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Thursday, 22 June 1995
Page: 1704

Senator ABETZ (1.41 p.m.) —I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate on the Competition Policy Reform Bill 1995. I do so having had a longstanding interest in Commonwealth-state relations and being a federalist by conviction. I am also a very keen supporter of small business. I indicate at the outset that I was pleased to be able to participate on the Senate Economics Legislation Committee, which considered this bill in some detail. In fact, some 26 submissions were received. Whilst no publicity was given to the fact that the committee was sitting and deliberating, it once again shows the valuable work that the Senate and its committee system engages in, which unfortunately the public virtually never gets to hear about. I just place on record my thanks for the opportunity to participate in that process.

  Like Senator Boswell, I had some concerns about this legislation. The opportunity to ask questions of departmental officers and industries involved has relieved me of a lot of those initial fears. I will briefly comment on some remarks of Senator Boswell. It is very rare that I disagree with Senator Boswell, but on this issue I do. I disagree with him on the basis that I think he tried to tie down the legislation far too strictly with his comments. I am not sure that I wrote this down correctly, but there was a new maxim: thou shalt deregulate or thou shalt not regulate. I forget the way that he put it. The thrust of the legislation is that there should not be any regulation unless it can be justified on the basis of certain criteria. That was the important aspect that I think, with respect, Senator Boswell left out in his comments on this legislation.

  I turn to some of the key aspects of this legislation that may be of interest to some people. A major aspect of the bill is the creation of an access regime defined in the explanatory memorandum as providing for the declaration of certain services provided by facilities which are of national significance by which persons may seek access to declared services. The Trade Practices Commission and the Prices Surveillance Authority will be merged to form the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the ACCC, and a new advisory body, the National Competition Council, NCC, will be established. Further, defining new Commonwealth state relations are two intergovernmental agreements—the conduct agreement and the competition principles agreement.

  The conduct agreement sets out processes for amendments to the competition laws of the Commonwealth, the states and the territories and for appointments to the commission. Amongst other things, the competition principles agreement sets out the arrangements for appointments to the National Competition Council and the principles which governments have agreed to follow in relation to prices oversight, structural reform of public monopolies, review of anti-competitive legislation and regulations, access to services provided by means of essential facilities and elimination of the net competitive advantages enjoyed by government businesses where they compete with a private sector.

  To a great degree, pressure has always been placed on the states to submit to competition without an equal focus on the Commonwealth. The statement has been made by the federal government that competition is good for all sectors of the economy. With that, I would basically agree. Yet the new section 235A states specifically that part IIIA of the Trades Practices Act access regime does not apply to the supply of telecommunications services by a carrier or under licence. There is no deregulation at all of the labour market. I will make comments about that later. An important provision, new section 29B (2) and (3), allows the council to carry out a function conferred on it by law of a state or territory. The council in carrying out its functions may cooperate with a department, body or authority of the Commonwealth, state or territory. The council has the potential to become a most powerful body.

  Provisions provide for the declaration of certain services provided by facilities which are of national significance and for the means by which persons may seek access to the declared services. By signing the competition principles agreement, governments agree to the processes for further micro-economic reform, but in general each government will be responsible for setting their own timetables and agenda for progressing these reforms. In relation to comments made earlier by Senator Boswell, I believe that aspect needs to be kept in mind.

   Another very important area of concern is that of the community service obligations. Many of the government business enterprises affected by these reforms perform important community service obligations by virtue of their monopoly or near monopoly position in the market. Concerns have been raised over the future compliance with these community service obligations, particularly in the climate of privatisation of government business enterprises and increased competition in the utility sectors of the market.

  While the bill does not deal directly with the question of community service obligations, the competition principles agreement does consider them particularly in relation to prices oversight. As prices oversight is primarily the responsibility of the state or territory that owns the enterprise, the agreement states—and I think it is appropriate that this be put on record:

. . . State and Territory Parties will consider establishing independent sources of price oversight advice where these do not exist.

It further states that any independent source should take into account:

. . . any explicitly identified and defined community service obligations imposed on a business enterprise by the Government or legislature of the jurisdiction that owns the enterprise . . .

Once again, to a certain extent, I think that answers the concerns that Senator Boswell raised. We on this side express our concern about the maintenance of community service obligations by state and territory owned business enterprises. But I am satisfied, given the mention of that in the agreement, that they will be appropriately taken care of.

  During the Senate Economics Legislation Committee hearing into this bill a number of issues of concern were raised that were meritorious. They highlighted that when one introduces such wholesale change, it is appropriate that it be done with a degree of sensitivity. The Liberal Party signed a brief, but nevertheless pungent, minority report which is on page 7 of the committee report. That was signed by my colleagues Senators Chapman and Gibson and myself. That highlighted three matters. Before developing those concerns, I hasten to add that, despite having expressed those concerns, the Liberal Party—speaking for myself as well—supports the legislation.

