Senate debates

Thursday, 19 October 2006

Trade Practices Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005

Consideration of House of Representatives Message

11:47 am

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | Hansard source

In his absence I think I should mount a defence of Senator Fielding. But, before I do so, with respect to the bill that we have before us and the clause that Senator Conroy was just referring to, which is the anti union choice clause, I make this point: that was already passed by the Senate. We should remind the Senate that the only schedule that did not pass the Senate was the mergers and acquisitions schedule, which is schedule 1. If the House of Representatives had chosen to accept the bill as amended, the antichoice legislation would already be in, as of course would the collective bargaining provision for small business. We should be alert to that and, by sending it back to us, it means we are able to consider the matter wholly.

In defence of Senator Fielding, I think there is an absolute logic—and I am not at all surprised—in him supporting this bill. It is quite plain that if you support the media ownership bills as he did, which allow for fewer, larger competitors, then the obvious and logical thing to do is to support this bill, which will allow mergers and acquisitions to occur on an easier basis and will facilitate the very media concentrations which he has already voted for. I think it is a perfectly logical decision, and I am surprised that anyone would think that he has switched tack.

Last night Senator Joyce made the point very clearly that these bills are effectively linked in policy terms. The media ownerships bills allow for a greater concentration of large media, and schedule 1 of this bill will do the same. In defence of Senator Fielding, I think it is perfectly logical that, if you support big business being able to be even bigger, you have to support this bill.

I have heard, both in the corridors and I think in here, Senator Fielding being accused of being naive or doing a deal. I would like to defend him there too, because I know being called naive made him very angry. That would indicate, of course, that he believes he knew exactly what he was doing and that he was not being naive. If he knew exactly what he was doing, the only other thing you have to look at is whether he struck a deal. If he had struck a deal, the only person he could have struck it with would be the Prime Minister with respect to parliamentary affairs. Whatever people may say in this place about Mr Howard—and they say the most amazing things, from all points of view—he would be absolutely daft to ever strike a backroom deal on legislation or policy which was not made public. It would bring his reputation and Senator Fielding’s down, so I do not accept that there has been a deal on legislation or background policy issues.

The second area where a deal might have been struck is with respect to preferences, but Senator Fielding would never be so foolish as not to know that he is going to get the preferences of the Liberal and National parties. Why would you do a deal for preferences? You are going to get them anyway, so there cannot be a deal there. The other possibility is that he is going to get money from big business somewhere, but of course that has to be declared. If, as a result of this legislation, very substantial sums of money from media companies, for instance, landed in Family First coffers, Senator Fielding’s reputation would be ruined, and he would not be daft enough to do that. So I dismiss the idea of money.

So is it mateship? I have heard Senator Fielding talk about things. As far as I know he is not friends, pals or mates with Mr James Packer, and since he is an avowed Christian I cannot imagine he is very fond of Mr Packer’s mogul activities in gambling. I do not know all that much about it, but I do not remember gambling being particularly popular with Christians and so on. So I do not think it is mateship.

The last area would be publicity. Is anyone naive enough to think that Senator Fielding would be naive enough to believe that by doing this deal he would get favourable publicity through the media? Frankly, they do not care. Whatever laws we pass, they will take advantage of them. Of course, if we get these new private equity owners—the Russians, the South Americans, the Middle East backers of private equity funds and all those sorts of people—buying up our media, they will be new into the game; they are not going to be giving him publicity. So I can’t see, from a cursory examination, that any of the grounds on which Senator Fielding would be accused of doing a deal stand up.

You then have to come back to the policy matter. The fact is that he, through his vote—and he is perfectly entitled to do so; and in doing so he shares the votes of Liberals and Nationals—has voted for more concentrated, larger businesses in media and in other areas. He is entitled to do that. That is a policy he can support. I don’t support it. I also think the idea that he is not a very disciplined politician is wrong. The other night I heard him speak in an adjournment debate. He spoke very briefly—560 words, in fact. He spoke about the Millennium Development Goals. When you read the speech, you see that it was beautifully crafted as a political statement, closing and ending with the affirmation of the party name. Senator Fielding often talks in the third person; he always says ‘Family First this’ and ‘Family First that’. It is a bit like priests—they say ‘God this’ and ‘God that’ when what they really mean is ‘Father this’ and ‘Father that’. But he started the speech very well. ‘Family First’ is referred to twice in the first paragraph and twice in the closing paragraph, and ‘Family First’ also appears slap-bang in the middle of the speech—in other words, repeating the message, reinforcing it. That is the sign of a disciplined political message.

