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Wednesday, 18 March 1987
Page: 1045

Mr GEAR(3.37) —Today the Opposition has raised a matter of public importance but it has not said a thing about it. All we have heard from it is name calling and derision. One would not expect to hear anything constructive from it and we did not. During the debate the credentials of the Minister for Science and Minister Assisting the Treasurer on Prices (Mr Barry Jones) on this issue were questioned. I remind the House that in 1971 the Minister was instrumental in bringing Ralph Nader to Australia, so the Minister's association with the consumer movement goes back a long way. He is not like the Opposition spokesman who jumped on the bandwagon yesterday. The Minister spoke a lot of sense about what the Government is trying to do about prices. It is amazing that the Opposition started to talk about inflation. Let us look at its record back in 1976-77 when the inflation rate was 14 per cent.

Mr Brumby —How much?

Mr GEAR —It was 14 per cent, a world record. When the Opposition left office it was 11.5 per cent. Given the same terms of trade and the same economic conditions, this Government got the inflation rate down to 5.1 per cent before the devaluation pushed it back up again. As the Minister has pointed out, inflation is back on the way down because we have accommodated the price rises flowing from that devaluation.

We should also look at the impact of Government charges and taxes on prices and that was never alluded to once by the Opposition. I will not go into a document entitled `Government Taxes and Charges' at length-it is a report by the Advisory Committee on Prices and Incomes-but I will quote a couple of passages which I think will illustrate the point. It states:

It will be demonstrated in this paper that the rate of increase in public sector charges, and the contribution of indirect tax increases to the overall rate of price increase, has moderated sharply since 1982.

We all know what happened after 1982-this Government got into power. Before 1982 the incompetents opposite were in power. Page 6 of this document stated:

Trends in the impact on the CPI of the various public sector measures have differed over the period.

That is the period under discussion in this document. The document continued:

The estimated contribution of changes in the Statisti- cian's index of selected State and local government charges was highest in 1981 . . .

Guess who was in power? The article further stated:

. . . whereas the contributions of changes in post and telephone charges and Commonwealth indirect taxes and excise duties (other than on oil) were highest in 1982.

Who was in Government? To continue:

However, all measures show a significant decline in growth for both in 1983 and 1984.

What can be said about those periods? This Government was in power. So, looking at the impact of government charges on prices, the report says it all. Let us refer statistically to some of those prices, in particular, to the impact on the consumer price index of increases in postal and telephone services charges. In 1981 it was 0.07 per cent for an inflation rate of 11.23 per cent. It rose to its highest in 1982, a level of 0.15 per cent for an inflation rate of 11.01 per cent. In 1985-the latest figures available-it was 0.09 per cent for an inflation rate of 8.2 per cent. So it can be seen statistically that charges from this Government have had a lesser impact on prices than ever was the case under the Opposition parties, and we all know what will happen if they ever get back in again. We know what will happen to government charges as they try to fund that huge deficit that they are all talking about. It will go up. We never hear anything from Opposition members about that because they simply cannot defend their record. They run from their record and never allude to it.

I would like now to raise the question of why prices are an issue. It is simple. This Government has a prices and incomes accord. The workers have helped out because real unit labour costs in this country are lower now than they have been in 20 years. Of course, that has had benefits. We have three-quarters of a million more jobs. That is a real contribution that the workers of this country have made. By having a lower real wage they have helped their mates back into jobs. That is about the best thing that Australians can do in these troubled times. We have had fewer strikes.

Mr Humphreys —Those opposite would help their mates to dodge tax.

Mr GEAR —I will get to that later. Our Whip rightly points out that those opposite have been protecting the tax bludgers for years. The prices and incomes accord is all about Australians helping Australians. We have seen how we have become more competitive. The number of strikes is down. We have focused on prices because wage earners are saying that they are making their contribution and that people who set prices should certainly do likewise. I would like to do something constructive and talk about what we are doing to keep prices down. I am speaking from experience, which is something those opposite never could.

Mr Robert Brown —You have done something about it.

