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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 3026


Mr BILLSON (Dunkley) (11:24): Don't be surprised to see over the coming days an announcement from the Gillard Labor government of a commissioner to deal with grocery prices and the relationship between suppliers, the supply chain and the major supermarkets. We have seen this kind of thought-bubble masquerading as a policy in search of a media headline before. In fact, I was reflecting on the proposal of a media tsar—something which I know is quite close to your heart, Mr Deputy Speaker Murphy—with extraordinary powers to solve a problem that the government has not been able to define.

This is at a time when 243,000 jobs have been lost in small business, when there are 10,000 fewer small businesses employing, when small-business formation has halved, when we have historic lows in terms of the trading conditions and the economic prospects for small business. Contrast the tsar for the media, where there is no problem defined, with very real problems facing small business, where the government goes and appoints a Small Business Commissioner without a commission, with no powers whatsoever. This is quite remarkable, but a sign of this kind of approach that the government takes to trying to do something tokenistic in relation to areas where there is a public policy problem.

It has been the Labor formula when trying to look at what the government might do with things like cost of living pressures. Labor introduced Grocery Watch, Petrol Watch and the Petrol Commissioner that has no extra tools to deal with petrol pricing concerns. None of these things has done anything to address cost of living concerns, to build consumer confidence, to ensure that people are paying a fair price and that there are reasonable terms on which a small business can function in the country. Rather than help with cost of living pressures, the government has introduced the world's largest carbon tax. It has not only driven up prices for consumers, it has made the cost of doing business in this country much harder at a time when the economy was already a very challenging one. Under Labor, power prices have increased 89 per cent, gas prices have increased 60 per cent, water prices have increased 46 per cent and insurance prices are up 42 per cent, making a difficult situation even worse.

Now when the ACCC is partway through investigating claims about supermarket supply chain irregularities, the media is briefed about some vague notion of a new grocery code without the government actually knowing where the ACCC's investigations are at, what they may have unearthed, and what an appropriate public policy response might look like. This is all rather peculiar on the back of the rather dubious assurance from the Assistant Treasurer, David Bradbury, where he said, 'The existing competition framework is adequate to deal with many of these challenges.' So everything is peachy, according to the government. Yet all this thing is going on within the ACCC. Now we have this media brief that there is some new cunning plan that is about to be released involving a supermarket commissioner. This dysfunctional and divided government is killing off the collaborative efforts involving supermarkets, farmers and food producers to formulate an industry-led response to supply chain irregularities.

By the government's flip-flop approach which has left everyone wondering just where things are at, the government has confused and confounded efforts to ensure that dealings between suppliers and big supermarkets are conducted fairly, are commercially transparent and mutually respectful. Labor sat on its hands for four years failing to finalise a response to the Horticultural Code of Conduct. Labor has dismissed supermarket supplier concerns in the past, has said everything is peachy, as is evidenced by the Assistant Treasurer's remark. Labor has stated that the ACCC has all the powers that it needs to deal with complaints, and has urged stakeholders to work together on an industry-led response. Labor has failed to wait for the ACCC to conclude its investigations before briefing the media on the latest thought bubble of a government imposed code—no-one knows what it looks like nor what it might do, but it has derailed collaborative industry efforts. This government is very tired in the eyes of those involved in this area, but it has lots of energy when it comes to making a hash of things. Here is yet another example. What we are faced with is no coherent strategy from the government about how to deal with competition pressures in the economy, in fact very little interest in the challenges that many small businesses face.

Unlike Labor, the coalition has a very clear plan to address concerns around competition in Australia with a root and branch review of our competition laws and by extending unfair contract terms protections. We have proposed a small business and family enterprise ombudsman, one with a purpose, one with powers, one with tools to actually make a difference and one that will get involved where existing code mediation processes do not have the confidence of the parties that are subject to that code. We also want to see an end to these unilateral rebates, and we think the unfair contract term protection provisions will achieve that. We have a clear plan, a commitment to a root and branch review to make sure laws conceived 20 years ago are brought up to date for the current economy and the actual challenges that are faced.