Wednesday, 13 September 2006
Petroleum Retail Legislation Repeal Bill 2006
Anyone who has been following the discussions and debate on the Petroleum Retail Legislation Repeal Bill 2006 will know that Family First cannot support such a bill. We all understand that the current regulations are outdated and need to be replaced with something that allows the intent of the original regulations we had where you allowed competition to be open and controlled, such that the big oil companies could not control and operate so many of the petrol sites. Quite clearly this bill, if it proceeds as it is, will pull the rug out from under the independents, which will not serve Australian families well. It will not keep prices down and Family First cannot support it.
The Greens will not be supporting the Petroleum Retail Legislation Repeal Bill 2006 on the third reading, for the reason that I articulated before. I believe that this bill facilitates the oil majors’ interests against the interests of the independents. I am not prepared to take the government’s word that it will deal with the tightening of the Trade Practices Act or the Dawson reforms before 1 March next year. Whilst I respect Senator Minchin’s undertaking that he will personally do all he can in the government, I am afraid that does not hold very much water, because the Treasurer will determine it and the members of the government in the Senate will do as they are told from cabinet direction. I have seen enough of this government to know that passing one thing on a lick and a promise that another thing will come at a different time when so much is at stake is just not something I am prepared to support.
I want to make sure that rural and regional Australia continues to be serviced by having appropriate levels of retail outlets. The only way that that is going to occur is by supporting the independents in the marketplace and I am not persuaded that that is going to occur. I am not persuaded that a delay is going to deliver the outcomes that we should have had from a package. Senator Murray was quite right—we should have dealt with these either as cognate bills or sequentially. That has not occurred. Obviously, the government has the numbers to do as it likes, but people out there in rural and regional Australia need to understand what this means for them.
On the north-west coast of Tasmania in a small place called Wesley Vale there used to be a small service station. It closed down. People in that whole district now have to go to East Devonport, Latrobe, Shearwater or Port Sorell to buy their fuel. That means that they are also purchasing other goods in those centres that they used to purchase locally, which is undermining the viability of their local store. That is the story across Australia and I am not persuaded that we are going to see anything other than acceleration of that, given what representatives of the independents have said when they have given evidence on this matter. That is why the Greens will be opposing the third reading. If indeed the government does deliver by 1 March next year on the Dawson reforms and on tightening the Trade Practices Act, that will be a good thing—although it still will not go far enough—and we will welcome that if it occurs. But after the performance of the government on so many of its undertakings that have not come to fruition, I am not prepared to take just a promise that a government minister will do all he can in cabinet. That is an insufficient undertaking for the Greens.
It is going to be a fascinating day because today the Labor Party will vote to put independents out of business. That is what will happen today. I saw the amendment and I was wondering what was going on, and now I have worked it out. This is interesting. It is clear that today Labor believe that the market reigns supreme and that there should be no protection for independents. That is all well and good until next week, when the cross-media ownership laws come in, when they are going to be saying, ‘We have to have protection.’ What they are saying is going to change. Today the market reigns supreme, today independents can go out of business, today Labor honour their promises to the major oil companies, and today the major oil companies have pulled their chains and called in favours, but next week we will hear the whole palaver about how we have to put in protections and cross-media ownership laws, for which Labor might get some support but for which they may not.
The issue is that today Labor have been called into order—by whom? Why did Labor decide that they are going to let this bill go through? I think we all know that we could stop it. Why are they are going to let this go through without any protections for independents? It is not looking after big Australian companies; it is looking after big multinational companies. Even one of the major retailers, Coles, is about to wander offshore and Labor have come in to bat for them. The Labor Party have come flying in over the horizon to be knights in shining armour. After all their rhetoric about how government control of the Senate is so bad and evil, on the one day they have the chance to show the Australian people that they can stand up for themselves and make a difference, they go to water, they fold.
