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Thursday, 2 December 1976

Mr HOWARD (Bennelong) (Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs) - I would like to reply to a couple ofthe more extravagant remarks made by the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Antony Whitlam) in his usual robust style. On the question of section 16 applications the honourable member for Grayndler upbraids the Government for not having utilised section 16 at all in the time it has been in office. It so happens that a proposed exercise of the section 16 power ofthe initiative of the Government occurred contemporaneously with a decision of the Tribunal at its own initiative to carry out an inquiry under section 16. The whole point of these amendments is to free the resources of the Tribunal which are now devoted to the notification procedures. As a consequence it will be possible for the Tribunal to play a much greater role in the area of section 16 inquiries, particularly inquiries which are in response to complaints expressed by consumers about price abuse.

The honourable member for Grayndler should realise that there exists in Australia now a considerable number of bodies which receive complaints and information from consumers about pricing practices. As a result of contact which is operating very well between the Trade Practices Commission, my own Department and the various consumer affairs bureaux of the States we are steadily getting into a better position to have an Australia-wide appreciation of the incidence of consumer complaints regarding pricing behaviour. As a consequence of this it will be possible for the Government to identify areas where there is public concern about the level of prices which are charged. I call to mind the remarks of the honourable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr Crean). Even if one has the same philosophical view about pricing as was expressed by the Opposition during this debate, having a federal body such as the Prices Justification Tribunal endeavouring to sift through large numbers of price notifications is a considerable difficulty and it will continue to be a growing difficulty. What the Government is really saying is this: Free the Prices Justification Tribunal from many ofthe responsibilities and constraints involved in the notification procedure, give it the opportunity to be more active in responding to areas where there is consumer concern about price abuse. The Government believes it can play a far more useful role.

The Opposition has commented during this debate about staffing levels in the Prices Justification Tribunal and about the salary situation there. I assure the House again that the Tribunal has been treated no differently by the Government, with respect to the Government's expenditure restraints and staff ceiling restraints, than any other body. There has been no attempt by the Government to single out the Tribunal for discriminatory treatment. Of course the future of the Tribunal was in doubt for a period of time. We make no secret of that. It was in doubt because the Government was in the process of consulting interested parties, including the trade union movement and sections of the business community, regarding the future of the Tribunal. It was only natural that there would be doubt during that period of time. The Government understood fully the difficulties under which the Tribunal laboured during that period. Let us not beat about the bush. The Government gave a pre-election undertaking that the Tribunal would be abolished. Then, for the reasons I have explained, that undertaking was revised and the

Government undertook to look at the body again. It was only natural that there would be a period of doubt, a period during which the future of the Tribunal would be in the grey area, but that doubt has now been removed.

The role of the Tribunal will be significantly changed by this legislation. The honourable member for Grayndler complains about our approach to the exemption procedures. The fact of the matter is that, as a result of fluctuations in a company's profitability, it can go quite arbitrarily in and out of the notification procedures. Under the proposed amendment if a company has a turnover of $3 1 m and this figure then falls to a figure below $30m, it goes out of the notification procedures. The information that the Tribunal gathers, as a consequence of that, is also lost to the Tribunal. What the Government is putting is that if the Tribunal, while exercising its judgment and discretion, believes for a combination of reasons, including, not only that a monopoly position exists, but also that there are aS sorts of other factors, that a company should be exempted from the notification procedures, that company ought to be entitled to the same benefits of that exemption as is a company which may be below the turnover limit. I put it to the Opposition that the approach of the honourable member for Grayndler is that we should have an exemption situation which says, on the one hand: Yes, you have satisfied certain criteria. For a combination of reasons you should not be required to notify. On the other hand, we are going to attach reporting requirements as a condition of your receiving that exemption '. In many cases these requirements could be almost as onerous as the notification procedures themselves.

The fact of the matter is that, in substantial areas where exemptions have been granted, the notification procedures have been quite onerous. The purpose of this further amendment is to make it perfectly clear that in the view of the Government if a company is entitled, according to the assessment of the Tribunal, to the benefit of an exemption, this should be a real benefit and a benefit which the company is entitled to enjoy to the fullest.

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