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Wednesday, 7 June 1995
Page: 1043

Senator SPINDLER (7.09 p.m.) —I wish to raise some concerns that the Australian Democrats have and which were placed on the record this morning in our dissent to the report of the Economics Legislation Committee on the Competition Policy Reform Bill. That bill raises a fundamental issue of process as well as a number of substantive concerns. The competition policy agenda incorporates a radical rethinking of the role of government and government services.

  This rethink has occurred within a narrow ideological framework based on the concept that competition, just like greed, is good at all times. There has been inadequate public debate on what this agenda means, where it is leading and why this narrow framework should be imposed on the provision of community services, the furthering of ecological sustainability, improving consumer protection, health and safety or the promotion of social equity.

  These issues were not being adequately debated, in public or in parliament, before the COAG agreement was signed. Most of the detail of the government's agenda is contained in the three agreements signed at COAG in April. The Democrats foreshadow that, in an attempt to broaden the debate over the impact of the implementation of the government's agenda, we will be moving to set up a parliamentary inquiry to look at the agreements and how they will be implemented.

  A number of matters in the Competition Policy Reform Bill raise particular concerns and amendments concerning these matters are under consideration. I will address them briefly. The first is the definition of public service. Clause 75 of the bill seeks, in proposed section 2C, to define what government activities do or do not constitute a business activity. This section may need to be amended to further clarify what is or is not business to ensure that core services such as health, education, welfare, employment and environmental protection programs are clearly excluded. Otherwise, we could be legitimising heading down the Victorian local government road, in which everything from library services to swimming pools is regarded as a business to be run on a user pays basis, without regard to the public benefit.

  The second concern is about the access regime. Proposed part IIIA establishes the access regime for infrastructure. However, in establishing a right to access for private providers, it fails to guarantee the provision of quality services to all users of the infrastructure. With cherry picking of the most profitable aspects of the facility for contracting out, the public sector provider could be forced to provide unprofitable services at higher costs to the taxpayer and to the disadvantage of consumers who are apparently to be deprived of cross-subsidisation and community service obligations.

  This is clearly unsatisfactory and provision needs to be made to avoid such developments or, at the very least, to address the consequences of the action proposed. This applies in particular to people living in regional and remote areas and to measures needed to protect Australia's natural environment, a need which is likely to be ignored or neglected in a situation of free-for-all competition.

  The next issue I wish to address is local government. While it is represented at COAG, the local government sector is not party to the agreements. There remains a serious and legitimate concern in local government that competition policy will be implemented by the states to the detriment of the local government sector. Those in Victoria would be familiar with the cavalier treatment meted out to local government in that state. The federal government must require the states to adequately consult with local government, with a view to reaching agreement, before implementing any aspect of competition policy reform. The bill may have to be amended to ensure this. Finally, there is the issue of representation. The proposed composition of the National Competition Council is in need of review. At the very least, provision needs to be made for the inclusion of a consumer representative.