Competition Law

Australian Competition Law and Policy Discussion

No new competition minister

Posted by Julie Clarke on 20 September 2010

I leave the country for two weeks and return to find no more competition minister.  I’m confident there is no correlation between the two, but just to be safe I’ll stay in the country for a while.

Labor once proudly touted the fact that it appointed a dedicated competition minister.  This was watered down in the previous ministerial shake-up when Dr Craig Emerson MP replaced Chris Bowen MP as competition and consumer minister – the competition portfolio was then one of only three held by the minister (whose title was: ‘Minister for Small Business, Independent Contractors and the Service Economy; Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs AND Minister Assisting the Finance Minister on Deregulation).  Now the portfolio has been eliminated completely.  Instead, responsibility has been merged into Treasurer Wayne Swan’s portfolio, assisted by new Parliamentary Secretary for Treasury, David Bradbury MP.  It is now the Liberal Party that have a Shadow Competition Minister in Bruce Billson MP (although that portfolio appears inextricably linked to the small business portfolio which, based on election rhetoric, could have risked some ill-directed reviews of competition policy).

Perhaps Labor thinks the hard work for the competition and consumer minister is done, with the introduction of criminal penalties for cartels (completing the suite of Dawson Review reforms) and the introduction of the national consumer law.  It may also suggest that major reviews or changes to the law are not planned during the term of the current government, arguably reducing the need for a dedicated minister.  This would be welcome news – the dust needs to settle on some major reforms before any meaningful review can be conducted.  However, the implementation of some of the  most radical reforms in competition and consumer policy should justify some dedicated ministerial oversight.  The role of effective competition policy in bolstering economic recovery could also justify a dedicated competition portfolio.

It remains to be seen whether the ministerial slight of competition policy will have any impact.  Labor argues that, as the Treasurer will now have prime responsibility for competition policy, the portfolio was actually being upgraded and not downgraded. However, The Australian’s Paul Kelly, was appropriately cynical and decided it may be ‘best to suspend judgment on this front.’  While a rush to judgment on the impact of the change may be unwise, it is difficulty to imagine how removal of a dedicated portfolio can be good for competition policy.

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