Mr GEAR —I thank the honourable member for Charlton. I have done something about it. I have done something constructive, and I did not just start yesterday, as the shadow Minister did. He was appointed yesterday; I have been doing this for four years. So when I talk about the matter, I know what I am talking about. Because the Government has recognised that the consumer movement can work only at the local level and that consumer action cannot be imposed from Canberra, the Government's whole focus is at the local level. In Canning, for instance, volunteers go out to supermarkets to look at prices. We publish those prices. We tell the consuming public where the cheapest supermarkets are.

I can tell the House from experience that supermarkets will put their prices up where there is no competition or where they think they can get away with it. What we are doing is helping free enterprise. We are helping competition. We are making information available to consumers so that they can make a rational choice between the cheapest and dearest supermarkets. I can tell the House, once again from experience, that supermarkets put their prices down when they are fingered. That has been my experience.

Now, right across Australia, the Government is setting up price watch committees to emulate what I have done. What makes Bob Hawke a great Prime Minister is the fact that he recognises that and has given endorsement to it. We will duplicate what I have done in Canning right across Australia. That is something honourable members opposite have never done. Opposition members have never ever worried about consumers. They have never worried about prices. They never took prices seriously until this Government did something about them. Does that not say something about them? They are always the followers. We had to appoint the Minister for Science as the Minister Assisting the Treasurer on Prices before a shadow Minister was appointed. There was no shadow Minister before this Minister was appointed. So we can see that, once again, the Opposition is trailing all the way down the line.

I can tell the House, from my experience, that the one thing the rip-off merchants hate is publicity. That is what we are giving them. But we are expanding that and taking it somewhat further. We will look at this matter at a State level and we will look for trends in prices. Our work will complement that of the Prices Surveillance Authority. Where we see prices of particular items varying more than those of other items we will tell the Prices Surveillance Authority. Here at the national level we will be looking at the same things. I might say that the information we publish here in Canberra will be very much more abstract than that we collect at the local level.

The cynics around Parliament House really misunderstand what we are doing, because they focus on what is happening at the national level instead of at the community level where it is all happening. Just because we cannot quantify here the sorts of things we are doing at the local level, they seem to pass our efforts off. That is the same as the Opposition's approach. Once again, I point out that such people do not speak from experience; it is all copybook stuff. None of these blokes know anything about what goes on at the local level. They never go out. I wonder how many of them have ever been to a supermarket. The wife of the Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Bennelong (Mr Howard), will not trust him in one, and one can see why.

A disturbing trend is arising from the Government's move; that is, the aggressive move by some supermarkets to threaten litigation and to produce rubbish such as the advertisement previously referred to by the honourable member for Parkes (Mr Cobb). The honourable member did not cite the years over which the survey he mentioned was undertaken. It was taken over 1981 to 1986. Honourable members will know that half-way through that period there was a change of government. Most of those increases-we have had this verified by the Parliamentary Library-occurred under Mr Fraser. That Government pushed prices up. That omission is bad enough, but the advertisement also got the figures wrong.

Mrs Darling —What are they?

Mr GEAR —I do not have time to go right through the figures, but I can tell honourable members now that this is an example of deceptive advertising at its worst. That advertisement was put out by the Bi-Lo supermarkets in Adelaide. I believe they deserve all the publicity they get for putting out rubbish like this. That a member of the Opposition has taken it as gospel without checking it just shows how thorough honourable members opposite are!

The real issue before us today is what the Government is going to do about prices. This Government is doing everything in its power. We do not have constitutional power over prices, but we are doing something meaningful. We are building on something that works, which is exactly the opposite of what Opposition members are doing. All they can do is threaten, as the shadow Minister did, to bring back all the boozey lunches, all the free rorts and the tax-free Mercedes Benzes-all of those things that are supposed to add incentive for their mates-and to put down our people by freezing their wages. What will that do for consumer power? What will that do to the spending power of people such as pensioners? Is the Opposition going to freeze their pensions? Is it going to give pensions back to millionaires so that people on lower incomes get less?

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mountford) —Order! The debate is concluded.