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Thursday, 17 February 2000
Page: 11963

Senator MACKAY (10:14 AM) —I just wish to add a few comments to those of my other colleagues on the committee. Before I do, I wonder whether Senator Coonan wishes to make some comments. It was intended that she speak before me, but she had just left the chamber. Do you want to speak in relation to this?

Senator Coonan —I am told no.

Senator MACKAY —Thank you. I just did not want to cut across Senator Coonan. I was anticipating her wishing to make a contribution. I would also join Senator Murray, Senator Quirke, Senator McGauran and others in complimenting the members of the committee on the way they conducted themselves. The committee did grapple with a number of difficult issues in relation to which, I think, in normal circumstances, there would have been quite substantial political divides.

I agree with Senator Murray that all committee members, to their credit, displayed an open mind in relation to what is a very difficult issue. It is an issue which does affect people disproportionately depending on their socioeconomic background and their geographical background—that is, where they live. I also wish to join my colleagues in complimenting the secretariat. They had the same difficulty reflecting the disparate views on national compeitition policy that were put before them. They also displayed an open mind in relation to this. I believe this is probably one of the best reports that I have been involved with in my short time in this chamber. The secretariat were a genuine pleasure to deal with. They were helpful and really nothing was too much trouble. I wish to join with the Chair, Senator Quirke, in complimenting them on their work.

Adding to what Senator McGauran was saying, one of the things that struck me was that this committee was not about the public sector. This committee was not about the Productivity Commission. This committee was about a group of MPs who are paid to represent people in determining the application and future of a policy which affects people irrespective of where they live. One of the things that struck a number of the committee members was the unwitting attitude—and I am allocating blame in relation to this—from some areas that national compeitition policy works from the top down.

As the people's representatives, we are asked to ensure that that is not the case. What struck us was the continual refrain from the business sector and, to a certain extent, some areas of the public sector that the problem was that the people simply do not understand this policy. Their view was that the level of ignorance was the difficulty, the lack of understanding was the difficulty and the fact that people were not up to speed with what NCP meant was a difficulty.

The senators on that committee took a different view. Our view was that, if it was a top down policy and people did not understand it, that was not the people's fault. That was the fault and responsibility of government and the responsibility of the people who are responsible for the implementation and determination of national compeitition policy. This is something which I think is quite prevalent and a systemic issue. As I said, it is something that the people who are involved in the minutiae, as Senator Murray was saying, of the implementation of policy sometimes forget. But it is our responsibility to ensure that that does not occur.

I believe the one-stop shop recommendation is important. This will ensure that all parties—particularly, from my portfolio perspective, small councils—will be able to contact the one-stop shop and determine what the truth is in relation to national competition policy. One of the things that came through very strongly was the disparate application, in a jurisdictional sense, of national competition policy. We had a situation where various state governments were using National compeitition policy in the broad to implement policies which were not necessarily within the purview of national competition policy.

A good example of this is the issue of compulsory competitive tendering in Victoria. The previous Kennett government implemented this policy under the guise of national competition policy. We were assured unequivocally by Mr Samuels that this was nothing to do with national competition policy. Here we have confusion in relation to the disproportionate application. If people are confused and there is a level of ignorance in relation to this, who can blame people when you have state governments using national competition policy to really implement an ideological agenda which, in terms of the original intention of the policy, was not within its purview?

It is very clear, if you read the then Assistant Treasurer's second reading speech, that national competition policy did not mean privatisation. These are issues that do require clarification. I re-emphasise the recommendation with regard to COAG determining these matters. We live in a federation. The reality is that state governments have a major responsibility in relation to this policy so that changes that are required have to ensure the involvement of state governments. One of the reasons the committee made the recommendation with regard to COAG is the participation of local government in COAG as a level of government. Unfortunately, COAG has not met very often in the last four years. I think it may have only met once. I think this is a great shame. It does exclude a critical level of government—the level of government which is probably the closest to the community; that is, local government.

One of the other issues that was assiduously pursued by members of the committee was tranche payments. The committee was advised that there are only two states that pass on tranche payments to local government in relation to national competition policy—Queensland and Western Australia. I think it probably needs to be said that Western Australia's passing on of tranche payments is far more minimalist than Queensland's passing on of tranche payments. This is no political aspersion here because all parties in Queensland have the same attitude in this regard. I think it is an issue that needs to be reviewed by COAG. Local government does have a major responsibility and it is responsible for structural adjustment issues in relation to national competition policy. There is certainly an argument that local government does deserve to have some funds available to it through the tranche payments to ensure that the work that they undertake has some remunerative assistance.

I also want to amplify some of Senator Murray's comments. I think one of the most critical recommendations is the issue of disclosure with regard to statistics in relation to the effect of the national competition policy on employment in particular. This is something a number of members of the committee were concerned to ensure. The reality is that it is no good saying to people that this policy is good for you if (a) there is not sufficient information for them to make a judgment in relation to it; (b) there is a disparate application in relation to jurisdictions between states; and (c) they cannot see the benefit themselves.

I think there is a very strong argument, as indicated by other senators, that the benefits are disproportionate, to say the least, and have not been delivered to the same extent in regional Australia as they have in the cities. So we, as the elected representatives, need to see that the application of national competition policy is not simply economic and that it is also social, and, perhaps most critically in this day and age, we need to see that there is not a diminution in employment as a result of it and that the benefits can be transparently seen by us as the elected representatives and by the people we represent.

I wish to conclude by thanking Senator Quirke, as the chair of the committee, who had a great capacity to bring levity to the committee in difficult times and I think has proved to be a very good chair and dealt with us all very well. In that there were any difficulties—of which there were very few—he was able to solve them and sort them out. I would like to thank all the other members of the committee for what was an extremely interesting exercise from my perspective and conclude by again thanking the secretariat for what I believe is an excellent report. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.