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Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 805

Mr BALDWIN (9:08 PM) —I rise today to raise a grievance on behalf of those people who live in and drive through the Paterson electorate. They are people who rely on affordable fuel—people like working families, retirees, pensioners and young people who, all because of where they live, have no alternative other than to drive. And of course there are also the businesses that rely on transport for their business or are in the transport industry.

Paterson, because of the junction of the New England Highway and the Pacific Highway, is home to a lot of transport operations, which suffer the wild fluctuations in the price of fuel because of inaction by this government. Like them, I am concerned about rising fuel costs and discrepancies between local and city prices. In this House tonight I call on the government to urge the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to widen its monitoring of local petrol stations, and to take action.

Across Paterson there are a number of somewhat isolated coastal and regional areas whose residents rely on personal transport. While public buses and trains can be a cost-effective and low-carbon option, they are not always available or viable in regional and rural areas. This is due largely to the New South Wales Labor government’s inability to keep services up to scratch. Further, health-friendly options such as walking and cycling are not always appropriate because of the age of my constituents and the large distances many of my constituents must travel for work, educational facilities and access to vital health services.

Therefore, while I am not an advocate of using personal travel on all occasions, I do recognise the need for local residents in Paterson to own and run cars and motorbikes. These are becoming increasingly costly to run as petrol prices climb. Motorists are now being forced to dig deep into their pockets to fill up the tank. The same can be said for fuel, interest rates, and electricity and water bills in the Paterson electorate. They are all on their way up, and up fast. They will increase even further if the Rudd Labor government has its way on its new emissions tax.

So much for Mr Rudd’s promises of cheaper living. Before the election, the Prime Minister led the Australian public to believe that he would cut the price of petrol. Taking matters into my own hands, I investigated which areas of my electorate are being monitored by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for petrol prices. To date there are just two: Forster and Bulahdelah. Today I urge the ACCC to increase that number to ensure that checks and balances are in place for petrol stations in all towns across Paterson.

Allow me to explain how the ACCC works, and I quote from its website:

Just like most consumer goods in Australia, competition in the market determines the price we pay for fuel. It is important to know that the ACCC does not set fuel prices, but it does closely monitor the retail prices of unleaded, diesel and automotive LPG in Australia’s capital cities and in around 150 country towns. The ACCC uses this information to examine the competitiveness of retail fuel prices in the interests of consumers.

As mentioned, the ACCC currently monitors 150 country towns. However, today I call on the commission to increase that number to ensure competitiveness in the Paterson electorate. There are currently no areas being monitored in Port Stephens, and this is a major concern for my constituents. It is also a concern for the NRMA, which on 3 February this year called for an investigation into prices over the Australia Day long weekend. To quote from the Newcastle Herald:

The motoring body says Hunter motorists paid eight to nine cents more per litre of petrol than their Sydney counterparts over the holiday weekend.

I am not an economist, but it seems strange that prices could be 9c more in the Hunter than in Sydney, which is just 200 kilometres away, and given the fact that there is a fuel terminal in Newcastle. The Hunter is not an island, and it is easily accessed by fuel tankers. I believe that the main reason for this inequity is a lack of competition in the Australian petroleum industry, exacerbated by an indifferent Rudd Labor government.

Let me explain. Australia as a whole pays amongst the highest price for petrol of the OECD countries on a pretax basis. A look at the Australian Institute of Petroleum website shows time lags between falls in world prices and reductions in Australian bowser prices. It shows price gouging every week for payday. These are both signs of inadequate competition in a domestic market.

While this problem is Australia wide, the effects are exacerbated in rural areas, where the lower density of petrol stations reduces the amount of competing stations to within a reasonable distance. While the ACCC has not published which petrol stations it monitors, I suspect, with the Rudd Labor government’s love of concentrating bureaucracy in the cities, that few if any petrol stations are being monitored in my electorate. In the absence of any oversight on the side of consumers independent petrol stations are being driven out of the market, which will further reduce the competition.

