KYOGLE NORPLY FACTORY FIRE
Matter of Public Importance
Mr DAVID CAMPBELL
(Keira—Minister for Regional Development, Minister for the Illawarra, and Minister for Small Business) [4.36 p.m.]: Last Thursday night fire destroyed the Norply timber factory at Kyogle, which is in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. As a result of the blaze, at least 140 people are out of a job. In a town of about 3,500, the loss of those jobs will have a significant economic impact. Today I visited Kyogle to talk to community and company representatives. This follows my initial contact last Friday with the Mayor of Kyogle, Ernie Bennett, to learn more about the situation and assess how we could help the town. I also talked yesterday to the honourable member for Lismore about this terrible event. I arrived back from Kyogle shortly after question time today and have again spoken briefly to the honourable member for Lismore. I have undertaken to him to work with him, where I can, to support the Kyogle community.
The fire is having a serious impact on Kyogle. In the short term, Norply has advised me it will pay its employees two weeks wages. That reflects the strong ethos of the company, which is also honouring its commitments, such as leave entitlements. A number of New South Wales government agencies have been in contact with the company and the community to discuss both interim and longer-term assistance measures. Those agencies include the Department of State and Regional Development, the Premier's Department and Forests New South Wales. I note particularly that the Commonwealth agency Centrelink has been helpful in securing ongoing income support for the employees. In addition, Kyogle Council has started an appeal to raise funds for local families suffering hardship.
As a result of our discussions with the community and the company, during my visit today I announced extra Government support for Kyogle. I advise the House that I have declared the town eligible for help under the Government's Regional Economic Transition Scheme [RETS], which helps regional areas that have experienced serious economic shock because of structural adjustment or the closure of the region's major employer. Given that Norply is the town's major employer, there is a strong case for Kyogle to be included in this successful government program. Staff from across a number of government agencies have held talks with the company to push ahead with RETS assistance once all the insurance matters have been clarified. In any event RETS will provide an umbrella for all government assistance.
The fire that affected Norply began at 6.45 p.m. last Thursday. The blaze was so intense that fire crews from around the region were called in to fight it. Thankfully, the 35 people who were working a shift at the plant were safely evacuated. Today the site is still smouldering. In my discussions today I was advised there had been a strong occupational health and safety culture in this company and plans had been put in place for an eventuality such as this fire. It is particularly pleasing to note that the 35 people who were working there at the time responded in accordance with those plans, which were clearly developed by the company in consultation with its employees and under the framework of our occupational health and safety legislation. As I said, today when I visited, the site was still smouldering. There was not only smoke but also flames in one section of the site.
Norply is the biggest employer in the town and the shire. The New South Wales Government has previously helped the company through its Regional Business Development Scheme. In addition to the jobs at the mill, other businesses rely directly on Norply. One such company is Euro Laminated Design, a Western Australian business that recently relocated to Kyogle with New South Wales Government support. Euro Laminated Design currently employs seven full-time staff and two working directors, producing moulded plywood seats and plantation timber products, including office furniture, chairs and bed heads, resulting in interstate investment in New South Wales. Like its assistance to Norply, the New South Wales Government's Regional Business Development Scheme helped Euro Laminated Designs set up in Kyogle.
Another local company, Greensill Brothers, relies on Norply, along with a swag of other companies involved in logging and timber-felling operations. The fire will impact on State Forests workers who are employed locally in forestry, the people who work in trucking companies and transport Norply's product to market, and the people who buy and sell the mill's by-products such as bark and woodchips. Tradespeople, such as electricians, who are on call to Norply, are also affected, as well as local distributors and people who work at various sales outlets. More than 200 local families rely directly on Norply for their pay packets. With Norply being the most significant employer in Kyogle, its loss will affect retail and services businesses across the region. For example, during today's visit I met Tom Rogers, President of the local Chamber of Commerce—a very positive and very dedicated man.
Mr Thomas George:
Did he play you a tune?
