Rod Sims was waiting for a flight when he first learnt Wayne Swan was keen to nominate him as chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, one of the country’s most powerful regulators.
Sims had bumped into the Treasurer in Brisbane Airport’s Chairman’s Lounge. “He said he’d like to catch up, in a rather pointed way,” Sims tells The Power Index.
A chance encounter, yes. But it was no chance appointment. Sims is one of the few individuals in the country with significant experience across pricing, policy and advising businesses on access issues regarding mergers and acquisitions. He’s a long-standing economist and once served as deputy secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet during the Hawke government (or the “best job in the public service”, according to Sims).
“It wasn’t a matter of the next bloke who walked into the airport he’d offer the job of ACCC chairman,” adds Sims, in case we’re under any illusions that it was.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
And as Sims also notes, in the Chairman’s Lounge of Brisbane Airport, “you’re going to meet everybody in there pretty quickly”.
Well at least everybody of some significant level of power in Australia. Sims, a couple of months into leading the competition watchdog, now finds himself a part of the powerful enforcement club: the club that few people, outside the media, are game to criticise.
Softly spoken, but sounding very much relaxed, Sims takes The Power Index’s call somewhere between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, the three cities he calls home on a weekly basis. But don’t be fooled by the vocal chords, or by his good-natured conversation or childhood spent in the picturesque Victorian town of Lorne on the Great Ocean Road.
Sims’ first two months in the job show he’s no pup when it comes to law enforcement. He’s determined to make a difference.
The ACCC has been known to surrender before the very law that invests power in it. Sims wants to change that. The ACCC has been known to win almost 100% of the first instance litigation into which it enters. Sims wants to change that too.
And the ACCC has been criticised for not doing enough regarding monopolies within certain industries. Well enough of that too: Sims has placed a big, fat bull’s-eye on the heart of the energy retailer and telecommunications sectors, declaring the ACCC will apply a crucial focus on the two sectors during his tenure in the top job.
“I’m trying to make sure that we take a strategic approach to enforcement, as distinct to a reactive approach,” Sims tells The Power Index.
It’s a commendable move, says Dr Caron Beaton-Wells, a competition expert from the University of Melbourne Law School, but one that ultimately returns some power to the Federal Court in that it will be making a greater “contribution to the development and clarification of the law”.
That means greater scrutiny by the judiciary, which could then expose the vulnerabilities of the law and leave the ACCC’s power open to amendment.