View from The Hill

A backbench critic highly committed to her electorate and with nothing to lose can deliver a potent punch

Sharman Stone has nothing to lose calling out Tony Abbott on SPC Ardmona. Lukas Coch/AAP

Liberal backbencher Sharman Stone has taken the political row over the government’s refusal to aid SPC Ardmona into new territory by bluntly labelling the Prime Minister a liar.

At the same time the company has rebutted claims by the government and others that its workers enjoy excessively generous conditions.

There are several issues entangled, including the role of workers’ conditions in both the cannery’s problems and in the government’s decision, and what those conditions actually are.

When cabinet last week rejected the request for $25 million, Abbott highlighted the conditions as something the company must address.

Stone, in whose Murray electorate the business is situated, says one of the things upsetting her most is that the government didn’t say it would love to help but couldn’t for budgetary reasons, but “what they said was ‘we’re not going to help because it is the amazing wages and conditions that have knocked this company for six’”.

“That is not true,” she said on radio. “If I was in Parliament I couldn’t say ‘liar’ because it’s unparliamentary, But it’s just not true. .. This is a witch hunt.”

Pressed on whether Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey were really lying when they said it was about this issue, Stone replied: “That’s right, it’s lying.”

Stone’s account somewhat verbals Abbott’s line of argument on the day. He said that, as part of the government’s general approach towards restructuring, dealing with SPC Ardmona was the responsibility of parent company Coca-Cola Amatil, which had the financial capacity to do it. Reducing workers’ conditions was imperative in the changes.

Abbott described the existing enterprise bargaining agreement as “way in excess of the award”.

“There are wet allowances, there are loadings on top of overtime, there is the ability to cash out sick pay, you get two weeks redundancy for every six months of service up to 104 weeks. This is a pretty extraordinary EBA.”

In its statement SPC Ardmona systematically addresses the claims that have been made by the government and others.

“Recent claims that SPC Ardmona is a ‘union shop’ or that the cause of its difficulties are because of ‘over generous’ allowances and conditions to staff, are mistaken and need to be refuted by the facts,” it said, giving this list.

“Claim: SPC Ardmona employees get "over generous” allowances.

Fact: The total allowances paid to SPC production staff in 2013 was $116,467, which represents less than 0.1% of the business’s cost of goods for the year.

Claim: There is a generous “wet” allowance of 58 cents per hour for cleaners

Fact: Zero ($0.00) paid in 2013.

Claim: SPC Ardmona employees get nine weeks paid leave a year.

Fact: SPCA employees get 20 days annual leave.

Claim: a five-day Melbourne Cup long weekend.

Fact: Production staff accrue rostered days off (RDOs) during the year which SPCA requires them not to take during the peak season. Instead these RDOs are taken at the start of November, the optimum time for a plant shutdown to allow maintenance in preparation for the canning season from December to April. RDOs are not additional leave.

Claim: Sick leave is cashed out each year.

Fact: This was removed from the EBA in 2012.

Claim: Loading, or shift penalties are above the award.

Fact: SPCA’s are the same as industry standards and common to many Australian EBAs. Afternoon shift is at 20% and night shift at 30%.

Claim: Loadings on top of overtime.

Fact: Production workers do almost zero overtime.

Claim: Redundancy is in excess of the award.

Fact: This old condition was reduced in 2012 to a 52 week cap.“

Managing director Peter Kelly (who earlier has been praised by the government) said the company had been assessing work practices for many months and had made significant improvements in productivity.

But "the serious problems that have beset SPCA have not been because of labour costs and certainly not from the allowances, a fact borne out by the Productivity Commission’s recent analysis.

"The business has been severely damaged in recent times by a ‘perfect storm’ created by external economic factors – the high Australian dollar, which appreciated more than 50% from 2009 to 2013, has both enabled the flood of cheap imported product to be sold in Australia below the cost of production here, and also decimated the company’s export markets.”

The government says it stands by the accuracy of Abbott’s statements about conditions. (In relation to redundancy it says the reduced provision applies only to recently-employed workers.)

But in playing to the government’s wider message Abbott’s appears to have distorted this particular situation, making it harder to sell a difficult but reasonable decision.

In pushing the government’s broader pitch - that employers should to be tough in EBA negotiations and resist union demands - he wasn’t too concerned about whether he was giving an accurate impression about the relative role of the conditions in SPC Ardmona’s problems.

Stone had every incentive to redress the balance.

A backbench critic highly committed to her electorate and with nothing to lose can deliver a potent punch.

The well-credentialed Stone, who has a PhD in economics and business and was manager of international development at Melbourne University before entering parliament, served as minister for workforce participation at the end of the Howard government. She was shadow immigration minister when Abbott became leader. He shifted her and then dumped her from the frontbench altogether after the 2010 election.

Where another MP might have shut up for fear of damaging future promotion chances, Stone has no reason to hesitate in calling Abbott out.