When are political parties anti-business? When are they the battlers’ friend? It appears that being in government may make a crucial difference.

The new Rudd administration has been waving the big stick over the summer holidays. “We believe that you need to have disincentives for cartel operations,” Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen has said. “Cartel is theft. It’s stealing off consumers. In several countries around the world if you operate a cartel you go to prison. Five years, in Canada, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom. Ten years in the United States. So we’ll legislate to have prison terms for cartel operations.”

Bowen says the courts have interpreted the Trade Practices Act in a restrictive way.

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“The ACCC really looks at a lot of cases and says, well we think this stinks, we think this is terrible behaviour but we just can’t get a prosecution in the court,” he claims. “The High Court a few years ago, back in 2003, said if you have a big business which drives a small business under, by cutting their prices below cost, the ACCC has to be able to prove that that big business can make the money back later. That’s a very, very hard thing to prove so we will legislate to remove that requirement.”

Labor has got a good run with all of this – and yet much of what Bowen is talking about appears to be a straight lift from Mark Latham’s policy.

Bowen says, “We believe in competition, we believe in fair competition, we don’t believe in big businesses or any other business being able to reduce their prices so low for a short period of time to drive everybody else out and then to be able to charge whatever they want.”

Mark Latham said: “Conservatives talk about markets. Labor reforms them. Conservatives talk about competition. Labor ensures that it happens. That’s why we believe post-Hilmer, the nation needs a fresh competition agenda. Labor sees the need for a third wave of competition reform. The first brought us internationalisation, the second gave us public sector competition. Labor’s third wave will deepen competition in the private sector, ensuring the nation’s bounty is distributed according to effort and innovation, not by concentrated markets and protection.

“Labor believes that equity and efficiency can coexist. Competitive pressure pushes along innovation, upgrades technology, secures new markets and lowers prices. It also squeezes management excesses and highlights poor quality and service. This is why I am unashamedly pro-competition. That’s why I want to implement the next wave of competition policy reform.”

Latham had a program of reform (read it here — a bit of clever use of the Google cache function might help) that seems very similar to Bowen’s promises.

But coming from opposition, it was anti-business. Unlike Labor’s plans now.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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