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Thursday, 29 March 1979
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Mr HURFORD (Adelaide) -There are two issues which arise out of the report which is, in effect, a report from the Legislation Committee of the Parliament to this chamber. The first issue is: Was the Fraser Government sincere in wanting a prices justification tribunal at all? In summary, the second issue is: Was it worth while for a Bill such as this one to go to the Legislation Committee? I deal with this in terms of amendments which I moved at the legislation committee stage on this Bill. I remind the House and anybody else interested in this matter that the Legislation Committees are relatively new as far as this Parliament is concerned.

Instead of having the Committee stages when amendments are moved to Bills in this chamber, representatives of the Government and the Opposition meet in committee rooms to look in a quieter atmosphere at the particular proposals. To date the Bills that have gone to legislation committees have not been controversial Bills on which the Parliament would divide or in which the Opposition has serious philosophical differences with the Government. In this case it was different. There is a real difference of opinion, it seems, between Government supporters and Opposition members on the need for a prices justification tribunal.

My colleagues and I from the Labor Opposition proposed nine changes at the legislation committee stage. Eight were suggested amendments, two of which, in the end, I did not move for reasons that I will come to; the other proposal was to oppose a clause in the Bill would have the effect of removing from the Act a section which the Opposition believes ought to stay in the Act.

Before going into the details of the particular initiatives that the Opposition took at the legislation committee stage, I want to make it clear that my colleagues and I believed that all nine initiatives were within the Government's objectives. The Opposition accepted that indeed the second reading stage of the Bill in this House laid the framework for what the philosophies were of the Government and the Opposition respectively, and the Opposition sought to abide by the spirit of setting up legislation committees by moving only amendments which we thought were within the spirit and philosophy of the Government. The Government had the numbers at the second reading stage and the Opposition moved an amendment at that second reading stage. It was defeated but we hoped that some improvements could be made to this Bill, accepting the overall philosophy of the Government. I do not want to canvass what happened at the second reading stage but the House will remember that the Opposition believed that the Bill should not have had a second reading because it abolished the requirement for companies to notify price increases to the PJT.

We believed that the changes to the Bill would not help to reduce inflation, the reduction of which was vitally necessary at this time when it was increasing in the community. We believed that the Bill exacerbated industrial turmoil because the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission exists as an agency acting as a watchdog in the whole area of wage and salary determination; that for balance we needed an agency in the whole area of prices determination, namely, the PJT, and that it was being made a 'toothless tiger' by what was happening in this Bill.

Finally, the Opposition did not like the clause in the BUI which proposed to change the Prices Justification Tribunal Act even further than the Government had already changed the Act in its three years of existence, in making the Minister more involved in the decisions of the Tribunal. In other words, the Opposition asserts that this Bill greatly increases the power of the Minister. Accepting that the Opposition was defeated on that, it then moved certain amendments which it believed should have been accepted, even within the Government's own philosophy. I wish to go through those amendments. Three of the amendments were to clause 6. A major criticism of the PJT has been the lack of guidelines in the legislation as to the meaning to be attached to the words 'What is a justified price?' This has led to some inconsistency in the Tribunal's decisions and some conflict with the decisions of related, regulatory bodies. I refer to the Trade Practices Commission and the Industries Assistance Commission.

We believe that our three proposed amendments to clause 6 overcame this by seeking changes to proposed new section 16 of the Act. Incorporating such general guidelines in new section 16 would also have facilitated an attempt to limit the extent to which the Minister's supervision of the Tribunal could be used for political purposes. Amendments could be made to ensure that ministerial intervention or directives were related to the functions set out for the Tribunal.

Also the Opposition's amendments 1 to 3 related to new sections 17 (4) and 17A of the Act and would require the Minister to give due regard to the general objectives of the Tribunal, as set out, and to justify his intervention, his directives, in terms of those functions. However, apparently there was no way in which we could get a satisfactory hearing, despite the spirit in which we approached the matter, before the Legislation Committee. The Committee divided on party lines. It did not even need to put the matter to a vote other than on the voices. It was clear, even at that early stage that the Government would not accept in any way the amendments proposed by the Opposition. In fact, such was our frustration that that was as far as we got on Thursday night, 22 March. Government members, because of a debate that was proceeding in the chamber, even decided at that stage that we need not proceed further that night.

The Legislation Committee met again last night and I moved further amendments. Amendment No. 4, to clause 7, related to notification requirements. We believe that section 18 of the Act needs to be amended so as to reinstitute the requirement of prior notification of price increases by prescribed companies defined as those with an annual turnover of $30m or more which are in a position to use their market situation to set unjustified prices and whose prices, charged during a substantial period, could not be judged as fair and reasonable.

Inevitably, in view of what had gone on earlier, that amendment was not accepted. In fact, I have to tell the House that we then discovered that Government members had caucused and come to the conclusion that they would solidly oppose, for opposition's sake, all of our amendments. Not one Opposition amendment was accepted. However, I shall proceed to give the details so that the House will be fully informed. I notice that my time is almost at an end. I believe that I am to have a second opportunity to speak, and I would wish to do so.

Amendment No. 5 relates to clause 8, interim price increases. New section 18B should be amended so as to limit the circumstances under which the Tribunal will be permitted to allow interim price increases while an inquiry is in progress. We wanted also to amend that part of the Act to make such permission conditional upon the company's undertaking to adhere to the Tribunal's recommendation. The details of our submission can be seen in the Hansard report of the Legislation Committee's proceedings, but later I shall explain it in more detail.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jarman)Order!The honourable member's time has expired. If anyone else wishes to speak, I will give him the call and then call again the honourable member for Adelaide. As apparently no other honourable member wishes to speak, I call again the honourable member for Adelaide.

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