Mr DAVID CAMPBELL:
He did not play me a tune, but nice background music was coming from the store on the main street. Tom Rogers advised me that Norply's loss is already impacting on local buying power, and that local retailers will face a tough time. Until last Friday, Kyogle was sustained almost exclusively by its timber industry. However, the Kyogle community has been taking steps with the New South Wales Government to diversify the town's business base and that move has indeed proved timely. In June 2004 the New South Wales Government provided $110,000 to the town in a targeted economic development program. Of that funding, $50,000 was used to develop its Sense of Place Program and $60,000 will used to fund an economic development officer. Kyogle Council previously received New South Wales Government funding for regional development in 1996, 2000 and 2003.
Under the Main Street Small Towns Program the Government supported the Sense of Place Program, which was looking at an economic development strategy as a means of seeking new opportunities and starting to diversify the economy of Kyogle. Under that program, in conjunction with Kyogle Council, the second part of that funding, $60,000, will be made available to employ an economic development officer. The fact that some of that foundation work had been put in place is particularly important as we move through and bring on stream the Regional Economic Transition Scheme [RETS]. We will use the Regional Business Development Scheme to encourage existing businesses to look to some growth, but also to see if there are others that we can bring in. There will be a sense of partnership between the council, the Chamber of Commerce, the New South Wales Government and individual businesses.
Other local businesses in Kyogle have also received Government support. In July 2003, the New South Wales Government helped Ecosilk Bags of Kyogle upgrade its web site and promote its products under the Government's New Market Expansion Program. While Norply takes stock of this situation and plans its recovery, I assure the people of Kyogle and the members of this House that the New South Wales Government is taking quick action to encourage Kyogle and its community to survive these tough and uncertain times. We want to make sure that the Kyogle community prospers again in the future. By any measure this is a difficult situation for a community. A significant employer has disappeared overnight as a result of an accident. As I said, it is pleasing to know that the strong occupational health and safety culture that was in place in the business, sponsored under State legislation, ensured that no-one was injured or, indeed, killed in the fire.
There will be impacts across the economy and the community. What I did note in discussions with the mayor, the general manager of the council, the two gentlemen who are co-chairs of Norply, the general manager of the business and the Chamber of Commerce, and from chatting to people in the street, was the sense of local community. Yes, there is a problem and they will need some outside help, but they are going to stick together. They are going to stand shoulder to shoulder and look for opportunities and work together. That will receive a boost when people in Kyogle realise that the New South Wales Government is offering support. They will be confident. The local people will appreciate the fact that their local member of Parliament has been to Kyogle a couple of times in the last few day. They will realise that there is a deal of political support. But the sense of community will also get a boost once the formalities of insurance are out of the way and the opportunity arises for work to get under way on rebuilding the factory.
I was able to assure the local community that the Premier and the New South Wales Government and I, as Minister for Regional Development, and Minister for Small Business, understand the implications for a community of such a catastrophe, and assure them that the Government will work as hard as possible to assist. Officers from my department who were in Kyogle on Friday when the fire was still burning started the process of working together with the community to move forward. I believe there is a constructive and positive approach in Kyogle and I look forward to continuing the work to help them through the difficult times ahead.
Mr THOMAS GEORGE
(Lismore) [4.46 p.m.]: I extend to the Minister for Small Business the thanks of the Lismore electorate for the concern he has demonstrated in respect of the devastation that occurred in Kyogle on Thursday evening. I also pay tribute to the Minister for Emergency Services, and Minister for Rural Affairs, who contacted me first thing on Friday morning about this incident. It is also pleasing to see the honourable member for Ballina, the shadow minister for the North Coast, in the Chamber tonight. He, too, was continually in touch with me during the weekend about the terrible devastation in Kyogle. I appreciate the fact that the Minister has highlighted his concern by raising this matter of public importance in the House today. And it certainly is a matter of public importance.
