Remember the carbon cops that were going to enforce the Gillard government’s draconian Clean Energy Acts? Remember how Australian businesses were going to be gagged from telling customers they had to raise prices because of the carbon tax, under threat of fines of $1.1 million?
Shame if you don’t — the Coalition summoned some seriously high dudgeon on the issue in 2011. “The Gillard government’s plan to use the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to gag small businesses from informing consumers of price increases due to the carbon tax is a further attack on the struggling sector,” then-opposition spokesman Bruce Billson lamented.
Funny thing was, as Crikey explained at the time, the government had given itself no new powers under the Clean Energy Act to do anything — it merely said the ACCC would be given some extra funding and had the power to crack down on false and misleading conduct by businesses under Australian consumer law. Some criticised this at the time because when the GST was introduced, the ACCC had an additional power relating to “price exploitation” – that is, charging an “unreasonably high price”, separate from engaging in false or misleading conduct about that price. But price exploitation was absent from the offences that had been codified a few months earlier at the start of 2011 in the new version of the Trade Practices Act, the Competition and Consumer Act — supported by the Coalition.
So when time came for the Coalition to repeal the carbon price, you’d think it would be anything but aggressive on prices. No gagging of businesses with threats of $1.1 million fines, no threats to use the “false and misleading conduct” sections of the consumer law, no carbon cops.
Well not quite.
In fact, Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s carbon price repeal bill, released on Tuesday, re-establishes within the Competition and Consumer Act the old power to pursue “price exploitation”, under which not merely is it an offence to “make a false or misleading representation … concerning the effect of the carbon tax repeal” but it becomes an offence to “engage in price exploitation in relation to the carbon tax repeal” — which is selling gas, power or other identified goods for an “unreasonably high” price. The Coalition will thus extend the ACCC’s powers beyond those Labor codified in 2011, back to the GST-era powers.
The ACCC is specifically empowered to monitor prices for the purposes of pursuing price exploitation, including forcing companies to provide information about their internal activities. It can also hand out infringement notices (i.e. the equivalent of speeding tickets) to companies for price exploitation, or take them to court to face fines of up to $1.7 million (that’s the current equivalent of the old $1.1 million fine, after Commonwealth penalty units went up this year) or just over $1.1 million for breaching the “false and misleading” sections.
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That is, compared to the Gillard government, the Coalition will absolutely clobber businesses that don’t reduce prices or try to claim they shouldn’t have to.
Just another small example of the ever-growing disparity between what the Coalition said in opposition and what it’s doing in government.