Federal employment minister Michaelia Cash expects most of the Yabulu refinery employees will get the bulk of the $73.9 million owed by the company under the government’s Fair Entitlements Guarantee Scheme.
But she also warned the government would do everything in its power to ensure Palmer and his businesses cough up the money provided by taxpayers and other funds.
Such to court consent, it will appoint a special purpose liquidator, Stephen Parbery from PBB Advisory, to pursue the funds “ripped off from employees”, positioning the government as a creditor to Queensland Nickel.
“This has never been done by a commonwealth government before,” the minister told reporters in Townsville on Friday.
Queensland Nickel’s administrators this week detailed allegations of how tens of millions of dollars was stripped from the company to fund the federal MP for Fairfax’s other activities, she added.
“If money has been improperly taken out of the company, then it will be pursued. If individuals have broken the law, then they will be pursued,” Cash warned.
“We’re not pursuing a parliamentarian, we are pursuing the management of Queensland Nickel. They are fundamentally different. They just happen to be the same person.”
Federal MP Ewen Jones, whose electorate takes in the Townsville nickel refinery that used to employ so many of his constituents, broke down as Cash made the announcement.
“This is a tough day in Townsville because this says this is the end of the line for a lot of these people,” Jones said.
“It’s up to the liquidators to ensure they do everything they can to step in and chase this money. There’s nothing surer … there are assets floating around that everyone can see, that can be cashed in … if the circumstances are right.”
Treasurer Scott Morrison said the workers, who were sacked in two lots in January and March, had been treated disgracefully.
“I’ll be expecting the regulators, ASIC and others, to be pursuing this within the full extent of their powers,” he said in Sydney.
Australian Workers Union Queensland branch secretary Ben Swan said cash strapped Townsville families would welcome access to federal help and the pursuit of Mr Palmer.
“He should be held to account for what he’s inflicted on people,” Swan told AAP.
Administrators FTI Consulting say there’s evidence to suggest Palmer used Queensland Nickel as a “piggy bank” to fund his other interests and possible breaches of corporations law that could expose him to civil or criminal charges.
Palmer has branded the report derogatory and untrue and denies ever acting as a “shadow director” of Queensland Nickel – taking part in day-to-day operational and expenditure decisions – after announcing in 2013 he was stepping down after entering parliament.
Refinery operator Queensland Nickel and its sales arm are owned under a joint venture arrangement by QNI Resources and QNI Metals, which in turn are owned by three entities – all 100 per cent owned by Palmer.
Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the government’s move was “better late than never”.
Creditors are expected approve the company’s liquidation next week.
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