The effects of the fire have been devastating, not only for Kyogle, and for Norply and its employees, but also for the region. It will have an effect throughout the breadth of this nation because Norply supplies materials throughout Australia. As the Minister said, this loss suffered by Kyogle's biggest employer, Norply plywood factory, has directly contributed to the loss of 143 jobs. Norply has been very responsible in its attitude. I pay tribute to the co-chair of the board, Brian Allom, and to Alan Greensill, Peter Wintour, the manager of Norply, the management team and the directors of the company, whose first priority and first concern when I saw them on Friday morning was for their employees.
Since that time, to back up that concern, Norply has agreed to provide, out of the company's assets, an additional two weeks wages for every full-time permanent employee to assist them over the period while everything is being sorted out. That will be at a cost to the company of $250,000, and I pay tribute to Norply for doing that. Norply was originally established in Kyogle by a few local business people in an attempt to address unemployment in the town. They decided to set up the company, believing it would address the unemployment problem at Kyogle, and the company was built up over the years. The board has worked very hard, with the co-operation of the company's employees, to make Norply an outstanding company that is recognised throughout Australia.
When I arrived home from Sydney last Friday morning I went straight to Kyogle and visited the Norply plant. It was just like someone had put a blanket over the community; they were simply stunned by what had occurred. I am one of those people who have in the past criticised occupational health and safety practices, fire drills, and other safety measures. But I want to pay tribute to Norply for its insistence with regard to occupational health and safety training. Narelle Little was the shift supervisor on the night of the fire. When the fire was first noticed, within 10 minutes the whole place was alight. But everyone kept their cool, thanks to Narelle. The employees hailed Narelle as a hero, because within five minutes she knew that everyone was out of the place. On behalf of the employees I pay tribute to Narelle for her efforts. However, the next problem Narelle had to deal with was that all the workers wanted to get a fire hose to try to fight the fire. Narelle had trouble preventing the workers from doing this, but she did, and commonsense prevailed.
I also pay tribute to the emergency services, including the New South Wales Fire Brigades, the Rural Fire Service, the State Emergency Service, the New South Wales Ambulance Service, NSW Police, Kyogle Council employees, and the Salvation Army for their efforts in bringing the fire under control in very difficult circumstances. Country areas do not have the large fire engines that the larger cities have. This was a very large factory. As I think the Minister said, there are still flames in the building today, and the forensic team has not yet been able to get inside the building. The whole community is thankful that no-one was injured in the fire and there was no loss of life.
The other people in the area have been extremely co-operative. As the Minister said, Kyogle Council, led by Ernie Bennett, has been extremely supportive. I understand that last night the council tabled a motion relating to starting an appeal over the next few weeks to try to assist workers who are experiencing difficulties. Peter Jones lost his job of 13 years when the factory was destroyed. However, the Kyogle father of three is confident that Norply workers will be looked after. He said there is hope for his and his family's future, and for Norply. Peter said he will look for casual work until he finds out what is happening at Norply, but that he wants to go back to Norply and he is prepared to do anything to help the company get up and running again.
Norply has been very positive in its determination to get the company up and running. Regrettably, it will probably be at least two years before it is able to get back to full production. However, the major concern is how to keep 140 experienced workers in a small town like Kyogle. We cannot let those resources leave the community of Kyogle. I am pleased to hear the Minister say today that he is prepared to work with the council and other local organisations to provide support to encourage those experienced young people to stay in the Kyogle area.
I also pay tribute to the Federal member for Page, Ian Causley. I spoke to him last Friday when he was in Canberra. He got straight onto Centrelink and arranged for Centrelink officers to attend the area on that day. Centrelink has been able to fast track payments for permanent employees so there will not be a gap in benefits. I know both the workers and the company appreciated the news that once the entitlements are organised the workers will be able to go onto Centrelink payments, until further arrangements are sorted out.
Summerland Credit Union, a local credit union, led the field on Friday by coming out at about 9 o'clock and saying, "Anyone who banks with us, we will suspend your required payments for something like a month or six weeks until the situation is sorted out." The credit union's lead has now been followed by other banks. It has certainly raised the spirits of the local community. I have been honoured by the way everyone has pulled together. Kyogle's community support and resilience has always been strong.