I have to say of the conservative side that at least they are consistent. They seem to want to privatise everything—I do not know why—but at least they are consistent. The Labor side had the chance today to make a difference. That is what is so fascinating about today. That is what is going to go down in the annals. Today the Labor Party had the chance to sink a bill, to make a difference, and they chose not to because they got a phone call—ring, ring—that went, ‘These are the major oil companies on the line—toe the line or else.’ And they did. I hope there are fur and feathers flying everywhere in their caucus meeting, because they look like a complete and utter mess. They look like they are all over the shop on this issue and they are going to look completely and utterly foolish. They always taunt the National Party about being a doormat; who is the doormat today? And a doormat for whom? The multinational oil companies. They have Labor’s number, they have made the call and Labor are going to follow blindly. Later on Labor will be talking about extremism—it cannot get any more extreme than what they are about to do. Today they had the chance and the ability, in front of the Australian people, to make a difference. That one opportunity is about to slip past them. It is always the same with them; once they have that chance, they blow it.
We talk about the views of politics getting closer; today they merged. It is a sad statement. There must be the view in the Labor Party that support of multinationals over independents and Australian based companies is something that needs Labor Party support. The Labor Party are going to support the destruction of Australian businesses by multinationals. They have arrived at an interesting place. So let us have a vote; it is going to be fascinating. All that people have to know is that, the one time the Labor Party could have made a difference, they blew it. Next week when Labor debate the cross-media ownership laws, they should be called to account and have quoted back to them everything they have said during this debate. They should explain to people the inconsistency in their positions and how next week they are going to have a completely different position to this week.
Next week the Labor Party are going to be asking for greater controls and greater protections—and there are other people who might be asking for them as well—but this week they think there should be none. This week, because it has something to do with regional Australia, because their number is being called and because the issue could be deemed to be in other people’s interest, they are going to flush Australian independent businesses down the tube. There are no protections in here for independents, nor did the Labor Party ever suggest any.
All we have is an agreement that the guillotine will not fall today; it will fall on 1 March 2007. That is amazing! That is marvellous! That is going to change the world! That is a great step forward! Apparently the Labor Party believe that at that point of time some miracle will happen and all the ducks will line up in a row for them. I do not know, maybe that will be a common occurrence. Today they had a chance to make a difference and they did not. That is all that needs to be recorded.
So that those listening who are not part of the Senate procedures can understand exactly the importance of the third reading vote, I will explain that the proposition before the Senate is that the bill, as amended, be passed. The rules of the Senate mean that in the case of a tied vote the proposal would be lost. So, if all non-government senators plus one senator from the coalition vote together the proposal would fail. Therefore, the decision of the Labor Party to support the bill is critical.
However, it is not for me to reflect on their vote, because they have to account for that with their constituency and their voters. The Labor Party, in conjunction with other non-government senators, have tried to put before the Senate, or have supported, propositions which would have strengthened this bill with respect to small business needs and would have strengthened the hands of small business in a market which will be more deregulated than it has been in the past. That is the importance of what is before us.
I and my party are always wary of great power, whether it be great political power or great corporate power, and in the petroleum market there are no players greater than the mighty transnational oil companies and our very own Australian supermarket chains. Therefore you need restraining mechanisms. In some respects this is a touchstone debate because, like me, the Australian people enjoy enormously the tremendous variety, quality and diversity of products and services provided by the great corporations which service Australia. Australians, like me, are very glad that there are big companies out there from which we can buy products and services. But, like me, they have a view—I believe I reflect a common Australian view—that small business has a value of itself, that competitors need to be promoted in variety and in number, and that independents and small and medium sized businesses add to the great fabric of our commercial and social construct. Because of that it is important that we devise legislative and policy mechanisms to ensure that the weak in the commercial world are able to fight fairly on the commercial stage.
Therefore it is incumbent on us to recognise that the handicaps that small business and independents face need to be recognised and adjusted. I will say again that the position of the Democrats is that we support this bill. We think that the time has come for the Petroleum Retail Marketing Sites Act 1980 and the Petroleum Retail Marketing Franchise Act 1980 to be repealed and replaced with different regulatory mechanisms. We support a revised Oilcode—subject to its final shape. That should be mandatory. We support the ACCC having greater powers and we support the Trade Practices Act being strengthened with respect to small business.
