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Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Page: 9526


Senator McKIM (Tasmania) (22:14): Right back in August this year, when Malcolm Turnbull's prime ministership was just a gleam in his eye and he was busy doing the numbers, we had a small business minister who actually cared about small business. Way back then, on 25 August this year, the Business Council of Australia sent a letter to cabinet ministers warning of the allegedly dire consequences to this country if section 46 of the Competition and Consumer Act were amended to include an effects test. This document is an extraordinary letter. It contains a series of warnings about those dire consequences of introducing an effects test, and there are a couple of absolutely classic arguments that I wanted to raise in the Senate this evening so the Australian people can have the opportunity to understand how the Business Council of Australia tries to manipulate political opinion in this country.

This letter, under a subheading of 'Adverse impact on the economy overall', says, 'The changes to section 46 governing the misuse of market power as proposed in the Harper review risk'—and then there are a number of dot points. I want to go the second dot point. One of the risks that the Business Council of Australia has identified is 'lowering investment and productivity growth, as companies will be hesitant to innovate or grow because of uncertainty about the possible negative impact on their competitors'. Can you imagine it—the captains of industry sitting around Australian boardrooms saying, 'We're not going to innovate because we're worried that our innovation might have a negative impact on our competitors.' What an extraordinary argument! I would suggest that in the main, if corporations thought they could get away with it, they would trample one another in order to deliver negative impact on their competitors, and yet the Business Council of Australia wants the recipients of this letter—who were, by the way, I understand, every minister in the cabinet at the time—to believe that they are actually concerned about negative impacts.

But potentially more outrageous is the claim that major new innovations like the iPhone would be at risk. Fancy that: if we were to deliver a level playing field for all business and improve the framework for competition in this country, we would not be able to come up with the next iPhone! The arguments in this letter are, frankly, ridiculous, and yet somehow this letter played a role—and potentially has still played a role under Malcolm Turnbull's leadership—in convincing the government not to support an effects test as recommended in recommendation 30 of the review conducted by Professor Harper.

Madam Acting Deputy President, I seek leave of the Senate to table this letter.

Leave not granted.

Senator McKIM: Leave has not been granted? Who denied that?

Senator McKenzie: The Senate denied it.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Lines ): Thank you, Senator McKenzie. Senator McKim, I put the call that the document be tabled, and the noes had it.

Senator Fawcett: Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The normal courtesies of actually identifying the documents and giving the adequate opportunity to review them were not followed, and so leave has not been granted.

Senator Conroy: Madam Acting Deputy President, on the point of order, I think they were circulated. The government indicated to us that they believed the letter was marked 'private and confidential' to a minister and that they would not be agreeing to the tabling, not that they had not followed the process. I did not want you to be confused about that.

Senator McKIM: Just for clarity, in fact this was circulated by me to both the opposition and the government duty whips about 10 or 15 minutes ago, so I do not think that could be the reason for the denial of leave.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator McKim, you are getting into a debating point now. You asked that the report be tabled, I put the question and the noes had it.

Senator Colbeck: Madam Acting Deputy President, on the point of order, our whip's point was circulated—and I will concede it was circulated with adequate time to be able to identify and assess the document. Senator McKim has just said he gave it to us about 15 minutes ago and, because of the concerns that we have about the letter and the time that we have had to assess it given the late hour—it is 20 past 10 in the evening and people who we might want to check it with are not available—in that context we have denied leave. So let's not try and create any conspiracy theory where one does not exist.

Senator McKIM: How extraordinary that the government has denied me leave to table this letter. So I will put it on the record that I will ensure that every word of this letter gets read into the Hansard of the Senate over the coming sitting days, which will, of course, take us into the next calendar year. I will take every opportunity to make sure that every word of this letter is placed on the record of the Senate because, as the former small business minister Mr Billson said in relation to Professor Harper's recommendation to introduce an effects test in Australia:

If there is no change then that will be a triumph of lobbying over logic.

It would be a triumph of back-room political machinations over good economic policy-making for our country.

Heavily vested interests have campaigned against this change with all their vigour.

They have campaigned against this change with all their vigour and one of the heavily vested interests is the membership body of the Business Council of Australia, who wrote this letter to every cabinet minister on 25 August—I understand just before cabinet was due to consider matters associated with the Harper review, including the introduction of an effects test in this country. I will make sure that that letter gets placed on the record over the coming sitting days of the Senate.

It is worth pointing out that the new Treasurer, who has carefully cultivated a tough guy image in public through his previous portfolios, announced last week that the government was going to squib on the effects test and announced yet another consultation process around an effects test. Remember, we have already had the Harper review, one of the most comprehensive reviews of competition policy in Australia's history. It unambiguously recommended the introduction of an effects test in Australia and unambiguously recommended how section 46 of the relevant legislation might be amended to deliver such an effects test.

We have had that comprehensive review, and what do we have from this government, who say they are all about innovation, who say they are all about growth, who say they are all about creating jobs and delivering outcomes for people through stimulating the economy? They have squibbed on delivering a level playing field for all businesses in Australia, because that is what an effects test would do. So it appears that there is a very narrow section of this debate, the BCA and their cabinet mates, who think that the sensible reform of an effects test will somehow bring on the death of competition and, for all I know, the end of life on earth as we know it.

This squibbing of the effects test by Treasurer Morrison and his current cabinet colleagues is clearly an attempt to kick this issue out beyond the next election. Well, the Greens will not allow this issue to go quietly into the night. We will continue to campaign and advocate for a fair go for all Australian businesses, a fair go for those businesses who feel that they have been subject to the unfair application of market power in this country, often by big businesses in Australia.

Former small business minister Bruce Billson belled the cat. He correctly pointed out that there has not been any evidence offered to support the BCA's claims and that it is simply an attempt by dominant market players to fortify their commercial positions. That is absolutely what Australia is facing here and what we are having to deal with. This has been a triumph of lobbying over logic. It has been a triumph of backroom political machinations over good economic policymaking for our country. The Greens will not allow this issue to be led quietly into the night by a government who have squibbed it on the behest of the BCA.