National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) Bill 2008; National Fuelwatch (Empowering Consumers) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008: Second Reading

That is why the people of Blaxland will support this bill. As the minister said in his second reading speech, this bill will ‘put power back into the hands of Australian motorists’. It will help motorists buy the cheapest petrol at the cheapest petrol stations at the cheapest times. It ends the game of pot luck-guessing what place is the best place to buy petrol today. It will end the frustration of driving past a petrol station in the morning and coming back in the afternoon to find that the petrol price has gone up or, even more frustrating, idling at the petrol station and seeing the price go up while you are waiting in the queue.

There is more volatility in petrol prices than there is in the Liberal Party leadership. In Sydney today you can buy petrol for anywhere between $1.64 and $1.45. This legislation will help motorists to find the cheapest petrol. The young people in the gallery will appreciate this. Their mothers and fathers, because of this legislation, will be able to find out where the cheapest petrol in their suburb is by checking on the internet or by using their mobile phones-by getting an SMS. If they have a satellite navigation system in the car that will also tell them where the cheapest petrol is en route to their destination.

On this side of the House we-the Kevin Rudd Labor government-think that that is a good thing. On the other side of the House the opposition think that it is a bad thing and they are going to vote against this legislation. Interestingly, not all coalition members of parliament think this is a bad thing. There are a lot of coalition MPs around the country who think it is a rather good thing. And that is because it gives motorists information and it encourages competition. The leader of the Liberal Party in New South Wales is one such supporter. He says that Fuelwatch ‘will ease some of the wild fluctuations in weekly pricing which frustrate motorists so much’. He says:

This will ease the burden on families and pensioners by helping drive down prices …

He goes on:

Fuelwatch will put motorists-not the oil companies-back in charge … It will put an end to the common frustration for motorists of driving past a petrol station only to find when they return hours later the price has jumped by 10 cents a litre.

Good on you, Barry! We agree. We think that that is right. And he is joined by his fair trading spokesperson, Catherine Cusack. She says:

Mr Rudd has shown leadership … we think it’s good news for motorists and we’re quite happy to come out and congratulate the federal Labor government for doing it.

The member makes a very good point. Mark McArdle, who is the leader of the Liberal Party in Queensland, is a supporter as well. He says:

The issues around FuelWatch are very complicated, but certainly it is an initiative that appears to have worked in Western Australia and I think it should be looked at here in Queensland and across Australia as well.

There is another conservative who deserves a mention, and that is Terry Mills. I think he is the leader of the Liberal Party in the Northern Territory. Is that right?

He says:

A FuelWatch system is long overdue particularly in the Territory where we regularly pay the highest prices in the nation.

The member for Solomon knows this very well. Mr Mills continues:

Giving customers information on fuel prices for a 24 hour period will produce sharper competition in the market place.

FuelWatch will enable consumers to quickly compare the various prices on offer in their town and buy accordingly. People are price sensitive about petrol so I am sure consumers will head to the stations offering the best price.

There is a coterie of conservative politicians who think this is a good idea, but they are not on their own. Choice magazine thinks it is a good idea. So does the NRMA. So does the RAC WA. Why do they support it? They support it because it gives motorists information and because it encourages competition. Information and competition are normally good things-normally the sorts of things you would expect the Liberal Party to support. But they also support it because they know it works.

We know it works because we have a real-life test case. If it does not work why is it still operating in Western Australia? The member for Stirling might be able to help us when he makes his contribution to the debate. This is a scheme that was established not by the current WA Labor government but by the former Liberal government. If it does not work why do you think the Labor government would feel any sense of obligation to stick with a scheme that was established by the former Liberal government? It is still in place because all of the evidence points to the fact that it is working.

The ACCC investigation that was commissioned by those opposite-it was commissioned by the member for Higgins before the last election-shows that it works. It found that between 2001 and 2007 the average price for petrol in WA was about 2c cheaper. The ACCC also found that petrol prices decreased by an average of 0.7c per litre for the lowest day of the week. And, most importantly, it found that current arrangements are conducive to anticompetitive conduct. This is what Graeme Samuel said last week about the current arrangements:

The fuel companies have it all over us. They have a very sophisticated price-sharing system run by a company called Informed Sources … where they know the price that everyone of their competitors is charging at every service station in the metropolitan areas of Australia at any point during the day. That is as close to collusion, it’s as close to tacit coordination, as you can ever get.

And this is the type of regime that the opposition are proposing to protect. Petrol retailers know what their competitors are charging but their customers do not. This legislation is designed to fix this.

