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Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Page: 9286

Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services) (10:36 AM) —I am pleased to express my advocacy for the Trade Practices Amendment (Clarity in Pricing) Bill 2008. The Rudd government is achieving another valuable pro-consumer reform that its predecessors never had the courage to press forward with. The Rudd government believes in taking decisive action in the national interest, as evidenced yesterday with the announcement of the $10.4 billion Economic Security Strategy to strengthen the Australian economy in the face of the worst global financial crisis in modern times. The $10.4 billion strategy will buttress the national economy and support Australian households, given the risk of a deep and prolonged global economic slowdown.

Our economy is strong and we remain better placed than other nations, but Australia is not immune from the global financial crisis. In the midst of the global financial crisis, the Rudd government is taking decisive action to strengthen the Australian economy. Our government’s $10.4 billion Economic Security Strategy contains five key measures: $4.8 billion for an immediate down payment on long-term pension reform; $3.9 billion in support payments for low- and middle-income families; $1.5 billion of investment to help first home buyers purchase a home; $187 million to create 56,000 new training places in 2008-09; and the acceleration of the government’s three nation-building funds, bringing forward the commencement of investment in nation-building projects to 2009.

I am particularly pleased that we will deliver a $4.8 billion down payment on pension reform for Australia’s four million pensioners, carers and seniors, providing them with immediate financial help in the lead-up to comprehensive reform of the pension system. The Rudd government will not pit pensioner groups against each other, and we have not sought to exclude two million carers, people with disabilities and married pensioner couples from this payment ahead of the longer term reform, in stark contrast to the opportunistic solutions raised by the opposition in recent weeks. These payments recognise also the additional costs that single pensioners face relative to couples, and for the first time lump-sum payments are being extended to include disability support pensioners, which I regard in my portfolio area of disability services as a fantastic development for all people with disabilities.

Indeed, one thing we are trying to do in these difficult times is ensure that consumers, particularly those that are assisted by the $10.4 billion economic security package, benefit from the Economic Security Strategy and are not injured by virtue of lack of consumer protection when they purchase goods and services. The government is resolute about empowering consumers and reinforcing the consumers’ right to know the total price of a good or service. We want to ensure that consumers are not fleeced—when they discover that what they thought they were paying does not take into account hidden charges and prices and taxes. The changes in this bill mean that consumers will know the total price they need to pay for the goods and services they buy.

This government rejects placing an undue burden on business or trying to fix a problem that does not exist. However, following the government’s undertaking of extensive consultation through both submissions and follow-up meetings with business and consumer groups, there are key changes to the previous government’s draft legislation. These include removing postage and handling charges from the scope of the changes; making sure that the amendments do not apply to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001, meaning that financial services are exempt; and making sure that amendments will apply exclusively to business-to-business transactions. In most cases the total price will have to be at least as prominent as the most prominent of any components of the price. An exemption to the ‘at least as prominent’ disclosure requirement has been made for contracts for services where those services are provided for the duration of the contract either periodically or continuously, and the contract provides for periodic payments. Businesses will not be prevented from using component pricing, providing that the total price is also displayed prominently as a single figure.

The Consumer Action Law Centre is a nationally recognised consumer advocacy, litigation and policy organisation. It has welcomed the government’s bill. The Consumer Action Law Centre has said:

Consumer Action believes that the amendments proposed … will ameliorate some of the market distortions and anti-competitive effects of traders advertising component prices and not the single price.

Consumer Action supports amendments to the Act that increase consumers’ access to easily understood information about goods and services.

To further quote the centre’s submission:

Requiring the single price for goods and services will provide important price information to consumers. We support the general thrust of the amendments, and believe that generally the draft legislation is well-prepared, and the draft explanatory memorandum clear and useful.

The previous government attempted to do something on component pricing. On two separate occasions in 2006 they outlined draft legislation that, unfortunately, I have to report, fizzled, fell through, foundered and came to nothing. This government has taken on reform in an area where the previous government acknowledged that there was a problem and talked about changes but left the job unfinished. Identifying an issue achieves little unless you persevere to bring about change.

Let us have a look at some of the things that the Rudd government has already done for consumers. The first move this government made was to relax foreign investment rules to make it easier for the likes of foreign companies such as Aldi to set up more shops and create more competition in the market. During the last session of parliament, the government introduced the biggest package of reforms to the Trade Practices Act in 22 years. It includes provisions to promote competition and protect smaller retailers from predatory pricing. The government is moving on the key recommendations in the ACCC report into the price of groceries. The government will execute its plan in response to the ACCC inquiry as a matter of urgency by, firstly, referring the anticompetitive impacts of state and local zoning and planning laws to the COAG—this is about getting more competition in more communities, to put downward pressure on local food prices; secondly, considering the best way to introduce a mandatory, nationally consistent unit-pricing regime in consultation with industry and consumer groups; thirdly, and very importantly, working with the horticultural industry on improvements to the horticulture code of conduct; and, fourthly, implementing a creeping acquisitions law, following feedback on a discussion paper to gauge the best way forward.

I think the real question for the coalition is the dubious integrity of their response on issues that affect the consumer. Why are they so opposed to measures, such as unit pricing, that increase transparency and provide more information to consumers? These are important reforms that the previous, unlamented government could or would never deliver, and now they seek to block these reforms in the Senate and exact payback from the consumer watchdog. The Rudd government and modern Labor believe in competition, transparency and empowering the consumer.

Across our eastern capital cities it was previously all a guessing game as to where motorists should go for the lowest petrol prices. Now Fuelwatch has put some power back in the hands of motorists. The government does not, nor should it ever, apologise for backing the Australian motorist against the big oil companies and the interests they represent. I believe the Leader of the Opposition should drop, on behalf of the opposition, their blatant support for the vested interests in the petrol market and let Fuelwatch through the Senate. We want motorists to enjoy the benefits of greater information before they drive away for Christmas. The other side, it would appear, would prefer to back the oil companies.

This government also should make no apology for siding with consumers by putting more information about grocery prices into the public domain. On 5 August this year the government announced the establishment of its GROCERYchoice website. This provides consumers with practical grocery price information not previously available to consumers that will assist them to compare general price levels for a large number of products in different regions. Each month the site publishes the prices of a typical grocery basket from supermarket chains located in 61 regions across Australia. I believe this site puts some public pressure on the major retailers to be the cheapest outlet. In July Coles was cheaper than Woolworths in a total basket of products in 52 of the 61 regions. I think that sends a pretty clear message. Furthermore, Aldi is cheapest in the basic staples basket in the regions it is operating in by about 20 per cent.

What is it about this information that the Liberals would seek to withhold it from the Australian public? This legislation, along with the range of measures I have spoken about, demonstrates that the government is allowing consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions to promote more vigorous competition between different large organisations. It is the increased competition, from supermarkets to oil companies, that can put downward pressure on all these prices. For these reasons I support this legislation as another example of the ongoing crusade by this government to put information in the hands of consumers and therefore power in the hands of consumers.