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Friday, 5 May 1989
Page: 1939

Senator CALVERT(3.25) —Before I commence, I say to Senator Cooney that I will disappoint him. I have no intention of talking about the two issues that have been referred to. I do not propose to be a hack lawyer, which is the way Senator Cooney referred to himself. I agree with my colleagues for bringing this matter of public importance forward. It states:

The threat to both Australian consumers and producers from the promotion of anti-business attitudes and policies including product liability and class actions.

Senator Bishop spoke about product liability and class actions and Senator Short raised a very important matter; that is that some consumer organisations in Australia have been worrying consumers and producers alike with some of the actions that they have carried out over a period. In most cases they were politically inspired. Having said that, I will move on to what I have to say. I have nothing to say about the two papers to which Senator Cooney referred. This matter of public importance points out the threat to both Australian consumers and producers from the promotion of anti-business attitudes and policies including product liability and class actions. It is a sad indictment of the manner in which the Hawke Labor Government has assumed responsibility of the Australian community. It is sad that matters have deteriorated to the point where we, as a coalition, have been forced to bring this matter forward today. We were left with no choice because as things stand there are no winners in the Australian community at present, there are only losers.

My colleagues, as I said previously, and Senator Short in particular, have told the Senate how the Government has supported organisations that have had the effect of forcing higher prices on consumers and more pressures on producers. In my short address today I intend to give one or two examples of how Government policies are directly affecting both producers and consumers in this country. Senator Short quite rightly said that no-one hears from the Government-sponsored consumer groups about the crippling effects of interest rates, high inflation, work practices and government charges that are being foisted upon small business. I know that Senator Parer has some very solid views on that matter. Australia has an 18 1/2 per cent interest rate compared to Japan which has an interest rate of between 3 per cent and 5 per cent. We have an inflation rate locked in of 7 per cent, whereas Japan has something like one per cent. Why would our producers not think that this particular Government is forcing anti-business policies upon them? The same goes for the consumers. We have the highest taxing government in Australian history, we have no incentive to save and taxes and inflation are rampant. Tax cuts have just been handed out, but within the next 12 months, the way inflation is going, 50 per cent of Australian wage earners will be back on the highest tax bracket anyway.

There is no question that businesses are continuing to close at an alarming rate around the country. They do so because of increasing government charges and taxes which are being forced upon them, and because this Government has failed to recognise the importance of business, particularly small business, in our economy today. The Government, in its rampant desire to appease the union movement, has forgotten the importance which business, particularly the small business man or woman, plays in the Australian economy. This attack on the Australian producers has not been to the benefit of consumers; indeed, in all cases it has been to their detriment as consumers battle a never ending array of increased prices and charges, a lack of choice and decreasing product standards because of the action of this Government. I will mention one example. One would find very few restaurants open in Tasmania on a Sunday night because of restrictive work practices and the high wages and overtime penalties imposed on restaurateurs. They just cannot afford to open. One must say that the Government is encouraging these sorts of things. This is a reason why small business is suffering. There is no reason to assume that producers and consumers are in opposition. Indeed, both are mutually dependent upon each other for survival. My colleagues have been saying in the debate today that the policies of this Government are definitely anti-consumer and anti-producer.

I would like to examine briefly some of the attempts by this Government which have left consumers and producers far worse off than they were when Mr Hawke and the Australian Labor Party came to office. Senator Short mentioned the national prices network. I would like to reply to some comments that were made by Senator Bolkus in anticipation of what I may say today. Senator Bolkus referred to the Tasmanian Price Watch and mentioned that, in my underhanded way, I had come up here to Canberra saying things about that organisation. I have never said anything underhanded about Tasmanian Price Watch. I have been very open in what I have said. Unfortunately, I have not been able to get the publicity that the Tasmanian Price Watch has received. By making ridiculous accusations and claims on prices in Tasmania that organisation has been getting a headline every day. But when one tries to tell the truth about the way it is being run, one is accused of being underhanded.

The fact is that Price Watch in Tasmania has been shown to be, as have quite a few other price watch bodies around the country, nothing but a cheap political exercise. I am very concerned, as is anybody else, about people being overcharged. I and my colleagues have been saying all along that we are concerned about the methodology of this Price Watch. We are concerned about the way old and unsuspecting people in our community are being duped into supporting these schemes by thinking they are working for an independent organisation when in fact they are working for the Labor Party. We have made that claim consistently. I do not believe it is being underhanded to bring to the attention of our constituents what we believe is a threat to their integrity.

