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Thursday, 7 May 1987
Page: 2804

Mr GEAR —My question is directed to the Minister for Science in his capacity as the Minister Assisting the Treasurer on Prices. What has the Government done to address increasing community concern about the cost of living, especially in a period of wage restraint?

Mr BARRY JONES —Despite the Commonwealth's limited constitutional power over prices, except possible use of the corporations power in interstate trade, the Government recognised the moral imperative flowing from the prices and incomes accord of 1983 to impose restraint in the price of goods and services, just as there has been restraint in the price of labour. The Prices Surveillance Authority will be doing far more to contribute to maintaining wholesale prices. Recent Commonwealth initiatives have placed the spotlight on the PSA, which is being asked to do more. There will be more emphasis in PSA reports on the social consequences of price rises. The PSA estimates that it has saved customers $75m in price rises that have been either rejected or reduced since the beginning of 1986. That is a substantial saving.

The new inquiries which I have directed the PSA to carry out into clothing, including children's clothing, and non-prescription pharmaceuticals in what are neatly called personal care products, will continue to assist consumers. The price watch groups which are now operating in 52 Federal electorates, which the honourable member for Canning played such an important role in initiating, have provided us with valuable information in their first survey. A total of 526 stores throughout Australia were surveyed. The differences both in the prices of individual products and the total baskets of goods revealed by the survey showed striking variations in the prices of individual products and weekly supermarket bills between capital cities, between some regional centres and their corresponding capitals and even from suburb to suburb. The national aggregated figures have to be read with caution and it will require several more surveys before it is possible to indicate or confirm more general trends. Of course, there are also striking variations between the prices of groceries and of fruit, vegetables and meat, which was demonstrated in Melbourne, where the price of groceries was a little above average but the prices of meat and vegetables were below. The results have now been returned to the price watch groups, which will now publicise the cheaper stores in their communities.

The national prices network is community based, as we always wanted. We never wanted to create some centralised Canberra bureaucratic monster with all power in its hands. The aim is to help the shopper's dollar go further and consumers, especially those on low incomes, can ask their local retailer the reason for price variation. I entirely agree with that. The first survey showed that prices for grocery items in most large regional centres are lower than those in corresponding capital cities. For instance, prices for the survey's representative basket of goods in Newcastle and Bathurst were below those in Sydney.

Media coverage of the prices issued is now far higher than it was, say, three months or 12 months ago, and that is a healthy sign, helping in the broad task of consumer education. But where is the Opposition in all this? What does it say about prices? All it has told us is that it will abolish the PSA. The only price restraint which the Opposition favours is restraint on the price of labour. As far as it is concerned, the best price for goods is whatever price the market will bear. Finally, it will freeze wages and stop pension increases. Where is the fairness in that?