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Wednesday, 8 June 1994
Page: 1494

Senator BOSWELL —Mr President, my question is directed to the Minister for Small Business. Is the minister aware that the supermarket division of Coles Myer has requested that its private label suppliers sign contracts which specify that when these suppliers sell their businesses they will pay a percentage cost of private label sales as a goodwill component? Considering Coles Myer, with Woolworths and Franklins, control about 70 per cent of the national retail grocery market, and that this demand would only be able to be enforced against Australian small businesses and not against overseas or public companies, does the minister consider the demands of Coles breach the unconscionable behaviour provision of the Trade Practices Act which was recently introduced to protect small business against predatory practice?

Senator SCHACHT —Senator Boswell indicated to me a day or so ago that he wanted to raise this matter and I appreciate that forewarning. I point out that, as a matter relating to the Trade Practices Commission, it is a matter for the Assistant Treasurer, Mr Gear, and I will refer the question to him.

  However, I want to say that, as a member some years ago of the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee that made recommendations to this parliament about amending the Trade Practices Act, I was one of those who supported the provision about unconscionable conduct going into that act, particularly because I believed, as did the majority of members on that committee, that it would assist small business in the balance of commercial power to have a protection through the courts or through the Trade Practices Commission.

  I believe it is a power that should be there. It is a power, as I understand it, that has yet to be tested in the Trade Practices Commission. I have had some discussions informally with the Trade Practices Commissioner about whether it is possible for that power to be tested in an appropriate case for the benefit of small business. One of the problems many small businesses have is that they do not have the economic resources to pay for a major challenge in a civil case. That is a disadvantage to them.

  I believe that there are very important issues here. I would also say to Senator Boswell that the case he raises is very germane to the unconscionable conduct provision. To say whether it is a provision that can be used in this case, I will wait for advice from the Assistant Treasurer and the Trade Practices Commission. But there is no doubt that if we want a healthy and viable small business community in this country—a community that has already been recognised as providing the biggest job growth and the biggest input into economic growth in this country—it will have to operate in an economic environment where those with consolidated economic power are not able to inhibit its growth by using that consolidated economic power.

  This is an issue that is actually broader than a partisan issue of politics. It is an issue for the parliament to debate and to consider the balance between small business, big business and the economic environment in which all business operates. It is something that has been raised with me by members of the Small Business Forum and the many small businesses affected in this general area.

  Finally, I say to Senator Boswell—even though he is on the opposition side of the chamber—that I was somewhat amazed that he was not made shadow minister for small business. In my period in the job he has been the only member of the opposition who has consistently asked me questions about small business. I do not want to give him the kiss of death, but I do appreciate the fact that he has consistently and genuinely raised small business issues, and I hope it continues.