Last Sunday, just to give the town of Kyogle a bit of a lift, its under-18 rugby league team made the group 1 rugby league grand final. Indeed, they not only made the grand final, they also won it. I think the fire and the loss of Norply was the motivation which spurred those young blokes on. The team had about 250 supporters at Murwillumbah, and they came away winners. That certainly put a little bit of spring back in the step of the Kyogle community. I felt a great thrill for Kyogle. I congratulate Wayne Lollback, who is a great supporter of the Kyogle rugby league team, on the team's achievements.
Once again I thank everyone who has been in touch with me since last Friday, including Minister Campbell, Minister Kelly, Ian Causley, the Hon. Duncan Gay, the honourable member for Ballina, and other members of Parliament who have offered their support. I can assure the Kyogle community and the employees of Norply that everyone on the North Coast and in the Northern Rivers region is behind them in this time of need.
Mr NEVILLE NEWELL
(Tweed—Parliamentary Secretary) [4.56 p.m.]: I join my colleagues the Minister for Regional Development and the honourable member for Lismore in supporting the New South Wales Government's efforts to help Kyogle's businesses and community recover from the devastating effects of the fire that destroyed the Norply timber factory last Thursday night and Friday morning. Any town or city in Australia would be seriously affected by one of its businesses losing 140 jobs. Certainly for a town the size of Kyogle, which I understand has a population of some 3,500, 140 jobs would form a large part of its entire economic base. As the Minister said, the New South Wales Government is working with the Kyogle community to help it recover from the terrible loss of its largest employer.
The 140 permanent and part-time jobs lost in Kyogle involved different skills and were critical to Kyogle's local industry and local economy. I understand that officers of the Department of State and Regional Development attended the Kyogle area on Friday morning to discuss with the company's board of directors and its manager, Peter Wintour, arrangements that may be put in place. I am very pleased that the Iemma Government is supporting the Kyogle community and it plans for the future of Kyogle. I point out that over the past 18 months the Department of State and Regional Development has been working with Kyogle Council and key community groups to develop an economic development strategy for the area. Because of the work that has already been done, Kyogle shire is in a much better position to move the strategy forward than it would have been if it had to start from scratch.
Obviously, the immediate issue is concern for the employees. As we have already heard, the company has been able to pay the workers for another two weeks and meet some of their leave entitlements. Most importantly, everyone is grateful that no injuries or loss of life occurred in this catastrophe. I echo the sentiments of the honourable member for Lismore regarding the attention to detail in terms of occupational health and safety and fire safety, which obviously stood the company in good stead during this time.
The company has expressed a desire to rebuild, and the Minister has indicated that the Department of State and Regional Development will do its best to ensure that the company comes under the Regional Economic Transition Scheme [RETS] to give the company a head start in making that particular progress. After all, our regional areas are vitally important to the New South Wales economy, and some 1.7 million people live, work and raise families in country areas. Kyogle is one of the major contributors to our economy.
It will be a significant contribution to business, industry and the wellbeing of this State if we can keep the Kyogle township functioning as it is and making good progress, particularly with other industries. The Minister has already mentioned companies with associated industries that have been set up in the area with the help of the Department of State and Regional Development. These companies include Euro Laminated Design, Greensill Brothers and other companies, such as trucking companies and so forth, all of whom contribute and add up to some 200 other local families who benefit just from this one particular industry. The desire to rebuild the factory is there and certainly everybody understands the need to rebuild it. I was very pleased to hear that officers from the Premier's Department, Forests NSW and other government departments have assisted people affected by the fire.
