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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 98


Senator SHERRY (3:30 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I want to make some brief comments about the government’s response to the Senate Economics Committee’s report on petrol prices. This is a big issue which I think demands a substantive debate, but we are all aware of the time and the constraints under which we are operating. By way of initial comment, this is a very tricky response from the government. It is something we have become very used to. A few months out from an election the government has to be seen to be doing something—anything—on this very important issue in the community of petrol prices. This is a very tardy government response at best. In respect of the specific recommendations, I will start with recommendation 1. Whilst it is pleasing to see that the ACCC will review its website on petrol pricing, which is of some use to consumers to gain up-to-date information on petrol prices, frankly I am a touch sceptical about the number of people who are going to say, ‘Oh, before I go to purchase petrol at the local petrol station I’d better check on the website.’ Some would, I accept that, but most would not. We have to be a bit realistic about just how effective this recommendation would be for the vast majority of Australians. As I said, this is one of the tricky sorts of responses that you get from a government that are tired and weary. They have been in government for more than 11 years. All of a sudden they discover that they have a political problem with petrol prices. Well, whoop-de-doo—let’s have a website updated by the ACCC that people can go to. I do not think that is going to put a great deal of downward pressure on petrol prices for the long-suffering consumers in this country.

Going to the second part of recommendation 1, the ACCC already undertakes informal price monitoring. Formal price monitoring, which is Labor’s policy approach, would be much more useful. It was the Labor senators who recommended formal price monitoring in the minority report, as distinct from the weak and wimpy position of the Liberal government senators of informal monitoring. Spot checks on a wider range of sites as the recommendation suggests will be of some benefit, but I think it will be of relatively minor benefit. The government’s response on recommendation 2 went to the responsibilities of state and territory governments. But, at the end of the day, this is a federal government responsibility. As in so many areas, we have seen the federal Liberal government—which is old, tired, out of puff and out of ideas—totally abrogate its responsibilities until the last few weeks. All of a sudden the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, and the Treasurer, Mr Costello, have discovered how important this issue is politically. They have cobbled together some answers in a very tricky solution—as we are so used to seeing when a few months out from an election.

There is no doubt that petrol prices are a big issue for Australian families. There have been substantial increases in prices this year and in recent years. There have been very significant oscillations up and down. It is quite right that motorists are demanding answers and that there is a growing level of frustration in the community. The parliament must do everything it can to ensure that Australian motorists are not paying one cent more for petrol than is necessary. Motorists are entitled to a fair go. Claims have been made that oil companies may not be passing on the benefits of lower prices to consumers quickly enough. There are also regular claims that oil companies are quick to increase prices in line with rises in global oil prices but slow to reduce them when those prices fall. Motorists are legitimately asking: why the price variation from place to place? Why are there price cycles? Why is petrol more expensive on long weekends? I do not think anyone would be surprised to learn that petrol prices go up on long weekends. Many motorists travel with their families on long weekends. Could it be that that is why petrol prices go up on long weekend? The Australian public is quite rightly concerned about these claims. Petrol prices have nudged $1.50 a litre in many areas in recent weeks. I must say that in my home state of Tasmania they have nudged $1.50 a litre on a number of occasions over the last few years. In regional Australia this issue has a much greater impact than it does in the capital cities. In regional areas petrol prices are higher. You do not hear much from the National Party on this issue. They have long given up on fighting for regional Australia and rolled over. You do not hear a word from them on petrol prices anymore. Generally you do not hear a word from the National Party on very much at all. On this particular issue, which goes to the heart and soul of rural and regional Australia, we have heard nothing.

Labor have released a plan for a petrol commissioner and changes to the ACCC powers. Labor have a clear policy plan in relation to petrol. We will be providing the resources and the powers to the competition watchdog, the ACCC, to ensure motorists are getting a fair go. We will be establishing a petrol commissioner with a dedicated role within the ACCC. That commissioner will have the sole responsibility for formally monitoring and investigating price gouging and collusion. The power to formally monitor prices means that the petrol commissioner will have the power to access documents from oil companies to look behind the price of petrol by examining prices, costs and profit margins. Currently the ACCC can only formally monitor prices when directed by the Treasurer. Look what has happened. After 11 years as Treasurer, last week he finally decided to act—as I say, a few months out from an election. The Treasurer has not provided any direction on petrol pricing in 11 years—not until the last two weeks, a few months out from an election. The ACCC has only undertaken informal price monitoring. Last week, after years and years—the government has been in power for 11 long years—the Treasurer finally decided to act, to do something. He has given a reference to the ACCC to investigate petrol prices in the run-up to the election. This is just a one-off inquiry. It will not apply the constant pressure that the Labor policy solution would provide on this very important issue.

Federal Labor have repeatedly called for the Treasurer, Mr Costello, to stand up for Australian motorists by permanently letting the ACCC off the leash to investigate petrol prices. For years the government has repeatedly denied that the ACCC needed additional and permanent powers to investigate petrol prices. There is also Labor’s announced plan for independent fuel retailers. We have consistently called on the government to introduce amendments to strengthen the misuse of market power provision, which is section 46 of the Trade Practices Act, and the unconscionable conduct provision, section 51AC of the act. To be fair to Senator Boswell of the National Party, he has made occasional utterances on this issue. Labor are reasonable when we see a member of the government taking up an issue, and Senator Boswell has raised the issue. But what impact have he and the weak and wimpy National Party had on Mr Costello and the government? Nothing, absolutely nothing. They were just put back under the doormat again—the old National Party. It is an issue on which you would expect the National Party to be sticking up for rural and regional Australia, but there has barely been a word over the last couple of years. Where is Senator Boswell on this issue? I was going to say, ‘Where is Senator McGauran?’ but he gave up and joined the Liberal Party long ago. It is a fundamental issue—petrol prices in rural and regional Australia—and the National Party has given up.

Labor have called on the government to introduce criminal penalties for serious cartel conduct. We got this response today and, as I said, it was given at the very last minute and it was tricky. We are a couple of months out from an election and we get this weak and wimpy response. Treasurer Costello and the government have done nothing on petrol prices for 11 long years and now, a few months out from the election, they decide to act. Compare this weak and wimpy policy response with what Labor have outlined. Our policy is a much tougher and more decisive approach. That is what Australian motorists want. They want answers and they want action to ensure they get a fair go on petrol prices in this country.