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Thursday, 19 October 2006
Page: 97

Mr FITZGIBBON (4:15 PM) —The Treasurer got one thing right, and that is that the opposition will be supporting the amendment put forward by Senator Fielding, as we did in the other place. We think it is a very minor improvement to the bill. But I can announce that we will still be opposing this bill because it is a flawed bill. It is a flawed bill because, although it gives something to small business, it taketh something away.

The Treasurer, for the last 12 months, at least, has been holding a big gun to the head of small business in this country. He says, ‘You can have a new collective bargaining regime.’ I should remind the House that we have always had a collective bargaining regime. This is just a measure to simplify that regime, but it is a measure to simplify a regime that we support. It has always been there. What the Treasurer has said consistently is this: ‘You can have your new collective bargaining regime, but only if you support our weakened merger proposals.’ Weaker merger proposals! That is, of course, a measure which is detrimental to the interests of small business and consumers in this country.

Unfortunately, there is another way in which the Treasurer is holding a gun to the head of small business. Having acknowledged and identified that there is a real problem with section 46 of the Trade Practices Act, particularly in terms of the ability of the ACCC to secure a prosecution for predatory pricing, and having put forward some suggested proposals to fix that problem, the Treasurer has said consistently that small business cannot have those important trade practices reforms until he gets his merger proposals through this parliament. In other words, he says, ‘You can have collective bargaining in new streamlined proposals and you can have some reforms in section 46 of the Trade Practices Act, but not until the BCA and big companies in this country get changes to the mergers law that make it easier for them to consolidate’—which of course is a result which would be bad for small business.

We proposed, alternatively, a win-win-win for small business: effective changes to section 46 to strengthen that part of the Trade Practices Act; a new streamlined collective bargaining provision, which is good for small business; and, of course, maintaining the current strength we have in mergers law in this country, which is beneficial to small business. So that would be a win-win-win from the opposition. The government’s perspective was that the small business community could have something but only if it agreed to something which was detrimental to its interests—and that was the weakening of the mergers law.

We put forward some very reasonable amendments to the authorisation processes or changes the government put forward. It would have kept the ACCC—the appropriate economic expert body best placed to determine whether any consolidation, even though it may lead to a substantially lessening of competition might, in any case, be in the public interest—in the game. Instead, the government has sidelined the ACCC and in future will allow applicants for merger proposals to go straight to the Australian Competition Tribunal.

Not only that—and I am going specifically to the nature of this particular amendment—but the government is changing the clearance provisions under section 50 of the Trade Practices Act. In future, an applicant proposing a merger, and going to the ACCC, will not go informally—as it has always done—but go for a formal application. This is not a subtle change in the law, it gives the merger applicants a new appeal right and it severely constrains the ACCC.

Mr Costello —Quite wrong.

Mr FITZGIBBON —Why does it constrain the ACCC? Because the Treasurer is providing the ACCC with a very limited time period on which to make its assessment—I think it was 30 or 40 business days. The Fielding amendment extends that period.

There is one thing I would like to ask the Treasurer this afternoon about his changes, as he interjects. I ask the Treasurer whether or not an ACCC clearance for a merger proposal can be revoked under the new law, as it was always able to be revoked under the old law. In other words, if the ACCC clears a merger proposal and down the track the ACCC comes to the conclusion that the merger outcome is now having a detrimental impact on the Australian economy, can the ACCC revoke that formal clearance approval? (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—The question is that the amendments be agreed to.

Question agreed to, Mr Katter dissenting.