Senator Bolkus commented on the fact that supposedly because of this, we had a price inquiry in Tasmania that cost $200,000. I could inform the Minister, if he were here-he is obviously putting out the press release at the moment-that we have a State Minister for Consumer Affairs who, in his wisdom, decided to have a price inquiry because of the on-going concern everybody in Tasmania has for prices. Tasmanian price watch was not needed, nor do I believe it should take the credit for that inquiry. As I have said on many occasions-and this has not been reported to any great extent-at least the inquiry held by the State Minister for Consumer Affairs did have some credibility which is more than can be said for what is going on in Tasmania now.

Before price watch came on the scene, Fran Bladel, a Labor member of the Tasmanian Parliament, tried in her own way to bring to the attention of the public concern about prices. In her own way she was doing a very good job. We have a State Minister for Consumer Affairs and a government that are also interested in what was going on. We did not need a high-flying organisation. I think its introduction was a cynical exercise. There is no doubt that this whole exercise was run so that the Labor Party member for Denison, Mr Duncan Colquhoun Kerr, could `meet the people' and could get himself known.

It is no secret that the Government made available $87,000 to a favoured few Labor Party politicians around Australia so that they could pursue their particular ambitions and put out doubtful literature on prices. George Gear and Duncan Kerr have both admitted from time to time that Price Watch is having very little effect on prices, but have said that politically it is a good idea. In Denison, we find that Mr Duncan Kerr had a great opportunity to promote himself. He had the opportunity to put his first wife on the payroll and give her a fax machine and extra facilities paid for by the taxpayer. I am then accused of being underhanded for drawing to the attention of the people what is really going on.

Anyone who ever doubted that the price task force was anything other than a political exercise may like to consider one or two passages which come from its own manual or confidential Caucus document which was headed, `The Price Task Force How to Kit'. It states:

Be seen to be doing something to control local supermarket prices.

Fine: that is okay. It also states:

The major benefits of the Price Action Group will be enjoyed at the electorate level.

. . . .

Make sure all your shoppers are branch members or come to you by referral.

One can see that the Australian Federation of Consumer Organisations, rather than generally assisting the consumers, has sought to put consumers and producers in direct confrontation with each other.

The attempt by the Hawke Government to cripple the Australian pharmacists concerns me greatly. It is a very good example of the anti-business, anti-consumer policies the Government is pursuing at the moment. It will cause immeasurable harm to consumers, especially pensioners and those who can least afford it. Australian pharmacists represent one of the finest examples of small businessmen and women in our community. They are most accessible to health professionals and they supply one of the lowest cost prescriptions in the world. Through its meddling with the pharmaceutical benefits scheme and the wish of the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh) to reduce the costs by something like $300m, in the last 12 months chemists have lost on average $250 a week from wholesale margin decisions and another $125 a week from maximum quantities decisions.

Senator Walsh —What have they been picking up from the mark-ups on the wholesale prices?

Senator CALVERT —During 1987-88 the cost of drugs to pharmacists rose by 25.7 per cent while the pharmacists' remuneration rose by only 4.4 per cent. In that time average weekly earnings also rose by 5.9 per cent.

Senator Walsh —The chemists put a 25 per cent mark-up on the wholesale price of drugs.

Senator CALVERT —Regardless of the Minister's interjections, the fact is that something like 5,600 pharmacists are dispensing $143m in prescriptions annually. The Government's pharmaceutical legislation aimed at reducing payments to pharmacies by something like $283m will force widespread closure of premises. More than 35,000 Australians are employed in pharmacies nationwide. It is expected that at least 1,000 pharmacies will be forced into liquidation by the year 1991 under the Government's program and another 40 per cent of these pharmacies will become unprofitable. So much for the anti-business, anti-consumer policies of the Government.

The real losers in this matter will be the pensioners and the people. I am sorry that Senator Cooney has left the chamber because I have not spoken about the other two matters to which he referred. All I am concerned about are the people of Australia, particularly the old people and the pensioners. They will be the losers. I congratulate Senator Short for bringing forward this matter so that we could have an opportunity to debate it today.