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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 906

Mr OAKESHOTT (12:01 PM) —Mr Acting Speaker, I also—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Sidebottom)—I am ‘Deputy Speaker’; I am not acting.

Mr OAKESHOTT —Plenty are! Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I also rise to strongly support the Trade Practices Amendment (Cartel Conduct and Other Measures) Bill 2008 and its fellow legislation, the Federal Court of Australia Amendment (Criminal Jurisdiction) Bill 2008, which is passing through the other place. This is important legislation for all of us in the people’s chamber if we are here truly representing people’s interests. We were all elected by around 90,000 to 100,000 people; you can change the word ‘people’ to ‘consumers’. All of them are victims of theft and fraud at the higher end of business under the banner of cartel behaviour. The 150 members in this chamber should be and are sending a very strong message through this legislation that cartel behaviour is, hopefully, no more.

I strongly support this legislation not only for the impact it will have on local communities at the consumer end of the market, such as those on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales—with the theft at the checkout till that comes with cartel behaviour—but also for the many small businesses within the region I represent. It is a region in which 95 per cent of the business community is in micro small business—with fewer than five employees—without the united strength and lobbying and advocacy abilities to take on many of these issues. Therefore, it is the role of this place, and it is the role of government, to advocate and lobby and put in place good public policy that supports those many good people who are working very hard on the front line of the many small businesses, particularly in regional communities such as mine. Cartel behaviour impacts directly on them in the price they have to pay for products, which they are then passing on to consumers.

This is also important legislation from a theoretical point of view. We have heard speakers here talk about political and economic theorists such as Adam Smith. It is well known that cartel behaviour is the antithesis of the market economy. It is a reality that we live in a market economy. There is political debate flying around at the moment about various interpretations of the ideologies of the market economy we live in: whether it is a welfare capitalist state or whether it is a neoliberal state. The reality is that Australia is a market economy and, therefore, one of the greatest offences under competition laws that could take place is cartel behaviour at the top end. It has at times had me wondering why Australia does not place the same significance on cartel behaviour as other jurisdictions in the world do. I have wondered whether it is our penal background, whether it is the larrikinism of trying to beat the taxman. I am not sure why we do not en masse see this as the offence that it is against all of us. We only need to look at some of the high-profile cases of the last 18 months and then look at the social pages of last weekend and we will see people who are self-confessed in cartel behaviour enjoying the social scenes and the A-list parties in the various capital cities. It is business as usual in many cases on that front.

People should be angry—people should be filthy—that they are fundamentally getting ripped off by cartel behaviour. Good, hardworking small business operators should be angry that they are getting ripped off by cartel behaviour. I hope members use the debate about this legislation as an opportunity to educate the community—with supporting comments in newsletters or local media—that this behaviour is the antithesis of the market and a rip-off for all of us. I hope that in the future, through that, there is better identification of people who are doing the wrong thing and who are living on the profits of what is fundamentally theft.

I am very supportive of this legislation in regard to the penalties attached. I have listened closely to some of the previous speakers and have been a little surprised at the attempt to walk both sides of the argument, that there is a need to somehow strike a balance and that there is somehow an antibusiness element to this legislation. I would strongly disagree with that. This is very much a pro-business piece of legislation because it allows business to operate in the free market and to operate transparently, with accountability, through the competition chain.

There are several prongs to a good, effective regime. That is why, whilst I am full of praise that this legislation is here and it is passing through this chamber and, hopefully, it will send strong educative messages to the community and business, I also hope government does not forget the complementary prongs that go with it. Firstly, there must be a really clear definition and there must be education within the business community. This cannot just be a series of what on paper are fairly punitive but welcome laws. Secondly, I would hope the soft hand of government goes with that, and that is educating the business community about the clear definitions of cartel behaviour—price rigging, price fixing, collusion—compared to good, robust competitive behaviour, alongside the hard hand as well.

Thirdly, along with good penalties and good education within the business community—and I am asking the government to strongly consider this—is the element of effective institutions which are well equipped to detect, investigate and prosecute cartels. We now have upped the ante significantly with the passing of these two pieces of legislation to the criminal jurisdiction. The standard of proof goes up. Cases in regard to cartel behaviour are already long, complex and difficult. By its very nature it is a secretive business that is going on within the concept of collusion, so it involves hard work to actually prosecute. That is where I would ask government to strongly consider the specialisation, in regard to the concept of the equivalent of the untouchables, within the various agencies and institutions in chasing cartel behaviour.

I do think we are now at that point where, on behalf of people and small business, that specialisation within the various law enforcement agencies involved in taking this through to prosecution would be of value and would make a significant difference. As I mentioned before, we lag the world in lifting the standard of cartel behaviour. Whilst our laws sit very nicely and the penalties attached to them are very comparable with other standards in an international comparison, what is also coming through from some of that international evidence is that some agencies use the laws well and follow through to prosecution. However, there are other agencies which are not using those laws well, which do not have that strong enforcement arm and which are lax on taking these issues through to prosecution.

It raises the very obvious point: if we are going to bite the bullet on this issue, let’s back it up and let’s make these laws mean something and get some practical resolutions to the many issues that have already been talked about in this debate. All of us as local members get many complaints from people about the perception and the anecdotal evidence of cartel-like behaviour from the consumer end. There is that frustration, whether it is about dominance in the marketplace by petrol companies, supermarkets or whatever. It is anecdotal, but it is front-line consumer frustration. But now that we have set a very clear standard I hope government marries that with some good, strong law enforcement agencies backing these laws. I would hope it marries it alongside good education within the general business community as to what is and what is not cartel behaviour. If it is a genuine three-pronged attack on cartel behaviour—I hope it is not just a case of ticking a box—then more power to this place.