Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 26 June 1995
Page: 1772

Senator COULTER (6.02 p.m.) —The Competition Policy Reform Bill is possibly one of the most important pieces of legislation to come before this chamber, because it underscores and emphasises once and for all the very damaging direction in which this government is taking the country.

  One cannot legislate for goodness. However, a government can, over time, pass a series of laws which so undermine the fabric of society that anti-social behaviour flourishes and the moral and cultural cement that binds citizens together in a society is inexorably dissolved. The bill before us today marks one of the stages of that dissolution—just one of the stages. For over 200 years Australians have built up a culture of tolerance and mutual helpfulness. In the few short years of this Labor government, first under Prime Minister Hawke and now under Prime Minister Keating, this mutual respect and support one for the other has been steadily eroded.

  While it has been done deliberately, it has not been done with the intent of undermining important Australian values. Just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so the intentions of the economic rationalists are laudable—to make Australian industry, the Australian economy and Australian society more efficient; to have everyone working harder and producing more in competition each with the other and with those in other nations.

  The intentions are laudable, but nonetheless dangerous and their erosive effect on our culture and our social life is everywhere to be seen by those with eyes not blinded by the religious ecstasy of economic rationalist ideology. The simplistic economics which began to pervade our schools of economics after the Second World War spread the landmines which are now exploding and destroying our humanity. Not only did this new economic orthodoxy ignore the real world, cutting and hacking at the real world to make it fit its preconceived and simple models, it turned its back on the broad humanitarian context in which many earlier academic economists embedded their economic theories.

  We all know the simple dictionary used by the economic rationalists: competition, market forces, level playing field, economic growth as a sine qua non of human welfare, `the market says', deregulation, smaller government, less tax, consumers instead of people. And so it goes on. Its basis is the stupid and hazardous assumption that humans are driven by an insatiable material greed.

  Just as the economic rationalism of the 1990s may be viewed as the reincarnation of the laissez faire of the 1890s, so the legislation before us might be viewed as the 1990s version of the social Darwinism which accompanied that earlier avaricious age. By the 1960s the portents of this misdirection were plain to many, and many railed against the path that Western industrialisation seemed intent on taking. There were individuals who saw what lay ahead. As a group, humans seemed destined to behave like lemmings, hurling themselves towards the cliff edge, not heeding the warnings. In 1967 J.K. Galbraith, writing in the New Industrial State—and I remember when this was written—said:

If we continue to believe that the goals of the industrial system—the expansion of output, the companion increase in consumption, technological advance, the public images that sustain it—are coordinate with life, then all of our lives will be in the service of these goals. What is consistent with these ends we shall have or be allowed; all else will be off limits. Our wants will be managed in accordance with the needs of the industrial system; the policies of the state will be subject to similar influence; education will be adapted to industrial need; the disciplines required by the industrial system will be the conventional morality of the community. All other goals will be made to seem precious, unimportant or antisocial. We will be bound to the ends of the industrial system. The state will add its moral, and perhaps some of its legal, power to their enforcement.

If I could interpolate, that is precisely what this legislation is doing. Galbraith went on:

What will eventuate, on the whole, will be the benign servitude of the household retainer who is taught to love her mistress and see her interests as her own, and not the compelled servitude of the field hand. But it will not be freedom.

  If, on the other hand, the industrial system is only a part, and relatively a diminishing part, of life, there is much less occasion for concern. Aesthetic goals will have pride of place; those who serve them will not be subject to the goals of the industrial system; the industrial system itself will be subordinate to the claims of these dimensions of life. Intellectual preparation will be for its own sake and not for the better service to the industrial system. Men will not be entrapped by the belief that apart from the goals of the industrial system—apart from the production of goods and income by progressively more advanced technical methods—there is nothing important in life.

  The foregoing being so, we may, over time, come to see the industrial system in fitting light as an essentially technical arrangement for providing convenient goods and services in adequate volume. Those who rise through its bureaucracy will so see themselves. And the public consequences will be in keeping, for if economic goals are the only goals of the society it is natural that the industrial system should dominate the state and the state should serve its ends. If other goals are strongly asserted, the industrial system will fall into its place as a detached and autonomous arm of the state, but responsible to the larger purposes of the society.

  We have seen wherein the chance for salvation lies. The industrial system, in contrast with its economic antecedents, is intellectually demanding. It brings into existence, to serve its intellectual and scientific needs, the community that—

and this is what Galbraith finished on in 1967—

hopefully, will reject its monopoly of social purpose.

