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Monday, 1 September 2014
Page: 9273


Ms O'NEIL (Hotham) (11:37): I appreciate the opportunity to make some comments on what is a really important policy debate that the member for Lindsay has ignited today with this motion. I want to congratulate her for doing that. Looking broadly at the member for Lindsay's motion, I have to say there is not a lot here that most people could disagree with. I rise largely to commend the idea of competition as a general principle in policy. There are some issues about the level of optimism expressed about what this government will be willing to do on competition policy, and I will come to speak about those issues.

But I want to spend a little bit of time first discussing the central tenet here, and that is that competition policy is really important. It really matters. As policymakers, I do not think we have done the best job of explaining what competition policy means and why it is important to everyday people. In part I blame the economists—present company excluded—because we hear a lot in these discussions about 'consumer surplus'. Most people probably cannot really tell you what that means. When macro-economists talk about productivity, what they are really talking about is competition. in everyday language this is really a question of how hard we drive private companies to fight for consumers to take on their goods and services.

When you think about the everyday person, have you had a bad experience with a mobile phone company? Have you received an exorbitant bill and not been able to do anything about it? Have you had an experience where you have been frustrated with your bank because they have not passed on an interest rate cut? How do you decide where you do your grocery shopping? Is it because your grocer offers great goods and services and terrific value, or is it because you really do not have a lot of choice in the matter? Do you find it difficult to compare electricity prices and find the plan that is best for you and your household? Inherently these are all questions about competition. They are, in a sense, the top layer of decisions that are made in rooms like this one right around the country, where we decide regulations, rules and laws that will govern the way markets work. For me, competition policy is one of the most important things we can do—outside the context of perhaps a financial crisis—to drive strong economic growth and so on. Broadly, as I say, I am supportive of the sentiments of the member for Lindsay's motion.

That takes us through point 1 and part-way through point 2, but where I start to diverge is around point 3, where we start to commend the government on the excellent work done that it has done in this area, because I have to say it is much too soon for me to say that there is any indication of deep commitment by the Abbott government to doing anything serious about competition policy. We have heard a lot of talk but seen very little action so far.

I say this for two reasons. The first reason is that, as I say, we have heard a lot of rhetoric, and we are hearing a lot of rhetoric from the other side today, but what has the government really done? They have put in place a review, with, I have to say, a scope that is absolutely tremendous. They are asking a small committee of people to basically review the entirety of the Australian economy, including sectors, competition law, small business, regulatory institutions, and the role of government in the economy. They have given that committee less than a year to come up with its final recommendations, so we have final recommendations due here in the next three or four months, and all we have from this committee so far is an issues paper, which—if any of you have had the time to look at it—speaks largely at the level of principle. I will be very interested to see, when the rubber hits the road, what we actually get out of the review process.

I will make a brief digression here to illustrate the lack of real, deep commitment by this government to deep policy thinking. We have these guys saying that they are committed to competition policy, but they then throw together a review and give that review only a year to come up with recommendations that could potentially transform the Australian economy. There have been worse examples, though—the $7 GP co-payment, the GP tax, which did not have any modelling associated with it before it was announced by that government, is one. This is how these guys do policy and I have to say, from all of my training in public policy, it is not best practice.

The second reason I question the commitment of the government to following through with its big talk on competition policy is that, when we look at other areas of policy where they have had the opportunity to put markets and competition at the centre of what they do, they have fundamentally failed to do so. The biggest example that we can point to is around the issue of carbon pricing, where Labor has for years been advocating for a market-based competitive solution that will drive the Australian economy into a lower pollution future while we still grow. What we have seen from the other side, however, is the exact opposite of the tenets that are in the submission today—a policy which is about a cash splash to the biggest companies in Australia. Labor, alternatively, has the runs on the board. I believe that we are the party with a true commitment to competition policy, and I look forward to continuing this discussion. Thank you.