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ACCC Chairperson addresses Melbourne Press Club.

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Friday 18 July 2003

ACCC Chairperson addresses Melbourne Press Club


MARK COLVIN: Back to Australia now, and now that Graeme Samuel has been given permanent approval as the head of the nation's business and consumer watchdog, people are urgently trying to work out how he'll change the position that's become synonymous with another man - Allan Fels. 


As the head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, he's adamant that he will continue in the mould of his predecessor. 


But it's becoming increasingly clear that the Commission's media role will change, in two key areas where Professor Fels was thought to antagonise the Treasurer Peter Costello, and some business leaders. 


Mr Samuel says he won't use the media to lecture the Government on policy, and he's still trying to put to rest an impression that he's less willing to take on, in the media, big companies investigated by the Commission. 


Rafael Epstein reports. 


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Graeme Samuel has a reputation for engineering change. In Melbourne he's known as one of those who made Aussie Rules a national game. He was part of the Kennett Government's revolution in hospitals, he's been head of the National Competition Council, and he was a key figure in the establishment of the Docklands Stadium, where he spoke today to the Melbourne Press Club. 


He's clearly been spending a lot of time with Allan Fels, including this exchange over dinner. 


GRAEME SAMUEL: I asked him how was feeling. He replied with an unusually light-hearted tone to his voice that no one could possibly imagine the weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. I quickly responded that I could, it had landed on mine with a sudden thud. 




RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Graeme Samuel is adamant, he will not divert from the path proscribed by Allan Fels. 


GRAEME SAMUEL: I regret to inform those of you that were discomforted by Allan Fels' constant media presence that you'll have to get used to perhaps my lower-pitched and more gravelly tone of voice. 


The Commission will continue to discharge these responsibilities in a manner that is appropriately loud and appropriately robust. This must be the case, irrespective of who occupies the office of chairman. In substance, I cannot and will not be any different from my predecessor, Allan Fels.  


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: But will there be more than just a change of style? Graeme Samuel knows big business did not like Allan Fells' use of the media, in particular the use of publicity surrounding investigated companies. New media rules guiding the Commission are embraced by Graeme Samuel, while Allan Fels has said they are not a big change.  


GRAEME SAMUEL: The Commission should not be cavalier in its treatment of individuals or corporations about whom we allege wrongdoing, not in public and not in private. 


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Am I correct in interpreting your comments to say that you're basically going to be the same as Allan Fels, except when there are some investigations of companies you won't be quite as forward in coming to the media? 


GRAEME SAMUEL: Um, no I think that's a typical journalistic paraphrase, Rafael. Um, Allan Fels did an outstanding job. For the most part I think his critics were those who were attempting to try and persuade the Commission to divert from its task.  


Now, Allan himself has admitted, particularly in more recent times, that there were some elements of dealing with the media, and there's the well-known Caltex case where he has been quite open in saying, look, if we had our time over again, that would have been done differently. 


But let's not confuse those one or two black spots on a large sheet of white paper with the outstanding job that Allan did as chairman of the Commission. 


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Mr Samuel also knows the Federal Government did not appreciate Allan Fels' unabashed willingness to tell them, through the media, that competition laws needed to be toughened, something Professor Fels was still at yesterday. 


Clearly in this key area, Graeme Samuel will be different. 


GRAEME SAMUEL: Just as it would be inappropriate for a high-ranking military officer or a commissioner of police to argue publicly for a change to a particular policy of government, then so must the Commission be constrained when urging changes to competition policy. 


This means that while we will be diligent in explaining the facts of policy matters, or the consequences of existing policy to government and parliament, we will not necessarily be making our case in public. 


MARK COLVIN: Graeme Samuel speaking in Melbourne. That report from Rafael Epstein.