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Wednesday, 7 June 1995
Page: 933

Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia) (9.58 a.m.) —  I move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

I believe that the referral of the Competition Policy Reform Bill to the Senate Economics Legislation Committee accomplished a couple of things. Firstly, it gave an opportunity to many of the groups affected by the legislation to raise questions about it and to seek clarification in many instances. This was the first time these groups had a chance to have any input or to gain first-hand knowledge of a major piece of economic legislation. Secondly, the committee hearings and submissions served to highlight the previously unacknowledged concern of the small business sector about how the national competition policy would affect it. We have heard much in the media about the benefits of deregulating water, gas, electricity and government-owned enterprises and how it would boost economic efficiency.

  Little attention before has been focused on how the competition policy would affect small business and local government. Small businesses are concerned that relaxation of some regulations would lead to both a lowering of service standards and an increased concentration of market power in the hands of a few. This view has support from economic academics, including Dr Richard Copp from the Queensland University of Technology.

  The major concern that arises as a result of committee hearings is the difficulty of getting straight answers about how the legislation will impact on small businesses and local government. This is not the result of a lack of cooperation. I congratulate the Minister for Small Business, Customs and Construction, Senator Schacht, for attending the hearings. I also congratulate the officials from the Treasury and elsewhere who spent hours providing advice and clarification to the committee forums. I also have a number of separate private briefings from Mr Cassidy.

  The difficulty with this type of legislation is that the national competition policy bill assembles a framework to assist, review and reform anti-competitive behaviour wherever it is found in the economy—except the Labor taboo area of the labour market. The bill sets in place a reform process, but it does not tell us what the outcome will be or exactly what can be expected in small business and local government sectors. The bill imposes an economic philosophy—if you like, across an economy—and as such the experts appearing before the committee were handicapped in providing answers to specific questions about small business. We will not know the answer until the reform process is under way.

  This is of great concern to those in small business and local government who cannot determine how it will affect them and their members. Much hinges on the state governments. The legislative reform process, which every government must undertake at every level, will be the key to determining how small business will be affected.

  It was obvious at the committee hearings that little thought has been given to this mammoth process which is likely to catch up many unsuspecting small businesses who, if they have ever heard of Hilmer, still think it has nothing to do with them apart from the ambitious extra $1,500 in every household pocket. The hearings showed that a kaleidoscope of the nation's small businesses will come under the Hilmer thumb. I presented four pages listing legislation that I have been advised will be scrutinised in the process of the review in Queensland alone.

  It was apparent that no-one at the hearings could provide definite answers on what would be the outcome of the reviews. It is of concern to the small business community that some of the reviews will be farmed out to the competition council and commission rather than being looked at locally by the state government. They are wary of the funding carrots being held out by the Commonwealth to enforce certain changes at state level.

  Local government is in a similar quandary. As stated in the report, local government believes that the competition reforms will have a major impact on local government. Little work has been done to determine what this impact will be. To summarise, I quote from page three of the committee's report under the heading `General issues raised in evidence':

The legislation has the potential to be very far-reaching and may have an impact far broader than originally intended.