You know it’s an election year when, in the last week Parliament sits before an election, MPs are presented with a swollen legislative agenda.
This year, that list includes a raft of private members’ bills focusing on contentious issues such as food labelling, supermarket dominance and competition reform.
The Hon. Bob Katter, MP introduced the much maligned Reducing Supermarket Dominance Bill 2013. It appears the aim of the Bill is to restore a “balanced supermarket share” in order to promote competition and fairness principles for Australian businesses and consumers. Mr Katter claims to be tackling the “colossal supermarket giants’ market share” as well as the “intrusion of supermarkets into the household retail business”. Mr Katter’s Bill aims to progressively reduce the market share of existing Australian supermarket operators (as calculated by the Commissioner for Food Retailing) to 20% over a 6 year period. Additionally, the Bill aims to progressively reduce supermarkets’ operation in hardware, liquor, petrol, department stores, office supplies, licenced venues, gaming and financial services operations to 20% over 6 years.
Elsewhere, independent Rob Oakeshott, MP was also apparently concerned with the market share of the supermarket giants, introducing the Competition and Consumer Amendment (Strengthening Rules About Misuse of Market Power) Bill 2013 with the aim of protecting participants in the supply chain and providing longer term protection of consumers by extending the test for restrictive trade practices. The Bill seeks to amend section 46 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010, to make conduct that is “reasonably likely to directly or indirectly result in the lessening of competition in any part of the supply chain” a breach of that section. With Mr Oakeshott’s recently announced departure from politics at the end of this Parliament, however, it is unclear whether anyone else will pursue this Bill.
Meanwhile, Senator Christine Milne, leader of the Greens, introduced the Competition and Consumer Amendment (Australian Country of Origin Food Labelling) Bill 2013 with the aim of reforming regulation of country of origin labelling for food in Australia. This Bill would create a specific section in the Competition and Consumer Act that deals solely with country of origin claims about food. The new provisions would apply to all packaged and unpacked foods for retail sale and would restrict the labelling to certain kinds of claims only. Most importantly, the Bill will prohibit the claims “Made in Australia” and “Made from local and imported ingredients” and, instead, require food manufactured in Australia to be labelled as “Manufactured in Australia” or, where food has minimal Australian processing, “Packaged in Australia”.
Whilst on the topic of food labelling, Mr Katter has been busy, also introducing the Imported Food Warning Labels Bill 2013, which mandates warning labels on all imported food, notifying consumers that the product is imported and has not been grown or processed under Australian health and hygiene standards. The Bill aims to inform the purchasing decisions of consumers thereby encouraging Australians to favour food grown or processed in Australia.
Food labelling reform has also been an election platform for South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon. Mr Xenophon introduced amendments to food labelling laws in 2010 and has promised if re-elected to the Senate he will make food labelling a key issue. Meanwhile, Federal Parliamentary aspirant (and leader of the newly formed Palmer United party) Mr Clive Palmer has also announced a policy platform that would seek to introduce a coloured tag system to inform consumers of the origin of the products they buy.
Moving away from food but onto another election favourite for candidates – the plight of small business - the Small Business Commissioner Bill 2013 was introduced by Tasmanian Greens’ Senator Peter Whish-Wilson. This Bill provides for an advocate and representative of small business at a Federal level by establishing an Office for the Small Business Commissioner. Under the Bill, the Commissioner would have the power to investigate complaints made by small businesses in relation to dealings with Departments, Statutory Agencies and Executive Agencies of the Commonwealth. Additionally, the Commissioner would have a monitoring and reporting role in relation to market practices that may adversely impact small business.
To date, there has been no formal response from the Federal Government to any of the measures above, although it seems unlikely that any of the Bills would be supported in their current form.
For its part, the Coalition has emphatically stated that, if elected, they will perform a “root and branch” review of Australia’s competition laws, which they’ve indictaed will be led by the Minister for Small Business.
Given the posturing on these issues, particularly from the minor parties, one of the more interesting questions is what, if any, influence it might have on voters’ decisions in the next Federal election.