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Thursday, 2 December 1976


Mr HOWARD (Bennelong) (Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs) - in reply- I thank those honourable members who contributed to the debate. I remind the honourable member for Port Adelaide (Mr Young) and the House that the purpose of this legislation is not to destroy the Prices Justification Tribunal. Certainly the purpose of the legislation is to alter the role of the PJT and, in the view of the Government, to improve its role. The Government, quite understandably, has a different conception from the Opposition of the role of a body such as this. We believe that there is considerable merit in having a body which can respond to areas in which there is evidence of price abuse. The effect of the amendments to the PJT legislation will enable a greater share of the resources of the Tribunal to concentrate on those areas of price abuse. So I think it ought to be made quite clear that this is no furtive attempt to destroy the PJT. It is an open system of amendments to the legislation which will certainly bring about a changed role. The Government believes that the role of the Tribunal should change. It hopes that the amendments will give effect to the view held by the Government.

The honourable member for Port Adelaide talked a great deal about the social contract, as he called it. I believe that the remarks of the honourable member for Lilley (Mr Kevin Cairns) were quite relevant to the parallel that the honourable member for Port Adelaide drew between the procedures of the Prices Justification Tribunal and the procedures of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Nevertheless, the Government has acknowledged, and acknowledges again, that in reviewing the pre-election undertaking it made about the Prices Justification Tribunal it had very much in mind the industrial relations context. In the light of that, for the honourable member for Port Adelaide to say that we are being provocative in regard to industrial relations by changing the role ofthe PJT, when we had committed ourselves prior to the election to its abolition and then in the light of industrial relations considerations we reviewed that undertaking, is, I think, being totally unreasonable.

We consulted the trade union movement. It was consulted extensively about the future operations ofthe Prices Justification Tribunal. Those consultations occurred both at a Minister to President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions level and at a research officer-officials of the ACTU level. The honourable member for Port Adelaide upbraids the Government because the legislation represents the decision of the Government. Surely the honourable member is not suggesting other than that governments are elected to make decisions. Having discharged any commitments made regarding consultation with relevant sectors of the community, a government ought to be quite free to make its decisions.

In commending the legislation to the House, I repeat that its object is to alter significantly the role ofthe Prices Justification Tribunal, to reduce its price-approving role and to enhance its pricesurveillance role. I think the honourable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr Crean) acknowledged the enormous difficulties of a federal tribunal of this nature undertaking a comprehensive priceapproval role. This is one of the considerations that the Government had in mind. It is one of the reasons why it is the Government's wish- a wish expressed through this legislation- that the Prices Justification Tribunal concentrate more of its resources and its activities on investigating areas in which there is evidence of price abuse rather than on encumbering an increasingly large number of Australian enterprises with the admittedly costly procedure of complying with the detailed notification procedures. There is a cost in that. It has been passed on to the consumer. It is a cost which business has to bear. We believe that the combined effect of these alterations will be to produce a more satisfactory body, a body which can make a contribution towards understanding the reasons for price movements in Australia, but a body whose operations will at the same time not place undue pressures and strains on the capacity of business organisations.

Throughout the remarks of the honourable member for Port Adelaide there is still the presumption that the greater the size of an organisation the greater is the malice of its operations. The assumption is simply made that there are areas of price abuse only where there are large companies and that it is the large companies of Australia that are responsible for all the unsavoury and unsatisfactory market practices. That may be true in respect of certain large organisations, but it has not been my experience -I do not think it has been the general experience in this country- that size necessarily equals degree of culpability so far as price abuse and baa market practices are concerned. There are just as many price abuses at the lower end of the scale as there are at the higher end ofthe scale so far as business operations are concerned. I think that the type of argument he brought to this debate represents a fairly outdated attitude- an attitude of making provocative statements about the industrial relations climate in Australia- and an approach which did not contribute anything towards the improvement of that climate.

Question put:

That the Bill be now read a second time.







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