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Thursday, 29 March 1979
Page: 1341

Mr HURFORD (Adelaide) -I thank the House for the opportunity to continue my remarks uninterrupted by taking advantage of a second period of 10 minutes. We moved amendment No. 5, which relates to clause 8 and to interim price increases, because of our conviction that once companies increased their prices it was almost impossible- whatever the Tribunal decided- to roll those prices back. In fact, there is on the Tribunal moral pressure not to disagree with the price increases. As an illustration, I point out that a lot of the companies that are involved are in the wholesaling field; they are not selling directly to the public. Once they, as wholesalers, have increased their prices, the increases are fed into the prices of retailers and passed on to the public. There is no way in which refunds can be made later or, indeed, prices can be rolled back. Therefore, we believe that our proposed amendment to clause 8 was very necessary.

I turn now to our proposed amendment No. 6, which is related to clause 9 and to inquiries initiated by the Minister. Section 19, which is amended by clause 9, should be so amended as to institute, in the case of ministerially-initiated inquiries, a pre-inquiry procedure. Such preinquiry procedure would be in all ways comparable with that which obtains in respect of inquiries that the Tribunal itself will be able to initiate. To a great extent we took the wording from new section 1 9aa, which provides for that to be done. It is what I call a 'once over lightly treatment'. Those honourable members who were with me on the Prices Committee of the Parliament will know that it is very necessary in price surveillance to have a pre-inquiry procedure for the purpose of obtaining as much information as possible so that an objective decision can be made whether it is worthwhile to look further into the justification for a given price. The Opposition was convinced that that procedure should be applied to ministerially-initiated inquiries as well as to Tribunal-initiated inquiries, but apparently there was no way in which the Government would accept that proposal either. The Opposition's amendment No. 7 related to clause 10- inquiries initiated by the Tribunal. It was circulated to honourable members but in the end, because of our frustration and the absence of any co-operation from the Government, we did not proceed to move it. However, I think that I will be within Standing Orders if I mention what stimulated us to draw it up. New section 19aa

(4)   should be so amended so that the Minister shall be required to give full reasons for not approving the holding of a Tribunal-initiated inquiry; so that the Ministerial decision would include an assessment of the case of the Tribunal, and of any third party, for an inquiry, as well as the case against it. In our view, such an assessment should be made in terms of the Tribunal's general functions. I repeat; Such was our frustration that we did not move that amendment. The same was true of our proposed amendment No. 8, the details of which I will not give.

However, I do wish to cite a further debate which took place at the Legislation Committee stage. It concerned clause 14 of the Bill, which the Opposition opposes, relating to biannual reports by the Tribunal. Clause 14 takes out existing section 35a, which we believe should remain. That makes it incumbent upon the Tribunal to issue biannual reports. Since notification is still required, following an inquiry, of certain nominated goods, we believe that the Tribunal ought to do so regularly. Press speculation indicates that the number of notifications in a full year may average 700. Of course, that is only a fraction of the 7,000 which were once required. Nevertheless, it is a significant number. If there is not regular reporting by the Tribunal of these notifications there will be a lack of publicity concerning the activity of firms which have been careless enough to engender an inquiry, even under this weak legislation. Publicity is an important deterrent to price increases and the dropping of section 35a removes the deterrent completely with one qualification, namely, that there is an annual report which, of course, comes down, as the words would indicate, only once a year and well after the event. The Opposition is very disappointed that the Government was not able to accept even that amendment which we moved in the legislation committee.

The first issue which I believe this report to the Parliament raises, as I said at the beginning of my speech, is: 'Was the Fraser Government sincere in wanting a PJT?' The answer is that I believe that any objective person looking at the Hansard report of the legislation committee's two meetings, one last Thursday and the other one last night, would come to the conclusion that the Government is not dinkum about wanting a Prices Justification Tribunal. It is merely a shell of what it was. It is a toothless tiger. It is there for window-dressing so that some workers will be hoodwinked into thinking there is some price surveillance. The way that the Government has stopped us putting even the minimal number of teeth back into the PJT that would have been put back in by our amendment just points up how insincere the Government is in wanting this sort of price surveillance.

The second question which I raised at the beginning of my speech was: 'Was it worth while for a Bill such as tins one to go to the legislation committee?' I must confess that my first reaction- the Minister knows this from a private conversation that I had with him- was that it was not worth while for such a Bill to go to the legislation committee; we might as well have it out in the House. There was enormous frustration at the meetings. We had hoped that in that sort of atmosphere there might be a meeting of the minds, there might be some compromise, there might even be at least some of our amendments accepted. But such was not the case. There was no sincerity, we assert, in examining objectively the Opposition's amendments. I emphasise that the amendments were, we believe, within the philosophy of the Government. If we really wanted to move amendments which were within our own philosophy I assure the House that they would have been much more numerous and in much more strong terms than the ones we did move.

However, on further reflection I think I will qualify my answer to that question in the negative by saying that at least we may have saved the House some time. If we had moved all of those amendments at a meeting of the Committee of the Whole I think we would have taken a lot longer than it will take to debate the legislation committee report on this Bill. As the House has allowed somebody leading for the Opposition like myself two 10-minute opportunities to speak and give a full report on what happened before the legislation committee and draw attention to the Hansard record of the committee meetings perhaps the business of the House is facilitated and quickened.

Let me give notice, in conclusion, that the need for the Prices Justification Tribunal will be an election issue. The need for price surveillance is as great as it ever was. The need for a watchdog agency such as the PJT is absolutely essential. What has happened in the legislation committee, I believe the House will now realise from this report I have given, will point out the insincerity of the Government concerning this agency. It does not want an agency; it just wants a mere shell.

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