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Wednesday, 18 October 2006
Page: 54

Mr CREAN (12:44 PM) —I accept that there are elements in this Trade Practices Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005 that strengthen the position of small business. We have consistently supported those measures, particularly the collective bargaining regime. I should point out that we on this side of the House are consistent supporters of a collective bargaining regime, not selective supporters of a collective bargaining regime. That will be the basis of debate in another forum. This opportunity for collective bargaining for small business is terribly important, particularly for industries in regional Australia.

The problem we have with the schedule that has been proposed to be amended by the Treasurer is that we believe the amendments that the Treasurer has proposed will undermine the role of the ACCC in enforcing, on behalf of small business, certain protections. That is our point of opposition. We believe that the amendments proposed effectively sideline the role of the ACCC in the merger and acquisition process. Of course, we are pleased to note that in these amendments, on the face of it, there have been some real efforts made to put the ACCC back into play. We want to put it back in the game, not just on the sidelines of play and not just as an organisation that can make submissions or call witnesses. We want circumstances in which the ACCC retains the authority to make the decisions when people seek mergers and acquisitions inimical to small business. You can go back and look at the creeping acquisitions in the supermarket chains et cetera. We want to make sure that the opportunity is there for the ACCC to deal with this because it is the appropriate body. There should not be an opportunity to forum shop. We believe that not only should this amendment be opposed but also there has to be a means by which the ACCC is put back into the game.

A further point that we have difficulty with goes to the link that the authorisation process has with the public interest test. Under the current arrangements, if authorisations are made by the ACCC it is required to apply the public interest test. That has tended, as the act stands, to be a subjective test. As I understand it, these amendments seek to move the test to the Competition Tribunal, to make it a more objective test. I have not had a chance to look at the detail of the amendments proposed because, like the member for Hunter, we received them—pages of detailed amendments—literally minutes before we entered the chamber. This is not the way to run a parliament, but it is the way the government choose to run the parliament. We will go back and analyse this process. The concern we have is that, in moving away from a subjective public interest test, we could be narrowing objective measures which the new tribunal can take account of. This becomes particularly important in the context of the media laws that have just passed through the parliament, where we are arguing for a wider public interest test when it comes to retaining media diversity. It is going beyond the economic test to tests that preserve the principles of democracy and the principles of our culture.

We are opposed to the measures. We protest very strongly at the way in which they have been brought into the chamber—with such haste and with little time for consideration. I warn the small business community: whilst we are on your side in terms of ensuring that you do get better deals out of this arrangement, don’t underestimate the extent to which the weakening of the ACCC’s powers could undermine your very protections against mergers and acquisitions. (Time expired)