So who really is the new Labor competition minister?
While enjoying a nice Saturday afternoon news came through that Julia had announced her new ministry. Immediately this author combed through the list looking for the name of the new competition minister. Alas, there was no specific mention of competition on the list of portfolio responsibilities. Nor was there specific reference to consumer affairs on the portfolio list.
Now that’s disappointing. Was the omission of an express mention of competition and consumer policy an oversight? Or was there an implication that these were not considered sufficiently important in the new Labor minority Government?
Well there is an old saying that if you have a choice between a conspiracy or a stuff up, then you first go for the stuff up. That makes sense as references to conspiracies usually attract suggestions of paranoia. So let’s stick to the possible stuff up theory.
At this point there are various schools of thought. First, the failure to expressly mention competition policy could have just been an oversight that will in due course be corrected in some way. Given that Julia was keen to get the new ministry announced there is the possibility that competition simply fell off the list.
Likewise, in all the rush consumer policy may have also fallen off the list. Mistakes do happen and so one would expect them to be corrected quickly and in a meaningful way.
A second school of thought was that the omission of the express reference to competition and consumer policy may have not been a mistake. Under this scenario there may have been a view in Labor circles of “mission accomplished” on competition and consumer issues. The only problem is that anyone thinking that’s it mission accomplished on competition and consumer issues should reflect on any regrets that George W Bush may have had in using that phrase soon after his Iraq expedition.
Clearly, competition and consumer policy are always a work in progress. For Federal Labor there were the obvious policy failures of Fuelwatch and Grocerychoice. There were also plenty of policy shortfalls when pursuing a national consumer law framework. Sadly, the move towards a national consumer law framework led to the watering down of various longstanding State consumer laws.
The watering down of the Victorian laws against unfair contract terms is a case in point. Those Victorian laws, themselves modelled on longstanding UK laws, had worked well for years and should have simply been adopted federally. Instead, there was a rewriting of key aspects of the laws and a lifting of the legal bar to succeed under those laws.
In any event, the new consumer laws despite their failings need to bedded down and supplemented with new laws and regulations. This ongoing work requires Ministerial attention. Similarly, given that at least one of the now powerful independents specifically pointed to the rapidly growing dominance of Coles and Woolworths as an area of concern, it’s clear that competition policy will again be a policy battleground in the next Parliament.
Competition concerns have not been restricted to independents like Bob Katter and Senator Nick Xenophon. The Greens have also publicly expressed concerns about our competition and consumer laws. In fact, the Greens have been very vocal on their legitimate concerns regarding the dominance of the 4 major banks.
Not surprisingly, competition and consumers policy issues are, and should be, bipartisan in nature. We should all be concerned if consumers are being ripped off. After all, every single Australian is a consumer and if consumers are being ripped off then we’re all being ripped off. Of course, shareholders and those in superannuation funds would like companies such as Coles and Woolworths to continue making record profits, but where those record profits turn into profiteering because of a lack of real competition in the marketplace it’s clear that all Australians are getting ripped off.
So clearly competition and consumer policy issues will not be too far away from the voters’ minds. Sadly, there is no doubt that Rudd/Gillard Labor Government could have done a better job on their now failed promises regarding Fuelwatch and Grocerychoice. Obviously, previous Competition Ministers Chris Bowen and Craig Emerson either got some poor advice or they didn’t listen to the right advice. Either way there are some very important lessons from the misses and messes of both Bowen and Emerson on competition and consumer policy.
Why are those lessons important? For the simple reason that someone will still need to deal with competition and consumer issues in the new Gillard ministry. Who is that going to be? Well, in the absence of an express mention of competition and consumer policy in the new ministerial line up, there was always going to be four possibilities with the obvious danger that issues would inevitably fall between the cracks.
The first possibility is Wayne Swan. As the Treasurer he traditionally has the final say on competition issues as those issues tend to be run out of Treasury. Now, that would be interesting as he has consistently left a lot to be desired in dealing with the dominance of the 4 major banks. Hopefully, if Wayne is the Minster for competition and consumer issues he will in future take a tougher stance on the lack of real competition in the banking sector as well as all those other sectors such as groceries and petrol.
A second possibility is Bill Shorten. Bill has been appointed Assistant Treasurer, another portfolio area that in recent years has had responsibility for competition and consumer issues. Bill has shown some interest in the competition area and would hopefully bring a new perspective to what has been a difficult policy area for Labor.
A third possibility is Nick Sherry. Nick is the new Small Business Minister and his portfolio area would obviously bring him into regular contact with small businesses and their industry associations. These are the very groups that have expressed the strongest concerns about our weak competition laws. Nick is no stranger to regular questioning on competition issues as he has been the Senator representing the Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs in the Senate during the first Gillard ministry.
A final possibility is David Bradbury, the Treasury Parliamentary Secretary. Now with all due respect to David a Parliamentary Secretary is very “junior” in the scheme of things and they usually lack the clout to deliver real policy outcomes. Ultimately that possibility would be a real slap in the face to consumers and would amount to a relegation of competition and consumer policy issues.
Time will tell whether we will truly have a new and effective Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs in the new Gillard ministry. Hopefully, we will, otherwise it will just be another sad reflection on the way the Federal Labor Government is handling this challenging but key policy area. Of particular note is that any policy vacuum at the federal level will no doubt be filled at a State level where both Labor and Liberal State MPs are moving to plug legislative holes being left by federal Labor.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…