Fair Trading (Fuel Pricing Information) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

In the absence of any other speakers, I wish to make a few comments. Firstly, of course I thank all members for their contribution on the bill. I do not think there is any question that everyone in this parliament understands the significance of the cost of fuel within family budgets, at a personal level and also the cost to business. Energy and fuel costs are a significant component, and they need to have the attention of us here in the parliament. Just like water—for which the government has been very keen to introduce reductions—power prices and the like, fuel is another cost of living and a cost to business that we have to keep an eye on.

I thank members, and I do accept that there is a genuine commitment to try to introduce means by which we can keep consumers informed as to how they can best take advantage of the price imperatives in those budgets. The member for Giles raised some regional aspects, as did others. I will not go through them all. He pointed out a concern—and I think it is worth addressing— that the ACCC ought to be more vigilant in the monitoring and enforcement of compliance in this area, in particular to be alert and take action if necessary if there is any colluding between retailers in the offering of prices.

He provided information suggesting that, if he drives around the main town in his electorate, he will find repeatedly at multiple stations exactly the same retail price advertised, and that was supportive to him of the assertion that there was clearly collusion between retail operators. I think that is a far stretch. I do not come in here to jump to the defence of the ACCC; they can look after themselves.

He may be familiar with the Hon. Liz Penfold, a former member here, who I recall was a frequent writer to the ACCC—in fact, Deputy Speaker, she was a predecessor in your beautiful electorate of Flinders—about the practices she wanted to bring to their attention that she saw as depriving full benefit to her regional constituency, now yours. She would also complain that she would frequently get a rather short response or none at all and that they were not activating initiatives that she thought were meritorious and deserved their attention.

Having become the Attorney-General, with particular responsibility for Consumer and Business Services, we had a meeting of other responsible ministers in New Zealand last year, at which representatives of the ACCC attended, which I was pleased to see because I have never seen real people from the ACCC. I have had plenty of correspondence from them over the years, so it was quite nice to have some discussion with them. They were explaining to me the loss of a significant prosecution they had undertaken in relation to—and I cannot remember the particulars—a restraint of trade or some other breach they were asserting and they had lost. Of course, they were facing a significant legal bill as a result of it.

So I just tell the house this, for the member for Giles' sake: ACCC prosecutions, like any other successful prosecution, require evidence and obviously sufficient evidence to enable there to be, at least on the balance of probabilities, a successful outcome when they prosecute these matters. If the member has evidence of collusion between his retail outlets within his electorate, certainly they are matters that he could bring to the attention of the ACCC.

But it is not enough to simply say, 'They all have the same price, so they must be getting together on Sunday night'—and I am paraphrasing the situation—'saying it is going to be $1.09, so everyone agree to that and tomorrow morning that is what we are going to do'. I do not know what they do on Sunday nights but I make the point that it is not that difficult, especially if they all have the current apps, to be able to go online to see what is available in their town and to match it.

It may be that it is more likely that they are in a regional town and they do observe a price that is achievable for them to market their product at. They want to be competitive, so they match it. That may be a perfectly rational explanation. I am not the expert on fuel. In all my life, I have never understood how we have such huge fuel price fluctuations. They have all sorts of excuses and reports about these things, all these multi-ideas, and then there is the catchall, of course, about the wholesale oil prices and how the barrel price has gone up, and the Arabs want this and so on. We get all this anecdotally but, at the end of the day, it is probably something which is quite complex and there are a lot of factors which affect this. We are not going to be able to change that overnight.

Ms Bedford interjecting:

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN: The member interjects to ask, 'What is the ACCC doing?' I have read a number of inquiries undertaken by these national agencies. I am none the wiser. The member may take the view that a body, like the ACCC, responsible for consumer law enforcement, ought to be following that up, and that may be so. Perhaps we just need another report. I am not sure that we are actually going to be able to have such an influence to do that. We are a big consumer of oil and fuel in this country. The member for West Torrens raised the valid point that oil refinery operations in Australia have plummeted, I think, to zero.

Ms Bedford: Four.

