Desal builder wants strike-breaker cash repaid

THE builder of the Wonthaggi desal plant is trying to claw back more than $500,000 it paid a controversial strike-breaker for eight weeks of work on the troubled project.

In a Supreme Court counter-claim desal builder Thiess Degremont has confirmed it made $567,778 in payments last year to Australian Security and Investigations, a firm controlled by Tasmanian strike-breaker Bruce Townsend.

The money was paid in six instalments including an initial sum of $157,000 and the builder wants the money repaid as well as interest and costs as part of a counter-claim against ASI.

It claims ASI did not have a security investigator’s licence and one of its operatives had breached confidentiality. In September The Age revealed that Mr Townsend had launched a $5.2 million claim against Thiess Degremont after ASI’s work on the project was cut short in May last year.

In his claim Mr Townsend alleged that he was engaged to replace the entire blue-collar workforce on the desal project using “rapid deployment” strike-breakers in the event of industrial strife. In November last year workers walked off the job after it was reported a secret operation headed by Mr Townsend had spied on union members, delegates and contractors.

But in his statement of claim Mr Townsend said his main role on the project was to prepare and organise a non-union-aligned “substitute workforce” at short notice. Mr Townsend said in the claim that he struck the deal early last year with former Thiess project director Greg Miller and a former senior executive, Marcus Carroll. It was ended after about eight weeks.

In its defence and counter-claim Thiess Degremont confirmed it made payments to ASI but said it denied every allegation about a substitute workforce and that the “alleged agreement is void” and “incapable of enforcement”.

It said ASI “purported to provide services” for the desal project including obtaining information “as to the personal character or actions of another person” and as a result needed a security licence. The builder also alleged that an operative of Mr Townsend’s disclosed information about the existence of the agreement to someone within Thiess Degremont — a breach of the agreement.

The builder paid ASI in six instalments between April and August last year and last night Mr Townsend denied being engaged to spy on workers and said the amount of money “Thiess claim we were paid” indicated “the purpose of the project was very different to their allegations”.

“Our directive was to supply labour to complete the desal project if the existing employees withdrew their labour or failed to meet key performance indicators,” he said.

The project has become a financial disaster and been hit by a string of scandals. Thiess owner Leighton Holdings has revealed it expects to lose nearly $500 million on the project — a huge turnaround from April when it hoped to make a pre-tax profit of about $300 million.

Degremont also expects large losses and has warned of a year delay. A recent Auditor-General report said the Victorian government had been advised last month that the first deadline on the project was now expected to be 11 months behind schedule. A second deadline, June 30 next year, was now not expected to be met until late February 2013.

The plant has to be able to produce water at the rate of 150 gigalitres a year for 30 consecutive days by the middle of next year or face expensive penalties.

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