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Tuesday, 9 October 1984
Page: 1476

Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry and Commerce)(5.20) —in reply-I thank honourable senators for their contributions to the debate. The Government does not pretend for a moment that this legislation is perfect. Anybody dealing with a can of worms, if that is an appropriate expression, like the petroleum retail marketing business in Australia would be bold, arrogant and conceited if he claimed that legislation he introduced would solve all the problems. Senator Rae gave what I regard as totally understandable notice that, while the Opposition supported the legislation, it would not be committed to it ad infinitum, were it elected to government in future. I do not think that is anything but reasonable because it is an evolving industry and an evolving saga subject to constant change and restructuring. Much of the change and restructuring taking place is for the better both for the industry and for consumers. But, like all restructuring and change, it is a painful and difficult process and governments can intrude from time to time only to try to provide legislatively some of the parameters within which those changes will take place.

Senator Boswell made a number of useful suggestions which might be considered by any government in the future, and I certainly take note of the suggestions he made. Some of the problems which he attributed to the existing legislation could be more directly laid at the door of the Trade Practices Commission, but that is another debate and a matter for consideration perhaps on another occasion. At this stage the Government certainly does not believe that it would be desirable to try to introduce 100 per cent divorcement, however idealistically desirable that might be. I do not believe that at the present time of evolution of this industry, if that is the right word, it is in the best interests of consumers for that to take place. Overseas studies of the effects of full divorcement have shown conflicting results in relation to retail prices, the profitability of dealers and operating hours, some of the things to which Senator Evans quite properly addressed himself. The Government does believe that a greater diversity of retailers will promote competition, and we concede that the 50 per cent divorcement level, although arbitrary, is probably less so than any other level, apart from 100 per cent or zero which are clearly highly arbitrary. We have tried in this legislation to provide a compromise between two extremes.

I think it was recognised by Senator Peter Rae that the preparation of this legislation has been something of a tour de force. It is not something for which I personally take credit, although I was interested in the progress of the legislation and have been for time. One perhaps should not use this forum for bestowing compliments on one's own Department, but I think it is very much to the credit of the officers of the Department who carried out a long series of consultations with all sections of the industry.

Senator Peter Rae —And one in particular to whom I think you should give credit.

Senator BUTTON —I think Miss Virginia Stretton was largely responsible, and the two officers here had a considerable part to play. In the course of those series of negotiations they reached the position of being able to say to this industry: 'These changes have to come about and they are in the best interests of the total industry. You dealers and you petroleum majors cannot have all that you want because that is not in the overall interests of the industry and we have to try to reach some accommodation about these issues'. That was done. From the comments that have been made, I think it is widely recognised that in the circumstances a progressive and sensible accommodation has been reached. I make the point again that this industry is subject to a great deal of change, and I say to Senator Jack Evans that it takes a little time to accommodate some of those changes. In fact a number of majors will have to divorce themselves from sites. Those things are not brought about overnight without quite serious repercussions for those involved if attempts are made to bring them about overnight.

Another point I should make is that there are very few areas of industry in Australia in relation to which franchise legislation of this kind has been thought desirable or necessary. Having regard to the history of this industry, which has been characterised by some of the situations which Senator Boswell rightly drew attention to, the franchise legislation is in our view necessary for this industry and has been accepted as necessary by the industry as a whole.

I do not think it appropriate at this stage for me to say any more and I welcome the generally constructive spirit of the debate. We cannot let this go as quickly as Senator Evans would like. On the other hand, I say to Senator Rae that if in government in the future he sought to progress the history which this legislation represents, I would understand that. But this legislation provides a desirable and sensible compromise. Above all, it is acceptable to all sections of the industry, although each of them might like something better. It is a very important step forward because if these changes are to be brought about it is desirable that they be brought about with a degree of acceptability and not with conflict or strife. I hope that result can be achieved and I commend the legislation to the Senate.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.