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN: Four left in the Eastern States. The last one here was Port Stanvac, from which Mobil evacuated. They did not even clean it all up, but I think they left some fund—

The Hon. S.C. Mullighan: Yes, not completely evacuated; they left quite a bit behind.

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN: Well, they left. They left their rubbish behind, they left the tower behind and there has been a huge lot of clean-up needed. In fairness, I think Mobil paid for most of it, but it is still sitting there as vacant land and has not been developed into something useful for South Australians. I will just make the point that that has happened. I remember the Hon. Kevin Foley trying to give us all an explanation and excuses about what was going to happen there and what great aspirations he had for the site, but it is still a dead site. It will be another thing that our government has to fix up I suppose.

Moving on, I thank the member for Hammond for, as usual, his entertaining, educational illumination about the use of fuel for heavy vehicles such as tractors and the like. We had the spectacular water-skiing career outlined by the member for Chaffey, who also discussed how he utilised fuel. We all need it. We need it for our transport services. We need it for those heavy vehicles that deliver our milk and butter and everything else into our food supply.

Everything we buy and eat and the services we rely upon rely on fuel. Clearly, it is the necessary ingredient for our commercial and social survival. I do not want to slip over the others, as they were all meritorious contributions, but what has completely escaped me is any indication from anyone in the opposition as to why, in 18 years—

The Hon. A. Koutsantonis: Sixteen.

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN: —no, 18 years—I have not heard anything from the Australian Labor Party about pursuing a Western Australian 24-hour price cycle in 18 years. They were in government for 16 years, and I heard the member for Kaurna discuss how difficult the high cost of fuel is for his constituency. In 16 years, none of them came in here with a bill of any model to say, 'This is how we're going to address this.'

Over the past two years, Leon Byner and I have had lots of chats with the RAA, which of course was a significant proponent of having a mechanism by which consumers could maintain some input into getting cheaper fuel, yet in that time there has been stunning silence from the opposition as to a model. From time to time, they come out and bleat, 'Oh, it has taken the Liberals so long to actually get on with this,' or, 'They should be hurrying this along.' If this was the hare and the tortoise, let me tell you, we are the hare. There was nothing from them for 18 years, no model indicating the Western Australian model.

I do not say that because I am in any way foreshadowing the government's opposition to the consideration of the member for Florey's amendments—I would not be so disrespectful. But, in the absence of there being any indication of its merit, it does beg the question why they kept insisting that we hurry up with the New South Wales model and that, when Queensland did theirs, there was no excuse whatsoever for not getting on with implementing that.

When the member for Florey raised a private member's bill to support a replica of the Western Australian 24-hour freeze model, they did not rush out to say, 'This is a great idea. We know we must have missed it since it has actually been happening in Western Australia since 2001, but even though we might have been blinkered and not listened, now that she has done it we think it's a great idea. We would encourage the government to do this.' Not a peep.

When we go through the consultation on the proposal ultimately, as recommended by the Productivity Commission, without excluding the Western Australian model in suggesting that it is completely unmeritorious, again there is absolute silence. The ALP do not come out and say, 'The member for Florey has got it perfectly right. She is spot on. We have to jump into this opportunity.' There had been public statements by me in the parliament and by the member for Florey that she was pursuing this model, and not a peep.

We encouraged the member for Florey to present her model to the Productivity Commission, because it is true that she has been quite tireless in her advocacy for this consumer matter to be dealt with. Since raising the model that she thinks we should pursue, she has been, I think—I hope—respectfully brought into the fold sufficient to ensure that she has been consulted along the way. In fact, she is mentioned in the Productivity Commission report outcome, so I think that has been an important initiative.

Now I hear glowing recommendations by members of the opposition that the member for Florey has not only been a champion of this cause but she has this stellar model which should be, I think, in the member for West Torrens' description, immortalised as being in the genius category. In fact, I was so interested to see the member for Torrens—

The Hon. A. Koutsantonis: West Torrens.

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN: —West Torrens' description of how important this model was and how attached he was to it that I thought to myself, 'I wonder if the member for Florey is writing this down to edit it for her next preselection speech.'

Ms Bedford: I don't need to be preselected to think about it.

