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Thursday, 29 March 1979
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Mr FIFE (Farrer) (Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs) - Both the honourable members for Adelaide (Mr Hurford) and the honourable members for Chifley (Mr Armitage) have had a good deal to say about the workings of the legislation committee and the fact that this piece of legislation was referred to a legislation committee. I think the House needs to be reminded, particularly those two honourable members, that it needs only one member of this House to object and a piece of legislation will not be referred to a legislation committee. In this case my advice is that the Opposition requested that the Bill be referred to a legislation committee. I agree with the point that was made by the honourable member for Adelaide that whether we reach agreement in committee or not is one matter and the time of this House that is saved is another.

Given that the amendments moved by the Opposition were in conflict with the philosophy upon which the Government based this particular Bill, it is little wonder that all of the amendments proposed by the Opposition were opposed by the Government. The public record of the Committee meeting shows that we not only opposed, but also in most instances we strongly opposed the amendments that were moved by the Opposition. Had those amendments been moved in the Committee of the Whole, they would have been just as vigorously opposed by the Government as they were in the Legislation Committee.

I do not propose to go over all of the reasons for the Government's opposition to the amendments that were moved. I think that nine amendments were moved by the Opposition. All of the reasons for our opposition to those amendments are on the public record; they are contained in the Hansard report of the Legislation Committee meeting. But I emphasise that those amendments moved by the Opposition flew in the face of the philosophy embodied in the legislation which I outlined very clearly at the second reading stage.

Honourable members will recall that I indicated that the Government had decided quite deliberately to retain the Prices Justification Tribunal, and honourable members will recall that I said that the Government believes that an effective Prices Justification Tribunal is absolutely necessary. Additionally, I comment on the statements made by both the honourable member for Adelaide and the honourable member for Chifley in relation to the removal of teeth from the legislation. No teeth have been removed from the Prices Justification Tribunal legislation. The functions of the PJT have been altered in some way but none of its teeth have been removed.

The Government has become increasingly concerned over a period about the costs of operating the Prices Justification Tribunal and the costs that the PJT's operations up to the present time have represented to business and ultimately to the consumer. I put emphasis on that point because costs to business ultimately become costs to the consumer. It was because of this that the Government decided that further changes should be made in the operations of the PJT in the interests of freeing the business community from unnecessary regulation and in the interest of ensuring that no unnecessary costs were incurred that would ultimately flow on to the consuming public.

The proposed changes to the Bill which is currently before the House will further reduce the emphasis on price notification in the PJT's operations. That is one of the reasons that the Government opposed the amendments moved by the Opposition. Whilst the emphasis on price notification will be reduced, we have maintained in the Bill a capacity for the PJT to inquire into and to keep under surveillance prices in specified areas. The present system of prior notification of price increases by companies imposes, in our view, a regulatory cost on business which is disproportionate to the advantages that it provides.

The Government is proposing, therefore, with regard to the legislation that is before the House, to remove the requirement for companies prescribed on the basis of turnover to notify their price increases to the PJT. We believe, however, that there is a real value in retaining a modified form of price notification to ensure adequate price surveillance for goods and services that have been subject to inquiry by the PJT. The Bill provides for just that. The Government believes that the notification provisions should be applied only for a limited period in cases where the PJT, following a public inquiry, decides that particular companies or groups of companies should be so required.

The honourable member for Adelaide made reference to the need for more inquiries to be held. He made reference to the need for the Prices Justification Tribunal to have power to examine existing prices as well as proposed increased prices. He indicated the difficulty in his view that arises when existing prices only are investigated. I just remind the honourable member for Adelaide that the PJT has always had power to examine existing prices as well as proposed increases in prices.

I also take the opportunity of reminding the Opposition that the present Government- the Fraser Government- which is so maligned by the Opposition has initiated no fewer than six price justification inquiries and two industry type inquiries. I refer to the beef inquiry and the processed food inquiry. I asked the Opposition how many inquiries were initiated by it when in Government. The fact of the matter is that the former Government did not initiate any inquiries by the PJT. The amendments moved by the Opposition were very carefully examined by the Government and by the Legislation Committee. I support my motion for the adoption of the report of that Committee.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

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