I would also point out that the inaugural Northern Rivers rugby league competition grand finals were played at Murwillumbah on Sunday. The Seagulls played in the A-grade grand final and won that, and they played in the reserve grade grand final and won that. But they played in the under 18s grand final and they lost to the Bush Turkeys from Kyogle. The team is known as "the Turkeys", as in Bush Turkeys, and it certainly deserves every accolade it gets. I do not know how many of the young fellows who played in the under 18s team on that Sunday were directly affected or even indirectly affected by this fire, but certainly some of them would have been affected, and it would have been a little bit of a boost to the town for people to come away from the match on Sunday afternoon with something to celebrate after this devastating fire.
Mr DAVID CAMPBELL
(Keira—Minister for Regional Development, Minister for the Illawarra, and Minister for Small Business) [5.01 p.m.], in reply: I thank the honourable member for Lismore and the honourable member for Tweed for their contributions to this debate. In a spirit of bipartisanship I can but imagine the concern and the stress that the honourable member for Lismore would have as the member representing Kyogle. If something goes wrong in any of our electorates we feel for our constituents, but when it is a whole town, and it is a disparate electorate such as Lismore, one can understand the additional pressure that is put on the particular member. It is obviously very important that he take part in the debate.
I noted in his contribution the honourable member said that when he was there on Friday it was as if there was a blanket over the community. I think we can all understand that. Although in my discussions this morning at Kyogle there was a tension, a concern and a worry, I picked up that there is also a strong determination and a real will to work together as a community to rebuild not only the business Norply but to make sure that there is a stronger community as a result of this terrible event. I think we can all understand and appreciate the drive of people living in rural communities, although the same spirit applies in metropolitan areas as well.
The interesting thing I found out about Norply this morning was that the predecessor business had some financial difficulties and was going to close in 1990, but about 30 local families and businesses came together and formed a consortium to continue the business. Some people have come and gone but essentially the same 30 shareholders exist. They are local people who have a lot invested in the business in a financial and emotional sense as well as in a sense of community. I think that is something that will stand them all in very good stead. As I said to some people today, the Government will offer some support. To date, the Government has built on economic strengths in the region and the regional economic transition scheme funding will assist, but there is no magic wand. I think the people of Kyogle understand that no-one has got a magic wand to wave and then waltz into town saying everything is fixed.
I trust that the insurance companies will come good and pay claims. The laminating equipment that is used in a business like Norply is not something one can buy off the shelf at the supermarket; much of it has to be manufactured and made specifically, so there is a lead time involved for that. Also, a lot of the equipment is sourced from overseas, therefore involving more lead time. Even if there were a magic wand that someone could wave, it will be some time before this business gets up and running. When talking to Peter Wintour, the general manager, and the two gentlemen who co-chair the business—and the honourable member for Lismore picked this up as well—I discerned a sense of propriety. Their decision to pay two weeks ex gratia payment over and above their salaries will stand those employees in good stead as they ponder their future. But the important thing is that the people in that community know that others from outside understand that they need support, and that is reflected in this debate.
Lismore and Kyogle are next-door neighbours. I noted in a conversation that a Lismore-based business, Hurfords, had suffered a fire in its business, and it was one of the first regional businesses on the telephone to Norply and to my department to say, "If we can help we will". So it is not only government, but it is also, in some ways, competitors or other regional businesses that are offering support. The honourable member for Lismore and also the honourable member for Tweed noted that officers of the Government were in Kyogle on Friday. I pay particular tribute to Frank Hay, Trevor Wilson and Terry Flanagan, three officers of various agencies in the Government, who have spent some time in Kyogle. Indeed, Frank Hay and Trevor Wilson from the Department of State and Regional Development were back in Kyogle today. I think they have been there every day since Friday to make sure that they are part of the meetings and discussions in regard to the plans for the area. There are two planning streams: one is, get the investigation finished, get the insurance paid out and get those plans under way; the other stream is to consider what other aspects for a strong, robust, diverse economy can be put in place for Kyogle. The Government's RETS program will support that. I wish the Kyogle community well as it recovers from this catastrophe.
Madam ACTING-SPEAKER (Ms Marianne Saliba):
Order! It being almost 5.15 p.m., with the leave of the House I propose to proceed to the taking of private members' statements.