Other petrol watch websites, like MotorMouth, show that about 87 per cent of their customers, armed with petrol price information, have changed their petrol-purchasing habits. There is a reason for this. It is because information is power. If you give customers the information they need, they will make good choices. Australians are doing it tough, and the people in my electorate do it tougher than most. They are glad that they have finally got a government that knows they are doing it tough and is trying to do something about it. They have been waiting a long time.

What is the coalition’s record when it comes to petrol? We know that they introduced the GST on petrol. We know that they invaded Iraq. We know that the price of crude oil has gone up by about 400 per cent since then. We know that the coalition kept the ACCC on a leash. We know that they did not spend a cent on public transport and that, as a consequence, people in my electorate and throughout the major cities of Australia are trapped in congestion every day and burning up petrol as a consequence because this former government thought that their obligations ended at the perimeters to our major cities. And, when people complained, what did they say? ‘You’ve never been better off. There’s no inflation problem; there’s no housing affordability problem.’ But suddenly, after the election, they had a change of heart and they have come to a realisation that people are doing it tough. What a difference six months in opposition can make. Six months ago they said everything was fine: ‘Let’s keep spending.’ Six months later, suddenly everything is terrible: ‘Let’s start spending.’ They did a pretty good job of spending in government, increasing spending by four per cent year on year and fuelling inflation, and they would keep spending today-spending as if it is going out of style.

This is the crux of the debate that we are having today, because inflation is the biggest challenge that we currently face. It sucks the money out of the wallets and purses of Australians all around the country. Every interest rate rise that we have takes another $50 out of those wallets and purses every month. After 12 interest rate rises in a row, it is still a problem. We still have the highest inflation in 16 years. And what is the opposition’s plan on petrol? To make it worse-an $8 billion hole in the budget, putting more pressure on inflation and putting more pressure on people who are already doing it tough. Well, that is not what I call responsible economic management, and it is not what a credible economic manager would do. That is why every serious economic commentator in the country has criticised it.

The coalition were negligent in government, and now they are being irresponsible in opposition. We have heard from the previous speaker that they are now going to amend the bill. They are going to attempt to sabotage the legislation. They want to remove the price-setting measures from the bill. This is the plan that the big oil companies wanted us to adopt, but we did not. We did not adopt it, because it will remove all the pressure on retailers to offer their best price and be competitive. Why would you set your best price for the day when you can change your mind and change your price once you know what the competition is offering? In a competitive tender, you do not let bidders change their prices once the bids are in. That is because tenders are designed to be competitive. They are designed to encourage competitive tension. They are designed to get the best result. That is the same approach that we are taking with this legislation. We do not want gaming in the system.

It is worth while here to point to the comments made by David Moir, the Executive Manager of the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia. This is what David Moir, who knows a little bit about petrol in Western Australia, had to say:

It makes the retailers think very seriously about what price they’re going to sell fuel for tomorrow. They’re obliged under FuelWatch to hold that price for 24 hours, so they can’t play games with motorists by shuffling the price up and down on an hourly basis.

That is a comment from someone from Western Australia who knows something about petrol. The background information to the bill also adds important information about this price-setting mechanism. It says:

The absence of price commitment rules means that scope for price coordination between petrol retailers would continue and that consumer anxiety relating to petrol price volatility would remain unabated as consumers would receive no further information regarding future fuel price levels or changes. Importantly, consumers would continue to have no greater certainty or increased confidence that they have purchased fuel at the lowest possible price available in their local area.

So what is this all about? I think the member for Lindsay said it best in his contribution to the debate last week. In the MPI debate, the member for Lindsay made a very insightful point-perhaps the most insightful comment from last week’s proceedings. He said that this is not about Fuelwatch-it is about ‘Malcolm watch’. That is what it is all about-get an issue, bite onto it hard, get red in the face, pretend that you are angry, excite the troops and put Malcolm in the cooler. That is what it is all about. It is not about Fuelwatch-it is about ‘Malcolm watch’. That is why the coalition are backing the big oil companies and the current oligopoly, that is why they are threatening to blow an $8 billion hole in the budget with their petrol reforms and that is why they are threatening to block other key elements of the budget. They are now threatening to use their numbers in the Senate to delay the childcare rebate, they are threatening to block the Teen Dental Plan and they are also threatening to block legislation to inject an extra half a billion dollars into the health system. All of these things are due to start on 1 July, and they are threatening to block them. They are putting their interests ahead of those of the people of Australia, and they are lining up with big oil to oppose this legislation. This is all about internal Liberal Party politics, not the interests of motorists.

This legislation is about choice, it is about information for motorists and it is about promoting competition. They are things that the Liberal Party used to support. They are things that the Labor Party supports, and that is what this legislation does. My constituents will welcome it. I commend the bill to the House.’