So in the ordinary course of events we would have supported this bill. I respect and acknowledge the commitment that the minister has made. I think he will use his best endeavours to bring those bills that we want—the two trade practices bills—to the Senate to be discussed before March 2007. But my colleague the Greens senator Senator Milne is quite correct in saying that, however much we respect the honesty and truthfulness of Senator Minchin’s commitment, it is not in his power to give; it is in the power of the Treasurer and the cabinet. In fact, in shorthand, that is exactly what Senator Minchin said. He said that he can give a commitment here but in the end he must defer to the portfolio holder and to the cabinet.
In summary, we would support this bill if it were accompanied by strengthening provisions for small businesses with respect to the Trade Practices Act. As it is not, despite the fact that we hope it will happen, we will oppose the bill on the third reading.
I said in the second reading debate that Labor supported the Petroleum Retail Legislation Repeal Bill 2006, and I outlined the reasons that we supported this bill in essence and the principle of the bill. That is not to say that we think the bill is perfect, but I remind senators that this bill replaces two pieces of legislation which are outdated and which serve no useful purpose: the Petroleum Retail Marketing Sites Act 1980 and the Petroleum Retail Marketing Franchise Act 1980. We support this legislation because well over 50 per cent of this industry by volume of sales is not covered by these acts.
That is, the acts we are replacing, Senator Joyce, before you get too excited. It is not covered by these acts that we are replacing, because the supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths are not covered by those acts. The rules under the legislation which exists today are inconsistent and unfair for market participants, and that is not good for anyone in the industry.
The Oilcode, which will be introduced with this legislation as a mandatory industry code under the Trade Practices Act, will finally bring the whole industry into a common regulatory regime with better protections for market participants and better protections for consumers. We are on the record as saying there is more that can be done and we have extracted as many concessions as we can from the government in the circumstances towards that end. The onus is on the government now to deliver in relation to those matters. But the Oilcode will improve protections available to commission agents and—wait for it—independent operators, who do not have the protections available to franchisees under the current arrangements. So we are not taking anything away from the independent operators by supporting this legislation; we are actually adding to the regime—not on the terms that we would prefer, but in this case we are not prepared to stand in the way—
of the implementation of this legislation and deny any form of protection to the independent operators on the basis that we will play some russian roulette about these other pieces of legislation.
We are on the record as saying changes need to be made. In fact, I moved an amendment which set out some changes that we believe need to be made to the competition regime, which were the same as those moved by Senator Murray, and we supported Senator Murray’s amendments. We will continue to support that position, but in the absence of an assurance that that is going to go through, we are faced with a choice: do we remain with an outdated, inconsistent and unfair regime which gives no protection to significant parts of the industry and has no impact at all on well over 50 per cent of the industry by volume? That is the choice that the opposition has, but what is the only responsible position that we can take? It is to bring the law up to date as far as we can.
I acknowledge that Senator Murray suggests that, if we vote with the minor parties and one of the coalition senators votes with us, we can block all of this and nothing will happen. That is the choice that we make. We prefer that there be an improvement. We do not say that it is enough. We do not say that it is the end of the improvement of the competition regime. I look forward to the support of all the minor parties and Senator Joyce when Labor wins the next election, because we will be in a position to implement it.
Senator Joyce is very keen to attack the Labor Party’s position on this, but the fact of the matter is that he is part of a government that is implementing something that he is vehemently opposed to. So his cover is to attack the Labor Party when he should actually be attacking his own coalition, because it is implementing the regime that he is apparently so vehemently opposed to. We moved amendments to that regime, which they voted against. I guess Senator Joyce has to give himself cover sometime, but that is all that I can attribute to the statements that he makes.
In relation to this comparison between this legislation and media law (1) we are talking about a good versus the supply of information to the public (2) we are talking about a regime which currently applies to everyone, as distinct from this legislation, which leaves half of the market out, and (3) we are talking about something that impacts on the democracy of this country rather than markets. If he cannot see the difference in that, that is a matter for him.
In terms of consistency and supply, I could take the senator back to that decision that he made to support the privatisation of Telstra, but many people will do that—I do not need to today. I can only reaffirm that we will be supporting this legislation, not on the basis that it is the best possible outcome but on the basis that it puts in train something which we can improve on in government.
That this bill be now read a third time.