This was a message about the Millennium Development Goals, which I think are very admirable, and what he has been doing is pretty admirable. He said he has been sponsoring a young man named Abdurahman for 11 years. He also said:

As far as Family First is concerned, Abdurahman is a human face of the Millennium Development Goals ...

Of course, he was sponsoring Abdurahman long before Family First was ever created, and I presume he would be sponsoring him through one of the agencies, although that is not mentioned. But there it was—the carefully crafted political message about what you should support, that he supports it, and reinforcing the Family First name. These are the words of a disciplined political person with a particular political objective.

The question, of course, is whether his own determination to support the concentration of big media business and fewer competitors at that level is his policy or Family First’s policy. As far as I am aware, it is not on their website in that form, which of course is why I want to hear back, as Senator Conroy outlined, as to his precise motives. If you dismiss the ‘naive’ argument and if you dismiss the ‘deal’ argument, which I have just done, and you see the evidence of a carefully crafted campaign of a political operator who, like every other political party and political person, wants to increase his number of seats and his political power, you have to see this in both political and policy goals. So I look forward to him explaining things on that basis.

Returning to the government’s motion regarding the House of Representatives message, it has two parts to it. The first is that it wants the Senate to pass the bill as a whole; therefore it is saying exactly that to us. I have had mixed messages, frankly. I have heard messages that it does not matter that much in the scheme of government policy. However, I have heard other people say that the Treasurer wants this so badly that you can taste it. I do not know what the answer is to that. What I do know is that I am subject to lobbying, as others are, by both big business and small business, and I can tell you that big business organisations badly want schedule 1. They are perfectly entitled to lobby for their needs, and I will freely admit that any time any big business man or any small business man wants to see me on an issue, I will see them, if I can fit them in and if it is the right thing to do. I do not have a problem with big business pursuing their agenda, but none of us should be in the dark and think that big business does not, very badly, want schedule 1, which means they expect it to result in faster, quicker, more easily resolved mergers and acquisitions, more fluidity in the market and more concentration for big players. That is a legitimate objective of theirs. It is not one that I support but it is legitimate.

I think the end result of schedule 1 is that it is likely to damage a highly effective, well-established, extremely professionally evaluated, flexible discretionary regulatory environment which has quite properly rejected a minor percentage of mergers and acquisitions and has allowed the rest through on basically commercial grounds. I am not persuaded as to schedule 1’s policy advantages. However, I am not going to tear my hair out any more about this; numbers are numbers, and I accept that.

What does bother me, because this is in line and is consistent with government policy over a long time—government does, by and large, try and facilitate big business needs where it can—is that the choice issue with respect to the unions is entirely against government philosophy. It is entirely against everything I ever hear it say that it stands for. And that does disturb me. I respect consistency in people, even where I disagree with their views—whether they are people from the Right, the Left or the Centre, consistency appeals to me. But this is an inconsistent policy. It did not arrive from the Dawson evaluation; it came out of left field. It seems designed just to hurt unions. I do not think it reflects well on the government for introducing it in this legislation. However, it does have the numbers and it will happen. It will not advance the cause of mankind at all.

Senator Brandis and probably others have said that section 46 and strengthening the ACCC issues have nothing to do with the Dawson bill. I agree with that. The Dawson bill is a discrete area of consideration. Why I have argued for a section 46 amending bill to be debated cognately and passed cognately with this is that I think if you loosen up the mergers and acquisitions side, you need to strengthen the anticompetitive provisions—it is just a simple argument—simultaneously. I have argued consistently that, whilst the government does not want to go as far as I and others do, it has accepted that argument. It accepted through its positive response to a number of the recommendations of the March 2004 Senate Economics References Committee inquiry into the Trade Practices Act, as long as 2½ years ago, that the act needed to be strengthened.

So my argument is not that those things need to be in this bill but that that section 46 bill needs to be debated cognately because on the one hand you are weakening the Trade Practices Act with the Dawson bill and I believe you need to simultaneously strengthen the Trade Practices Act anticompetitive and abuse of market power provisions. That is why I have argued that case. I hope that in the absence of Senator Fielding I have done a respectable job of defending him, and maybe my speaking for him means he does not need to come down here.


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