So once we all get over the silliness of yesterday, there’s a bit to consider in what Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb offered yesterday.
Hockey briefly appeared to threaten to “hit the ground reviewing” by leading with a planned look into the Trade Practices Act and an infrastructure audit — but stopped there. He was correct to single out infrastructure access as an issue in need of resolution. After Chris Bowen initiated a review of infrastructure access processes — which have been a lawyers’ delight in areas like telecommunications and rail access in the Pilbara — in 2008, he produced draft legislation last year to speed up the process of determining conditions under which infrastructure access was provided to third parties.
That legislation was sent off to a Senate committee, which reported in March and broadly supported the bill, although the Coalition had some concerns about limitations on merit-based reviews of decisions. Whether the bill gets through parliament in the limited time left for the Senate to sit before the election remains to be seen.
The bill split the mining industry, with the big incumbents predictably complaining about it, and newcomers like Fortescue liking it. As far as the large mining companies are concerned, any sort of infrastructure access regime is an evil and, inevitably, will discourage investment (the mere existence of an Australian mining industry is remarkable given how many times miners have warned that government policies will discourage investment in recent decades).
The issue will be whether the Coalition wants to continue its act as the parliamentary wing of the big miners by neutering the infrastructure access process, or whether they’re fair dinkum about establishing a workable process.
But conversely, Hockey also emphasised the need for “fair” markets yesterday. Like “fair trade”, the term should worry anyone who values competition. Hockey wants the review of the TPA to consider how to better protect small business from “unfair” competition. We’ve already been down this route with Barnaby Joyce’s appalling ‘Birdsville amendment’ that in effect elevates the right of small business to operate inefficiently above the rights of consumers to benefit from competition. Hopefully Hockey’s review won’t involve a further tilting of the regulatory playing field toward small business and away from larger businesses — who will be punished enough by the Coalition with its paid parental leave levy.
On financial services, though, Hockey and the Coalition have been left high and dry. Yesterday Hockey was promising to revisit the Financial Services Reform Act to improve disclosure by financial planners, mainly by making disclosure statements shorter. This is where the debate on commissions and financial planners’ obligations to clients was two years ago, when the financial planning industry was insisting commissions were fine as long as they were disclosed properly. Since then much of the industry itself has rapidly moved to ditch commissions, and Chris Bowen has announced there’ll be a fiduciary duty imposed on financial planners as well as the phase-out of commission from 2012. The impression that the Coalition just doesn’t get it on financial management issues is stronger than ever.
While the Coalition’s savings might have been wildly overstated, there are some sensible cuts. Ending the Sisyphean task of establishing a workable e-health record system is overdue. The federal government has been wasting tens of millions on trying to achieve some form of interoperability in health records for years, with no progress. A private report by Ovum released in January suggested Australia had already wasted $5 billion by all levels of government on e-health and made no progress of any kind. Overseas efforts to develop e-health systems have also turned out to be an expensive waste of time. While everyone agrees on the benefits of electronic patient records, we’re still bedevilled by a digital break-of-gauge between different jurisdictions that means, however laudable its objectives, expenditure will be wasted until there’s a unitary funder of health systems. Time to admit defeat and quit throwing good money after bad.
And while the government used the Budget to slash its Green Car Innovation Fund — a tiny delivery mechanism for the billions it is wasting protecting the Australian car industry — the Coalition has proposed damn near killing the whole thing off by ripping another $280 million out of it. Last year Joe Hockey floated the idea of cutting back on the level of support for the car industry (and copped some grief from colleagues as a result) but hopefully this will be the start of the Coalition ending the bipartisan support for propping up manufacturing at the cost of billions of dollars for taxpayers and higher costs for consumers.
And why Medibank Private remains in government hands is a complete mystery. Both sides of politics are culpable on this one. The sooner it is offloaded from public ownership, the better. The only worry is that the Liberals have promised to flog it before and baulked. The public sector has no business owning a health insurance outfit.
Some of the cuts seem unnecessarily punitive. Saving $15 million from climate change adaptation funding for will have a disproportionate impact on our Pacific neighbours, where the impacts of climate change are already being felt. And claiming $200 million from reducing public service consultancies is a fantasy.
Nevertheless, Hockey and Robb yesterday produced more substance than Tony Abbott has managed all year. Robb was insistent it was just the start. Hopefully he’s right.