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Thursday, 2 July 1998
Page: 4723

Senator MARGETTS —My question is to the Assistant Treasurer, Senator Kemp. Given that Woolworths, Coles and Franklins control around 76 per cent of the food and groceries market and are increasing their share and that Woolworths and Coles Myer have nearly 40 per cent of the total retail market and no other country has anywhere near such concentration of their food or retail market, how does this clearly anti-competitive situation accord with national competition policy? Is the government investigating this concentration in market power and the impacts on consumer choice and rural and regional communities? Is the government proposing to amend the Trade Practices Act or to develop anti-trust laws so that there is a focus on anti-competitive, anti-choice outcomes so that the ACCC can investigate this issue.

Senator KEMP (Assistant Treasurer) —Senator Margetts, I think you have a question on notice of a very similar type to the one you just posed to me.

Senator Margetts —No, I haven't.

Senator KEMP —You haven't? In any case, I will certainly answer it. It is an important question. If you have any evidence at all of anti-competitive behaviour by anyone—in other words, if you are worried about these examples that you have quoted—you can of course take your complaint to the ACCC. You have that right. You have raised an issue on which you obviously feel there may be evidence. You have not been able to sustain that, but if you have the evidence you have the right to take your case to the ACCC.

Australia does have laws, which you are aware of, which prohibit the monopolisation and concentration of market power. Section 50 of the Trade Practices Act generally prohibits mergers or acquisitions which have the effect or the likely effect of lessening competition in a substantial market for goods and services. Of course, parties can also apply for an exemption from section 50 which will be given if they can demonstrate substantial public benefits from the merger or acquisition taking place.

Under section 46 of the Trade Practices Act, that prohibits a business that has substantial market power—

I think that is the point you are making—from taking advantage:

. . . of that power for the purpose of:

(a) eliminating or substantially damaging a competitor . . .

That may have been the underlying theme that ran through your question. It goes on:

. . . or

(b) preventing the entry of a person in that or any other market; or

(c) deterring or preventing a person from engaging in competitive conduct in that or any other market.

As I said, where you feel you do have some evidence of anti-competitive behaviour, it is up to you—if you wish to—to bring it to the Productivity Commission.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is an independent statutory authority which is responsible for ensuring compliance with the competitive conduct provisions of the Trade Practices Act. It is easy to stand up and impute motives to people but, if you feel that you have the evidence, the doors are open to you to make a complaint.

The final point I would make is that the Productivity Commission—which, if I remember rightly, I do not think you are the greatest fan of, Senator Margetts—will be undertaking a public inquiry into the impact of competition reforms on rural and regional Australia. Again, if you have concerns, you may wish to make a submission to the Productivity Commission. I am sure that they will be pleased to hear from you.

Senator MARGETTS —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. The minister says that I can contact the ACCC. We have. The ACCC say they have no power to deal with anti-competitive outcomes, and that is what I am talking about. Given that the Western Australian Council of Retail Associations has estimated that 1,800 full-time jobs were lost for every one per cent of growth in the big chain stores and the last ABS retail industry Australia survey of 1991-92 outlined that every one full-time job in large discount stores equates to 2.25 jobs in smaller shops, and that one part-time job in large discount stores equals 1.5 part-time jobs in smaller shops, does the government recognise that this concentration in market power of large retailers is having a negative impact on employment in Australia? Does the government think this negative employment impact is a good enough reason in itself for them to investigate this incredible concentration of market power?

Senator KEMP (Assistant Treasurer) —One of the points that I would make in response to the question is that it is generally agreed that Australia overall has to become more competitive. Australia has to have an economy which can effectively compete in the world economy.

Senator Margetts —This is oligopoly.

Senator Robert Ray —Why don't you free up newsagents?

Senator KEMP —It is very easy to make a general complaint, but you have to put down the specifics. You have to recognise that, where you believe there are detrimental outcomes as a result, you can take your concerns to the ACCC. I have to tell you, Senator, that the door is open to you in relation to an inquiry which is being done by the Productivity Commission. (Time expired)