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN: Well, you might be, of course, if you start your own party or something of that nature and you want to be preselected for that. It was just unbelievable listening to that. This is the man who was the architect of her removal from her seat—

Ms Bedford: No he's not. That's untrue.

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN: Well, of the Labor right, who has done everything he can to get rid of the member for Florey, yet now I hear ringing endorsement of this genius contribution.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Attorney-General, I am anticipating the point of order.

The Hon. A. KOUTSANTONIS: Sir, I have never done any harm to the member for Florey. She is someone I hold in high regard and I ask the member to withdraw that.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Thank you. I was about to ask—

Ms Bedford: I can tell you who wanted to get rid of me, if you want to know.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Member for Florey, I am speaking. I was about to bring the Attorney back to the topic at hand. It seems the member for West Torrens has taken some offence to the member's comments. Attorney, would you be prepared to withdraw?

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN: I am happy to withdraw and even apologise to the member for West Torrens if he is in any way offended at being in any way involved in the execution of the member for Florey as an ALP member.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Attorney-General, we will stay on topic.

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN: Anyway, there it was, that ringing endorsement from one after another of this magnificent structure that is being proposed. I also want to make it clear that the commitments made prior to the election were by the Labor Party that they would have a fuel initiative—if I can put it as general as that, as I do not want to be tripping up on any little aspect of that—and that, from our side of politics, we would review all of what was there and that we would look at what we would introduce.

We did not want to simply come in and say, 'We are going to pick this apple or this orange and this is what we are going to do.' We made it very clear what our election commitment objective was. Very shortly after we came into office, it became abundantly clear that Victoria as a state was looking at the New South Wales model at that stage and how they were going and had done their review of it and took the view that petrol prices could go up and decided that they would not have a model at all; they would not have an initiative at all.

I suppose that threw a bit of a level of concern into what New South Wales was doing and whether in fact it was going to be effective. So it does not surprise me that we have some different models around the country. Nobody has picked up the Western Australia model, but nevertheless it suits the Western Australians; that is fine, they can do as they wish. They have had it for a very long time. Some jurisdictions have elected not to have anything at all because they are not satisfied even of the threshold issue that some kind of application via an electronic app is actually going to be useful.

This is picked up to some degree by the Productivity Commission because, when it became clear that we had different models and different data of reliability on this, we asked the Productivity Commission to look at it. I think it is very clear from their report that they are not 110 per cent confident that any kind of intervention is going to work anyway, but they say that, if it is successful, then the models they have examined are what we might rely on for the purpose of taking up a model. So we have done that and brought in the legislation.

Of course, meanwhile, what has happened is that there has been a plethora of applications available because, typical, there are some genius teenagers out there creating all these apps, as they seem to be very capable of doing. I am looking at one of my favourites at the moment—Ingo Block of my office is the genius who puts it on my phone and makes sure that I know how to work it—and it tells me that right at the minute apparently the cheapest place to buy fuel is at Thorngate and the closest to me is at West Terrace.

I can go to a little map and it tells me exactly what stations are around where I am at this point, or I can look all around the state. These are already out there. This information is already out there. There is a lot of other data that they give with it, but why then are we doing something else? What we are doing is we are making sure that by law everybody who sells fuel has to put that information in here. This is not completely comprehensive; that is the first thing. There can be retailers who decide that they are not going to be in these schemes and they are not going to provide that data. This is to mandate them to do it.

The second thing this requires under the new law is that, if they change these prices, they have to record that data within 30 minutes. I am advised (because I am not an expert on these things) that as the prices change—this is a push of the button exercise—obviously the outlets are all advised of what the new price is and various aspects in that regard. The retailers press another button, of course, for lots of other compliance obligations they have, and this will be one other thing by law they will be required to do.

It may only be a matter of seconds before that new information transmits to the central pool and then is available on this mechanism, but they have up to 30 minutes, and if they do not of course there are $10,000 fines, etc. I say to the house that, although we have had some rather interesting approaches now by the opposition on what they think is the answer to this, newly enlivened by the matter that has been brought to their attention in this debate, realistically we do need to give this particular model as per this bill a go.

