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Thursday, 15 December 1983
Page: 3862

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(12.36) —Last night, when speaking on these Bills, I indicated that I generally welcomed the idea behind the Government's move to involve itself, relevant State governments, the industry and the unions in the important changes which need to be made to ensure that this important basic industry improves its general position. Last night I raised some of the concerns of the Opposition with respect to the inadequate response or apparent non-response of the State governments concerned-New South Wales and South Australia-and the doubts that we had about the extent to which the actual commitment of the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd represented a realistic assessment of what was required satisfactorily to modernise the steel industry. In that respect, I referred to BHP's own assessment given to the Industries Assistance Commission. I also referred to the failure of the Government and the trade unions to agree on arrangements which could in fact ensure the profitability of the industry. I also drew attention to the fact that the industry in Australia under these arrangements is guaranteeing wage rises to its work force under the general community arrangements-the 4.5 per cent wage increase and full indexation thereafter which have already been granted by the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. I contrasted that with the situation of the United States steel industry where the unions have in fact been prepared to take a cut in the present salaries of their workers to restore the competitiveness of that major industry.

This afternoon I want to touch on only the price surveillance powers which are to be given under this legislation to the Steel Industry Authority and the possible effect of any failure on the part of the principal contributors to the plan to deliver on their commitments. The legislation before the Senate provides that the Steel Industry Authority has power to look at the domestic and overseas prices of steel. However, we have also, of course, seen legislation, not supported by the Opposition, go through this place that ensures that the Prices Surveillance Authority also has the power to inquire into steel prices because of the monopoly situation of that industry. It may be that the price surveillance arrangements in any single case are reasonable. We put our views earlier this week about the Prices Surveillance Authority. However, we are concerned about duplication and the possibility that there will be not just one but two avenues of bureacratic interference in the commercial operation of BHP and its subsidiaries. This is analagous to the duplication that takes place in the oil industry between the Petroleum Products Pricing Authority, which was established by the Commonwealth, and the State pricing authorities which control petroleum prices within a particular State. It is possible that the recommendations of each authority could be in conflict and this, of course, could seriously undermine the situation of the industry and threaten the success of the plan. The Opposition would like to receive assurances from the Government that there will be no conflict of interests between the two authorities and that the Government has some way of ensuring that that problem is removed.

The second issue I wish to mention relates to the question of what happens if the unions, BHP, the Commonwealth Government or the State governments fail to contribute to the plan in the way the plan envisages. As far as the Opposition can see, the Government's plan for the industry and the Bills which are before us at the moment do not provide any mechanism to redress the situation where any of the parties fail to deliver on its contribution. What, for example, happens to the steel package if BHP does not invest $800m? We are told that it is committed to $500m firm; it is probably committed to $300m. But what is the situation if that commitment is not met? Surely that would seriously threaten the development of a modern, internationally competitive steel industry. Indeed, as I said earlier, perhaps even greater investment is required. But what is the remedy if that part of the obligations under this package is simply not delivered? Again, what happens if the unions fail to increase productivity in the way in which the package suggests and, so, the industry becomes less competitive rather than more competitive?

They are a series of concerns which the Opposition has about this matter. I ask the Government to address itself to those concerns because the Opposition, like the Government, wishes to see a healthy and thriving steel industry in Australia . It is important that Australia should have such a steel industry. We welcome the fact that the Government has brought forward a plan. We welcome certain elements of it. I merely rise to express some of the serious questions which remain in our minds, having considered the package.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Before I call Senator Crichton-Browne, I should point out to the Senate that there is an agreement that at 12.45 p.m. we will shift to a first reading debate. Therefore, it would be convenient if Senator Crichton- Browne at 12.45 p.m. sought leave to continue his remarks.