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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1768

Economic Competitiveness

Mr KATTER (Kennedy) (14:25): My question is to the Minister for Industry and Innovation. The minister would be aware of the closure of Australia's biggest tomato farm, run by the Philip family, which saw the loss of 100 jobs, and of Coles's recent announcement that they will reduce the price of fruit and vegetables by 50 per cent. Australia is already a net importer of fruit and vegetables and within four years will be a net importer of all food. An estimated 150,000 small businesses and 100,000 farmers are under threat from Woolworths's and Coles's 88 per cent market share compared to America's 23 per cent. Can the minister advise whether the government is going to act on this oligopoly, have another whitewash, or continue government as a spectator sport?

Mr COMBET (Charlton—Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and Minister for Industry and Innovation) (14:26): I thank the member for Kennedy for his question. I certainly understand the concerns that he has raised. The circumstances of the closure of the Philip family tomato farms are extremely unfortunate. The government will do all it can to help the employees who have been affected by it.

Like the member for Kennedy, the government, of course, has been following very closely for some time now the developments in our supermarket sector in Australia and the competitive issues that are there. The government is extremely aware of concerns about the behaviour of some of the major players in the retail sector. It is the role of the independent commission and consumer watchdog, the ACCC, to monitor and ensure a competitive market. The ACCC has appropriate powers to undertake that task and the Chairman of the ACCC has made clear in a number of statements that the ACCC is focusing on conduct by the supermarkets and has been urging players to give him the evidence he needs to take the issues forward. He has said the following about this issue:

We've been urging suppliers to give us some evidence to take things forward (in a prosecution) but we've been having trouble getting that. Too many of them are scared. At the moment all we've got is third-party hearsay.

He said the ACCC 'urged suppliers to talk with the ACCC about these issues'.

Mr Katter: On a point of order: there are no breaches of the Trade Practices Act. I do not allege that. What I am saying is that they have got 88 per cent of the market. They do not have to breach the act.

Mr Randall interjecting

The SPEAKER: There is no point of order. I do not need the assistance of the member for Canning instructing me to clear the gallery.

Mr COMBET: I understand the member for Kennedy's concerns about this issue. We have to allow the Chairman of the ACCC the opportunity to do his job. I am sure that if the Chairman of the ACCC believes that he and the ACCC need further powers to deal with some of these competition issues in relation to the retail sector, he will come forward to the government and indicate that that is the case. At a broader level in the economy, the government are taking a number of steps to try to alleviate the pressure on small businesses in particular. We are endeavouring to distribute the benefits of the resources boom to assist small business through two key things. One of them is to reduce company tax and the other is to introduce an instant asset write-off of up to $6,500 for as many assets as small businesses can purchase within a financial year. We are doing constructive things to support jobs and small business in this economy, and all of it is opposed by the coalition.

Mr KATTER (Kennedy) (14:30): Mr Speaker, I ask a supplementary question. It is a structural issue. They have 88 per cent of the market. They are not in breach of the act. A lot of people would say they are, but I do not believe they are in breach of the act. Will the minister please say what he is doing about the fact that they have 88 per cent of the market? In America it is 23 per cent and they are squealing. (Time expired)

Mr COMBET (CharltonMinister for Industry and Innovation and Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency) (14:31): I thank the member for Kennedy for his continuing questions in relation to the issue, because it is extremely important. The government are completely mindful of the situation in the retail sector and the competition issues that exist. It is properly the domain of the ACCC to deal with this issue. The ACCC chairman is cognisant of the issue and has indicated that on the public record. Should he need further powers, the government are certain that he will come forward and indicate that that is the case, and we would properly consider such a submission.