against a legitimate enemy – the construction unions that have pushed up construction costs and engaged in corrupt activities.

What is at risk now is what should be a large growth industry – innovative packaged fruit products with strong export outlooks. The industry around Shepparton looks likely to be shut down to allow the Abbott government to present a united front against the union moment (A rogue Liberal spills the beans on SPCA, January 31).

These two matters must be untangled and treated separately. Lives, families and communities are being risked in one sector to pay for the sins of another. While this decision was justified in terms of SPCA's 'excessive' enterprise bargaining arrangements, the company's workers are already receiving pay well below the average manufacturing wage ($67,000), and far below general full-time weekly earnings of $74,000, as Fairfax's Ben Schneiders documented last week.

The wages issue is a smoke-screen. This government does not, in principle, have anything against careful co-investment to stimulate job creation. That can be seen clearly by looking at its actions elsewhere – and the $100 million 'Economic Growth Plan for Tasmania' is a case in point.

That plan helped the Abbott-led Coalition pick up three seats in Tasmania at the 2013 election, and was blithely waved through by media commentators. After all, Tassie's unemployment rate of 7.7 per cent is the nation's worst, right?

Well, sort of. Member for Murray Sharman Stone points out that the Shepparton region has an unemployment rate of 8.5 per cent. Her figures come from disaggregated data from Centrelink covering the City of Greater Shepparton areas. 

Without co-investment from state and federal governments, SPCA is unlikely to put in $90 million to upgrade its facilities, which is why taxpayer-funded top-ups of $25 million were offered by the state Coalition government and the previous federal Labor government.

If the investment does not go ahead, local unemployment will – according to Stone – rise by around 5000 people and hit around 11 per cent.

A wide range of critics of the SPCA scheme have claimed that it is never right to give money to a private company to encourage it to invest in an area that it thinks will be profitable in the long run.

But then the government is not consistent on that point. Yesterday it announced a co-investment deal with Tasmanian fish farmer, Huon Aquaculture – under the aegis of the 'Economic Growth Plan for Tasmania' – in which $3.5 million of federal taxpayer dollars are being used to upgrade machinery in just the way SPCA wished to do, augmented by $1.5 from the state government.

In a statement it said: "The project will provide the equipment to process fresh fish, as well as smokehouses and other machinery for boning, skinning, portioning and mincing. It will also extend the existing factory building, car park and effluent treatment facilities."

Put this deal alongside the SPCA plan and the 'co-investment' proportions are roughly similar – SPCA planned to put in 64 per cent of the jobs-creating investment, whereas Huon plans to put in 58 per cent (see table below).

Graph for SPCA workers are cannon fodder in a different war

There has been a great deal of tub-thumping about SPCA. Is that because it doesn't fall under an official government jobs program in the way the Huon plan does? If so, an umbrella plan should be formulated forthwith.

When I spoke to Stone early today she said funding the Huon scheme but not SPCA was "deeply hypocritical".

"You can't argue processed fish is more valuable to the economy than processed fruit," she said. "They are both important.”

Asked whether there had been any blow-back from party colleagues over her strident stand on SPCA, Stone said: "None at all, because the party agrees with me entirely. This decision wasn't the majority view of cabinet, I know that for a fact." 

She added: "This is about the leadership team wanting to draw a line in the sand for a full-scale war with the unions via the Royal Commission."

Stone is only one backbencher, and she is talking about her own electorate. However, the vigour with which she is pursuing the case of the growers, factory workers and supply chain workers associated with SPCA is extraordinary.

If there is to be a full-blown conflict between the construction unions and the Abbott government, making the SPCA workers 'collateral damage' in the way Stone describes it is unconscionable.

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