I have been contacted by Bob, an independent petrol station owner from my electorate. He believes he has been the victim of predatory pricing by major fuel chains. The burden-of-proof requirements of the Trade Practices Act are enough that he does not have the resources to defend himself from these anticompetitive practices. Something needs to be done. Since it is now clear that Kevin Rudd is all talk and no action, my hope for action rests with the ACCC. I call for this action on behalf of all those people in my electorate who already have to cope with higher living costs and cannot sit by and watch petrol prices climb as well. A number of these people have written to me to express their concern, including Margaret from Corlette, who wrote:

I am fed up with paying so much for petrol. It has been over the $1.30 mark for most of the holiday period. Tamworth, which is notorious for high petrol prices, even had petrol at 20c per litre cheaper last weekend. Why is our area, and Newcastle yesterday, paying so much? Please report this to the pricing authorities. Something has gone wrong. We are being absolutely ripped off.

Arnold from Limeburners Creek wrote to me and said:

I would like to know why the ACCC or the government is not doing anything about this and why a price freeze cannot be put into place. We are being ripped off so badly, and no-one is stopping this. As a pensioner, by the time I buy fuel and food it then becomes a choice as to what bill gets paid next.

In support of Margaret and Arnold’s concerns are the recent price differences I noted between Sydney and the Hunter region. Today, for example, some residents are paying 132.9 in Port Stephens while many bowsers in Sydney are set at an average of 123.9. I was astounded when I read the Australian Institute of Petroleum’s Weekly petrol prices report dated 7 February 2010. I found that Foster in my electorate was 5.5c more than the Sydney city average, Maitland was 6.9c more and Newcastle was 4.3c more. On average since May last year, the prices in the Foster area ranged from $1.13 to $1.20 on 3 January, peaking at $1.29 on 10 January, with a weekly average of 126.6. Why should consumers have to bear the brunt of rising petrol prices? Why should fuel in one part of my electorate be between 2c and 7c more than other parts?

During the 2007 election campaign, the then leader of the opposition, Kevin Rudd, said, ‘I think they’—the Howard government—‘have lost touch with working families under financial pressure, not just from interest rates, not just from rising rents but from grocery and petrol prices and the cost of child care.’ The Rudd Labor government promised the people of Australia action to deal with rising petrol prices and grocery prices. Instead of keeping his election promise to reduce the cost of petrol by ‘applying downward pressure on petrol prices’, he introduced the failed and very expensive Fuelwatch scheme. Fuelwatch was never going to deliver lower petrol prices. It was uncovered as a joke and a fraud—an expensive one at that. Again, Kevin Rudd failed to deliver on his promise to apply downward pressure on petrol prices and drive down the cost of fuel. The Rudd Labor government’s fascination with symbolic gestures and media spin has overshadowed its inability to drive the cost of fuel down.

As the elected member for Paterson, it is my duty to raise in parliament the concerns of my constituents, and that is what I am doing by speaking here today. I am here to urge the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to include more towns from the Paterson electorate in its list of those places monitored for fuel prices. Further, I am here to tell the Rudd Labor government to do more, to take action and stop the spin and the rhetoric. Constituents in my electorate want action from a Rudd Labor government, action to lower the costs of living for all Australians. The Prime Minister would have you believe that middle- and high-income families are well off and can afford to shoulder this great big emissions tax he is about to introduce as well higher electricity prices and bigger grocery bills—and the list goes on. However, it is my experience in the current environment that many families who may once have been termed well off are now struggling as well. The Prime Minister must do something to help working families afford basic living costs.

The cost of petrol and the price variations are absolutely ridiculous, and there seems to be little or nothing that can be done by this government. Little or no action has been taken by the Trade Practices Commission through the ACCC to make sure that price gouging and the instability in petrol prices are levelled out. There seems to be very little or no correlation between the barrel price and the gate price. There seems to be no correlation on a consistent basis between the terminal gate price and the price of the fuel at the bowsers. Distance seems to have little or no effect on the prices of fuel. The cost of shipping fuel from one petrol station to another makes no sense. Cheaper fuel will be delivered to one after it has driven past another. It just seems absolutely ridiculous. To quote the Prime Minister, the time to ‘apply downward pressure on fuel prices’ is now. My constituents deserve it; in fact, they demand it. I have been listening to my constituents in Paterson and I am in parliament fighting nationally for what they want.