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Thursday, 7 July 2011
Page: 8009


Dr LEIGH (Fraser) (12:13): I rise to speak on the Competition and Consumer Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2011. I wish to begin by rebutting a claim made by the member for Dunkley repeatedly in his various speeches on this legislation, of which I think there have been three. The member for Dunkley has repeatedly claimed that the House of Representatives Standing Comm­ittee on Economics did not have the opportunity to hear witnesses give evidence on the government's bill. The claim that he repeatedly made to this parliament was that the witnesses called before the House of Representatives economics committee inqu­iry only looked at his bill and did not give evidence on the government's bill. But that of course is false, and one can see quickly how false it is simply by going to the transcripts. Allow me to quote from a couple of points in the transcript of the hearing of the House of Representatives economics committee on 18 February 2011. In opening his evidence for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Mr Brian Cassidy said:

… we are pleased to be here today to be able to provide comment and answer questions on the bills—

plural—

that have been proposed.

Later in the hearings the member for Dunk­ley himself asked the following question of the ACCC:

On the cases that you are considering—as it is explained in the EM for the government’s bill …

And he went on to ask the question—clearly a question from the member for Dunkley, directed to a witness, about the government's bill. He himself was asking witnesses about the government's bill. That is not the impression one would have gained if one only had listened to what he said in this chamber.

The member for Dunkley later asked the same witness:

… why is your bill, the government bill, not weighing purpose …

Again, clearly he was asking witnesses to adduce evidence on the government's bill.

Later the member for Dunkley said to a witness 'in the two bills that we are discussing'. He then went on to say:

… essentially the difference is that in the government’s bill there is a per se prohibition on private communication …

He then asked the witness to draw a compa­rison between the bills. Indeed, the member for Dunkley later, when hearing evidence from the Australian Banking Association, asked Mr Munchenberg:

Can you just, for the benefit of the committee, contrast the two bills as you understand them …

So let us not have any suggestion, as the member Dunkley just made to members in this chamber, that somehow the House of Representatives economics committee left half of the job undone. We did not. We considered both bills and, by a majority, we found the government's bill to be superior to the bill put forward by the member for Dunkley.

As the committee's report makes absolutely clear, there is a wide range of areas in which the government's bill is superior to that of the member for Dunkley. Allow me to go into some of the key reasons why the government's bill is superior to that of the member for Dunkley. As the comm­ittee's report pointed out, there are four chief areas of difference: whether the bills apply to prices or whether they apply to other market information, whether the bills require purpose and effect, the substantial lessening of competition test, and the coverage of the bills. I will deal with each of these in turn.

On the question of the price related information, the ACCC and other witnesses argued that there is a range of behaviour that, while not directly involving price, ultimately impacts on consumers. The ACCC gave examples: quantity based offences, collusive tendering, and market sharing in which a business discloses to the market or particular competitors that they are going to focus on part of the market and leave the rest to their competitors. Those kinds of activities work to undermine markets, but it is the govern­ment's bill that picks up the full range of information. The inferior bill put forward by the member for Dunkley captures only pricing information.

The next key difference goes to purpose and effect. The committee noted that the purpose and effect test required in the member for Dunkley's bill would be so onerous that the ACCC would, as they advised us in evidence, 'probably take very few cases'. The committee noted that again, in this respect, the government's bill is superior, and that is because it places a strong prohibition on private price disclos­ures between competitors.

The next difference goes to industry coverage. As the committee recognised, there is a question of balance. There is gen­eral advantage in having widely applicable legislation but there is also significant community concern about the conduct of banks. Given that the ACCC is—like every part of the government—resource constr­ained, the government's bill has the key advantage that the ACCC can focus its resources on a high-priority area. It gives the government the flexibility to make further regulations to apply the prohibitions to other sectors of the economy as called for but to do that with time for review, time for detailed consideration.

The House of Representatives economics committee rightly concluded by majority that the government's bill was superior, capturing the most serious conduct with a per se offence and thereby ensuring that we have the competitive markets which are so critical to raising productivity and boosting efficiency and innovation—those advantages of competitive markets which have under­pinned substantial improvements in living standards for Australians.

This bill very much lies in a Labor economic reform tradition. It was Labor that cut tariffs in Australia, Labor that put in place enterprise bargaining, Labor that floated the dollar and Labor that put in place the key competition reforms of the early 1990s that underpinned the subsequent rise in productivity. In other areas, again, Labor are committed to long-term reform with the market in mind. We put in place a timely, temporary and targeted stimulus when the global recession hit. We are committed to a market based mechanism for addressing dangerous climate change.

While those opposite put in place command and control systems often likened by some to 'Moscow on the Molonglo', we on this side of the House are committed to using markets to find the cheapest and most efficient way of addressing dangerous climate change. While those opposite are running from serious economic reform they have even, in some cases, found themselves running from their very own reforms. So we saw the spectacle in the most recent settings of those opposite refusing to back a reform on fuel taxation first introduced in this place by then Treasurer Costello in 2003. Those opposite have walked so far away from reform that they are now walking away from Peter Costello's economic reforms. Meanwhile, we on this side are committed to long-term, fundamental economic reform across the macroeconomy, the microec­onomy in our education reforms and in competition policy, such as in this bill. I commend the bill to the House.