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Monday, 26 June 1995
Page: 1783


Senator LEES (Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats) (7.10 p.m.) —I rise to speak on the Competition Policy Reform Bill 1995. I will begin with a few comments with regard to the consumer elements of the Hilmer reforms. The fact is that various consumer groups have never given anything other than heavily qualified support to the Hilmer reform package. For example, the Australian Consumers Association warned the government that competition in itself was not necessarily a good thing, and unless key design issues were fixed there would continue to be significant failures in the marketplace in regard to competition, efficiency, access, and fairness for consumers.

  In particular, the association sought to ensure that the bill contains a statement ensuring that the competition benefits are intended to flow through to the consumers—not to state governments as higher revenue and not to the corporate members of the Business Council of Australia as higher sales and profits, but to the consumers. After all, this is what competition is supposed to be about: delivering a benefit in better prices or greater choice to the consumer. That is something which is often completely forgotten in this debate when many people start talking about `competition' as some sort of an end in itself.

  It often seems to me that people aspire not towards getting a better deal for consumers but simply towards creating competition for competition's sake. That frequently proves to be a mistake—especially when we are talking about services or goods which are not responsive to the normal patterns of supply and demand. In any event, the government has failed to include in the bill any statement which reflects the goal of competition benefits flowing through to consumers.   The Democrats will be seeking to amend the bill to insert that fundamental principle back into it. Consumer groups also sought to ensure that the government recognised in the bill the necessity for government to continue to look after the interests of disadvantaged consumers. That has not happened either. The government did agree to insert a wishy-washy objects clause and to change the name of the bill, but that was all. There was nothing else.

  Even the moderate request from the consumer movement to guarantee that at least two of the members of the National Competition Council have a background in consumer protection was rejected. Under the benchmarks set by the consumer movement the key failing of the bill—and the agreements—is its failure to adequately outline a means of testing the public benefit of competition. The Australian Consumers Association has stated:

Competition policy must be set against the backdrop of the society in which it operates and be in harmony with other social policies. The overall public interest includes such factors as social equity and the natural environment.

  Quite clearly it cannot be simply a matter of administrative fiat to determine pubic interest in assessing whether declarations should be made or authorities granted under the regime.

  There must be substantial public consultation and an appropriate degree of transparency in decision making.

  Unless consumers can exercise their market power through enhanced choice, education, information, redress and access—unless disadvantaged consumers can continue to obtain fair and reasonable access to essential goods and services—through price, availability and supports—unless the amenity and welfare provided by the built and natural environment is maintained and enhanced—through appropriate regulation, economic instrument and incentive—there can be no net public benefits. Only inappropriate private benefit.

The Democrats wholeheartedly support that premise. If the bill and the agreements which underpin it met this benchmark we would support it. That they do not is an indictment on this government and a clear signal that this bill is about private benefits, not about benefit to Australian consumers at large.

  We note that the government has agreed to an interpretation clause in the competition principle agreement signed by the states which could allow for some of these issues to be considered `where relevant' and `without limiting the matters which will be taken into account'. Of course, I have great doubts that premiers like Mr Kennett in Victoria and Mr Brown in my own home state of South Australia will ever regard issues like the interests of consumers, social welfare and equity considerations or policies relating to ecological sustainability as relevant to their narrow visions of the world. I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies and we are pleased to see at least the inclusion of this weak measure in the agreement.

  The bill before us, however, which deals with the legislative changes affecting the federal government's own GBEs, access to infrastructure, and definition of business, contains no such statement. In the committee stage the Democrats will be seeking to rectify this.

  The weakening of the former powers of the Prices Surveillance Authority to set up prices in some industries and conduct appropriate surveillance and gather adequate information is one example of how this bill is failing the consumer. Monitoring and reporting is an important activity, but to constrain the ACCC's prices surveillance activities at just this level is to leave it with very few teeth to deal with market failures when they do occur. Of course, looking through the Hilmer rose-tinted glasses we are supposed to believe that competition will ensure that markets do not fail. Of course, only an ideologue would believe in that. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

  Leave granted; debate adjourned.