Galbraith was there expressing the hope that the community would reject the monopoly of the industrial system. That hope has not been fulfilled. Indeed, in this bill we are further cementing that monopoly of purpose. What this government has done, and will extend with this legislation, is elevate to a position of pre-eminence just one characteristic of our humanity, our economic competitiveness. This is just one aspect of our humanity, and it is not the most important. The government seeks to smother all other human characteristics with this one characteristic.

  I want to turn now to just one example which has been developing in western New South Wales in relation to the silliness and narrowness of the approach which the government is using. By its nature, what the government is proposing would divide, industry by industry; would seek the best bottom line for each industry, again industry by industry; and would ignore many of the external costs—what economists call externalities—and fail to write those adequately into the proper costs of goods and services. Therefore, the bottom lines would not represent the best interests of society.

  Even by proper economic measures, the sorts of measures which this government has been pursuing and which it is pursuing in this legislation are not going to serve our best interests. In the generation of electricity, for example, one sees problems of massive air pollution. Where do the costs of that air pollution appear? In the privatisation of the electricity utilities in this country in the break-up between generators, distributors and final sales organisations, where are the costs of the air pollution of that generation going to appear? That requires governments to regulate—and preferably to impose, by way of a tax on the cost of electricity, a moiety which represents those external costs—the costs which are not borne directly by the generators, and therefore not borne directly by those who consume the electricity, but are borne very widely by the whole community.

  In generating our electricity from coal, we deplete a non-renewable resource, a resource on which future generations of humans also have claim. Where do the legitimate claims of future generations appear in the current price of electricity and where will they appear within the simplistic competitive model?

  Much has been said in this chamber about the problems of greenhouse, which will impact in terms of environmental damage on future generations. How are their needs and those costs going to be registered within this simple model of bottom line economics?

  Moreover, in the energy area, there are a number of cross-industry comparisons that need to be made. Are we going to see, as I suspect we are, competition within the electricity industry in isolation from other ways of providing for the energy needs of people? For example, in many of the remote areas, it would be cheaper to provide alternative sources of energy rather than providing electricity.

  Are we going to see competition between the electricity suppliers to supply electricity into those areas at least cost? I suspect that is exactly what we are going to see. As a good example, in relation to western New South Wales, under the Greiner government—a government of the Right, a government given to energy efficiency and reducing government employees—we saw the minister for energy, Neil Pickard, get rid of his energy advisers and then proceed to conduct an inquiry into the provision of electricity to western New South Wales. Not surprisingly, what we saw then was advice coming to him from people in the electricity industry. They were the only people left to provide that sort of advice.

  We then saw the government of New South Wales go ahead with a massive 4,200-kilometre grid extension at enormous cost to provide electricity to a very few consumers in western New South Wales. I understand the cost to provide just the grid connection for that electricity worked out at some $88,000 per household. The government chose to subsidise that cost and said to people living in that area, `You can have an electricity connection for only $55,000'. Of course, those remote stations, which had already gone into solar and wind generators backed up with diesel and battery, found that they could provide an alternative source of electricity for themselves for only $35,000. So, not surprisingly, the very expensive building of that grid system has not provided the connections it might have provided and it therefore has not returned the benefits to the state of New South Wales that it might have done.

  It seems to me that there is a lesson here in that one saw electricity being treated as a commodity on its own. Sure, one could have competition within that; one might get the least cost of electricity, but that is not to say that one would necessarily get the least cost of the energy services which electricity in a number of other moieties would make possible. Only in that way, with proper costing, with the full internalisation of externalities, will one see the best interests of society served, even in an economic sense. I do not believe that this legislation is moving us in that direction.

  In summary, I believe that this legislation is very wrongly conceived. Not surprisingly, of course, it is conceived in the same context that much government legislation has been conceived in in recent years. It makes assumptions that are faulty about the nature of human beings, and it makes assumptions that are incomplete and damaging because of the importance it gives to that one characteristic of seeking to fulfil an endless and insatiable material greed.

  Many people have seen what was happening to our society: Galbraith was just one. Many people writing in the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s warned us of what lay ahead. Unfortunately, we have gone ahead and are putting our heads further into the noose with this legislation, and I believe as a society we will be the poorer. I believe this legislation and the whole ideology that goes with it should not be supported. We need to turn around, we need to go back the other way; we are heading up a blind alley. It will cost us a great deal materially in dollars as well as in our humanity. For all those reasons this legislation should not be supported.