Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1998 Week 3 Hansard (26 May) . . Page.. 589 ..
MR OSBORNE (continuing):
... the schemes of national legislation which are now being developed around Australia ... will, over a period of time, I am sure, produce a less open form of government if they are not carefully controlled. I haven't got time to ... detail ... the risks that poses, but I believe that it is an area that governments have to be very attentive to.
How true! I agree with Mr Humphries. I believe there are serious threats to the democratic process in the way these decisions are manufactured. But, beyond the decision-making process, I am concerned about some elements of competition policy itself and the way that it is being interpreted in this jurisdiction by this Government. I sometimes get the vague feeling that this Government goes above and beyond the call of duty in meeting its competition policy requirements. In other words, I believe competition policy is being used as a smokescreen for ideology. It is not so much that we have to do it, but that we want to do it. I see Mr Smyth chuckling under his breath.
Let us take one example that has been the subject of a lot of debate since the election - the ACT's milk industry. Mr Temporary Deputy Speaker, you would have thought that there would be plenty of grounds on which the Government could argue that the existing regime in the ACT was of obvious public benefit. We have the cheapest milk in the country and the greatest range of products, the industry employs a lot of people, and money is returned to the community by way of sponsorships. The first time I raised this question, I was told that the public benefit test in the Trade Practices Act was very narrow and was really limited to protecting health and the environment; so I had my office check it.
Section 151BC of the Trade Practices Act sets up the criteria under which the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission may exempt a body from the full force of competition policy. Subsection (1) says that an exemption may be made where "the conduct will result, or is likely to result, in a benefit to the public" and "that benefit outweighs, or will outweigh, the detriment to the public constituted by any lessening of competition". Subsection (2) says that, in making an exemption, the commission may have regard to several issues, including the promotion of health and safety and safeguarding the environment. However, subsection (3) then makes the point that the commission is not limited to the list in subsection (2). So, Mr Temporary Deputy Speaker, it appears that there may well be a wide range of matters which the commission will consider sufficient cause to grant an exemption under the public benefit test.
We have seen recently that the New South Wales Government has moved to protect part of its milk industry, claiming that it is doing so in order to protect rural jobs. When Mr Rugendyke raised last week what was happening in New South Wales, he was patted on the head and told that he really did not understand: The New South Wales milk industry was completely different to the ACT industry. New South Wales was proposing to continue regulating milk quotas and farm gate prices - something the ACT could not do, as our system of buying milk was different. It was the Government that missed the point, Mr Temporary Deputy Speaker. The point Mr Rugendyke was making was that it is immaterial what part of its industry New South Wales is continuing to protect, as all of it has been opened to competition under the agreements it has signed. To put it simply,