I just conclude on that matter by saying that my office did a bit of an audit of all the people, including members of the public and MPs who have written to me about this matter during the last two and a bit years, and except for the feedback from the member for Florey, which has been prolific, where preferences are stated every single submission I have received, apparently, has been for a Fuel Check system. So that is exactly what we are proposing to implement in this legislation.

I have not yet identified whether any of those letters have come from any of the people in the ALP, but I will soon let you know if I find them. In any event, I suppose they are all a bit busy working out over there on the Labor right who is going to take over the ALP Victoria division—good luck with that. I just loved reading the front page of The Australian today, which was just beautiful. I might even get it framed actually. There are some magnificent quotes there about the way they address each other and speak so highly of each other.

Another aspect I will just mention is that the RAA (Royal Automobile Association, and I disclose that I am a member and perhaps other members of parliament are members as well) provides a service for motorists and it is the peak body. It has, as the peak consumer, been calling for a Fuel Check model, at least to my knowledge, since the latter part of 2017. I note that that continues, and again our proposal is consistent with that.

I think I have mentioned the Productivity Commission model as identifying the net benefits as best they can to the most number of consumers, as a net benefit. The crossbench has been personally briefed by the lead commissioner on why the model is preferred. Again, I respect the member for Florey's view that she maintains that her model, the Western Australian model, is the best, but in any event they have had the opportunity to meet with the commissioner.

While the introduction of the bill has occurred I have requested that regulations be prepared and made available for circulation to the opposition and the crossbench. That is not usual. I place on the record that that has not been done on the basis of presuming what the parliament will do with this legislation, but I have worked on the premise that there is a universal request for action in this area, and we are delivering it. Obviously, these regulations will be the subject of industry and retailers' consultation following the passage of the bill if it is passed.

Should alterations or modifications to the scheme need to be made, these will easily be able to be accommodated. I make the point that it is like some of the other legislation when you introduce a new regulatory regime: it takes a significant amount of resources to develop these proposals. Consistent with a number of things made by the Productivity Commission in its report, and the way in which the options are moving at such a rapid rate in the community as to what products are available, the trial period is really a safeguard.

What we do not want to do is to introduce something and then find that it is not as good as something else that has been developed and that we are already locked into something permanently. I say here in the parliament that if we have a mechanism, either in the form we are proposing or in some other modification of it, and it does not work and there is an opportunity for another option to be pursued, then I will advocate for that. I think that is important. I think we all agree that we need to have this service available to consumers. We think we are offering the best model; others think there is an alternative.

Ms Bedford: Do I have to wait two years?

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN: Two years, of course, is just a little tiny dot in time of the member for Florey's luminary career in politics. I make this point: if we just simply say, 'This is what we're going to have and this will be forever in place,' and we start signing up contracts, then we may find it very difficult to become flexible as to where we advance from there. However, I for one will be advocating for us to have an effective fuel price reducing model that is available to consumers for them to get the cheapest possible fuel on the most occasions for the most vehicles.

Another aspect I will place on the record is to remind members—and the Productivity Commission alluded to this as well—that for the scheme to be successful it also has to have a high level of take-up. I do not know how many members here in the parliament or members of their staff or family would take up the opportunity to check fuel prices every time they went to buy fuel for their domestic vehicles.

Obviously, especially those who might have multiple vehicles in their family or business may be more encouraged to follow this as it may be a bigger proportional aspect of their budget. But, because there are a number of people out there who are already taking up these options in the apps available—and there is a number of them like PetrolSpy and MotorMouth, and I could ask Mr Block to give me a list of all the others but I do not want to be here commercially promoting any particular product—I make the point that there are a lot of them out there.

If they already have a client base, what we want to be able to do if they want to stay with the product that they currently have for free is encourage them to keep using them. What will be saying to them is, 'You will have all the information in here. It will be a better service and it will be more timely.' That is obviously what we are trying to do: make sure it is timely, accurate and comprehensive.

With those few words, I thank members for their contribution and seek that the bill be now read a second time. I think there is a desperate aspiration and appetite to go to committee, as I foreshadow some amendments and a few from the government.

Bill read a second time.