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Monday, 26 June 1995
Page: 1758

Senator CALVERT (5.01 p.m.) —This bill has a history which goes back to the 1992 Council of Australian Governments meeting in Canberra. COAG requested that an independent committee of inquiry conduct extensive research to identify those parts of the economy which needed to compete to get the best results for Australia and Australians. As a result of that, the Hilmer report, as it became known, was handed down in August 1993. The federal and state governments signed an agreement on the Hilmer reforms at the COAG meeting in April this year.

  The key areas that need to become competitive, as identified by the Hilmer report, were: state and territory utilities, such as electricity and water; some areas of agriculture, such as marketing boards; and unincorporated bodies, such as the legal profession—I think that is long overdue. This bill seeks to make major amendments to the Trade Practices Act 1974 and the Prices Surveillance Act 1983.

  There are a number of major elements to this bill. The bill will establish two new bodies. One is the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which will replace the Trade Practices Commission and the Prices Surveillance Authority. Their powers will be conferred onto the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission—which is rather a mouthful, and I presume it will be called ACCC or ACCAC from now on. I do not know how many vested interests it is going to shoot down! The second new body will be the National Competition Council. Its role will be to give advice and undertake research as well as to make recommendations on access and pricing.

Senator Vanstone —The NCC.

Senator CALVERT —Yes, another NCC. Amendments will be made to the competitive conduct rules and their application, and these provide for: the authorisation, on public benefit grounds, of price fixing for goods of resale price maintenance; the repeal of the specific provisions relating to price discrimination; the extension of the competitive conduct rules to the resupply of things in the nature of services; and the removal of the shield of the crown immunity for the states and territories in so far as the crown in these capacities carries on a business.

  The application of the competitive conduct rules will be extended to cover areas within state and territory jurisdictions. It will also mean that ACCC and the federal court can exercise administrative and judicial powers respectively. On the whole, the bill is seen by most Australians as a way forward for making the most of competition and business. As an aside, the coalition competition policy, foreshadowed in 1993—foreshadowed before the Hilmer report of recommendations came down—covered most of these aspects.

  With all this publicity, the government seems to have missed the point about total reform of the market. It has missed the biggest part, the part that makes everything else work—which, as you and I both know, Mr Acting Deputy President, is labour market reform. This shows the government's lack of commitment to true reform and to the pursuit of a truly national competition policy, because you cannot have a truly national competition policy unless you have true competition within the labour market.

  In the past, this slack government has watered down recommendations to increase competition—for example, in postal services. It removed the secondary boycott provisions from the Trade Practices Act and put them in the domain of the Industrial Relations Commission. By doing that, employers were put under increased pressure from secondary boycotts. It has failed to do anything in regard to the trans-Tasman accord. We have heard a lot over the past few days about the Accord Mark VIII but we have not heard a lot about the trans-Tasman accord in recent times. This is an area of labour market policy where lack of action means more delays and more disputes on our waterfront. It is an illegal shipping accord between maritime unions in Australia and New Zealand whereby industrial bans are imposed on shipping between Australia and New Zealand in support of Australian and New Zealand flagships.

  As we know, the government has refused to open up coastal shipping to competition. Competition would mean better ship movements around our country and would establish easier links between the states and other countries. As you would know, Mr Acting Deputy President, being a fellow Tasmanian, our state would be a major beneficiary of any type of competitive feeling within the shipping industry. We know for a fact that the average wharfie earns around $70,000 a year. That is one of the big imposts on the industry.

  Recently, I was making inquiries about one of our local brick making firms near Launceston at Perth. The manufacturer was very interested in exporting concrete blocks to Israel. I am sad to say that the cost of shipping a container of bricks between Launceston and Melbourne was $1,500 per container. To ship that same container load of bricks from Melbourne to Israel was only $1,300. Unfortunately, while there is a fair amount of competition on the overseas market, there does not seem to be any on the local market.

  Last week, in the debate on the Qantas sale bill, I mentioned that the government refused to allow the single trans-Tasman aviation market. As Senator Vanstone would know, it has even rejected suggestions that restrictions on compact discs be lifted to increase competition.

  Another area where this legislation is less than perfect is that of local government, an area which is close to my heart. Local governments are very concerned, fearing that some states may introduce these measures to the detriment of the local government authorities. Some questions raised by local government have not yet been answered by the government. For example, local councils could find themselves competing with private garbage disposal sites. In itself, that is not a bad thing but it is an area in which they are looking for answers.

  It is also likely that some local government services—such as car park administration and garbage collection—could be tendered out, and some of the more progressive councils around Australia have done that. There are a number of opportunities for this third tier of government to streamline operations and increase returns to ratepayers. In some states that is already happening. Obviously, a number of benefits will eventuate from this legislation in other areas. It is hoped that this will increase real disposable income for all Australians. I am led to believe that it could amount to something like $1,500 per household. It should also make goods manufactured in Australia more competitive and available, thereby increasing the market share for those goods and creating jobs—jobs that are desperately needed, even now. These reforms will also reduce pressure on inflation and prices.

  I say in closing that we must remember that the prime objective of this act is to enhance the welfare of Australians through the promotion of competition and provision for consumer protection. While all legislation passing through our hands should be good for Australians, this bill is seen to be more than usually beneficial, placing as it does change and progress before us and making organisations work for the betterment of Australia.

  Whilst we welcome some of the initiatives in the bill, it is necessary in this house of review to acknowledge more fully the failure of this government to tackle true competition. As I mentioned before, we find examples of that in the labour market, in postal services, in removing the secondary boycott provisions from the Trade Practices Act, in the trans-Tasman accord—an illegal document that isolates so many Australians—in coastal shipping, leading to more isolation, in refusal of a single trans-Tasman aviation market, and in the restrictions on compact discs.