  The first point that I wish to raise—Senator Boswell touched on it as well—is the question of local government. It is in the Hansard and, as time is marching on, I will not bother quoting it. For those who are interested, at pages 29 and 30 of the Hansard dated 5 June 1995 there was some concern expressed. We voiced those concerns in our minority report. It is important that those concerns are given public expression and are placed on the public record. Paragraph 2 of the minority report states:

The concern of Local Government in relation to the non-payment of rates and charges by State/Territory Governments is a matter that the States and Territories ought address.

I move on to the concerns of small business, such as the taxi industry, which expressed concerns. My own view is that some of those concerns were not fully justified. If it does have a good argument as to why its particular industry serves the community well by a degree of regulation, that regulation will be sustained and it will be allowed to continue.

  The other point which I want to make and which I hinted at earlier is this government's complete refusal to deal with labour market reform. In an economy there are a whole range of matters that need to be dealt with. Clearly, the cost of labour and the way the labour market operates has a significant and vital impact on the total economy, on its productivity, on the number of jobs that become available, on the standard of living that is available within the community and the profitability of companies and individuals. From that profitability governments are then able to raise tax revenue to deal with some of the important social justice issues of the day. Without the profitability, governments cannot raise the taxes to then deliver the taxes to those who are so deserving.

  Clearly, why the government has not touched the question of industrial relations reform is because it is continually doing deals with the trade union movement to protect itself. We have not seen a better example of that in recent days than the unfortunate demise of Senator Bruce Childs from this place in about two years' time to make way for a trade union official who, with respect, does not have a very good reputation. Of course, I refer to George Campbell.

Senator Sherry —What's that got to do with competition policy?

Senator ABETZ —Senator Sherry asks what that has to do with competition policy. It indicates the way that the Australian Labor Party and the trade union movement of this country always act for each other's mutual benefit. If there is a test of competition to be applied to government business enterprises, state governments, territories and the professions across the board, one would have to ask, `Why not include labour market reform?' The reason is that the Australian Labor Party's financial lifeblood is through the compulsory levies that it gets from the trade union move ment.

  In Tasmania we still have a closed shop waterfront. Whilst Labor talks about its abhorrence of hereditary titles and its concern about the monarchy, let me say that in Australia there is only one class of people that has a hereditary birthright. They are the sons of wharfies who can be signed up at birth and given preference for jobs on Australia's waterfront. No other job has that. I cannot sign up my sons or daughter to be lawyers so they get first advantage. It ought to be competitive.

  All of a sudden members of the Labor Party have gone deadly quiet. There are no more interjections, because I have them where it hurts. At the beginning of the government's reform process of the waterfront—this is the alleged process that it went through—the average ship turnaround time was 44 hours. Those in the gallery might be interested in hearing these figures. The Waterfront Industry Reform Authority identified a turnaround time as its target of 27 hours. To that, I say well done and well identified. It is something that ought be achieved. The government sets about, allegedly, reforming but all it did was rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. In June 1994 what was the average turnaround time for ships in Sydney? Was it 27 hours or the 44 hours before the reforms took place? No, it was 53.4 hours. What a great record on reform! In Melbourne Ports the average turnaround time was not 27 hours, not 44 hours, but 47 hours. A great record of reform! Just in case honourable senators are interested in reform, the average wharfie earns $75,000 per annum. This is the result of the Australian Labor Party's dynamic reform process. I support the Competition Policy Reform Bill.

Senator Calvert —That is what they receive, not what they earn.

Senator ABETZ —Senator Calvert makes a very interesting and very proper interjection when he says that they receive it as opposed to earning it. The simple fact is that the Australian Labor Party is too scared to deal with the real problems facing this country of waterfront reform and labour reform. Having said that, I still support the legislation but there needs to be a lot more reform in other areas. It is about time the government got the courage and the backbone to deal with those other very important aspects of our economy.

  A lot of people would ask, `What is in it for us?'—the average Australian in their suburban home or, indeed, the farmers in rural Australia. I have some doubt about the estimates and I will look at the figures with interest in due course. It is anticipated that as a result of the reforms to be initiated by this legislation, there will be an average saving to each Australian household of about $1,500 per annum. I believe that that is a significant saving and a significant benefit for average Australians who otherwise might not normally be interested in a bill which is entitled the Competition Policy Reform Bill, but there are very real benefits for them—the ultimate consumers—at the end of the day, estimated at $1,500 per Australian household.

  I welcome the general thrust of this legislation, look forward to its implementation and also look forward to other important reforms being undertaken as soon as there is a change of government.

  Debate interrupted.