ABC Canberra Breakfast With Adam Shirley 19 March - Transcript


SUBJECTS: Need to reform Parliament’s culture, role of factions, Government’s policies to encourage competition in the supermarket sector, proposals to break up the big supermarkets.

ADAM SHIRLEY, HOST: Dr Andrew Leigh had a life not in the political bubble at all until he entered it. He's now the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury and for some time, he's been the Federal Member for Fenner, Andrew Leigh, good morning to you.


SHIRLEY: Are you allowed, to be yourself, truly in the role you hold and the party you work with?

LEIGH: I think so, but probably one of the things that's worth throwing into the discussion is that politics is a team sport. So, that, for me, brings two obligations. In the locker room: you need to make an argument as to what you ought to do out in the field. Out in the field, you play the strategy you agreed in the locker room. So, that will have people having more robust conversations in the party room than will necessarily be reflected in the conversation in the broader society. Just as when the Raiders go out in the field, they don't play as individuals, they play as a team.

SHIRLEY: So, I'm asking this morning about pollies in this generation or previous that people actually liked and thought did a reasonable or even good job, because, as you know, the cross benches across parliament are going to push for a variety of electoral reforms to do with donations, transparency. Do you agree that the system, to the eyes of most citizens, is a bit crook and the system in which you work needs reforming?

LEIGH: I certainly don't think there's widespread corruption going on. We put in place the National Anti-Corruption Commission in order to forestall a rise in corruption, rather than because we thought there was an epidemic of corruption. That's brought three cases to trial already. They've all been relating to public servants. I think it's appropriate that we have those checks and balances in place, but I think pretty well across the board, the people that I see in politics are people who've gone into the job for the right reasons.

SHIRLEY: Does the system change them, though? They might go in for the right reasons, Dr Leigh, but does that need for team discipline, as you've called it, and other factors turn otherwise good people into average ones?

LEIGH: Look, I don't think so, Adam, but it really is important to stay grounded. One of the things that struck me when I went in was I would tend to behave in the room a bit like the way I expected everyone else to see me behave. And then over time, I realised the most valuable thing I could bring to the Caucus room was the view of a former economics professor. So, I sort of reverted to type a bit. I really admire it when the former truck driver speaks from the point of view of truckies, the former principal speaks from the point of view of principals, the former doctor speaks from the point of view of paediatricians. All of those perspectives create a richer discussion in the party room than if everyone is trying to be a cookie cutter pollie.

SHIRLEY: Last time I checked, you were one of those rare, I guess, big party politicians who's factionally unaligned. You're not part of the left, the right, the up or down. Is that still true? And are factions more a blight rather than a benefit to politics? Working for people?

LEIGH: Yes. Alicia Payne and I are the two non-factional people in the party room. I've got a huge respect for my colleagues who are in factions. The factional system isn't appropriate for me, and Alicia and I have decided to stay outside it.

SHIRLEY: Which is why I'd love to know, and I reckon voters who vote for you or don't would love to know why even if you respect the factional system, you do not want to be a part of it.

LEIGH: In part, it's the traditions we've got here in the ACT, Adam. We've traditionally had a stronger non-factional movement than other jurisdictions. That's reflected in my predecessor, Bob McMullan, for example. So, that notion that you can have a sole loyalty to the Labor party is one which has been stronger here in the ACT than it has been in any other jurisdiction, but you see it at state levels. Mark McGowan, for example, was outside the factional system, Rita Saffioti in Western Australia, you've got other politicians around the place who are outside the factional system. And of course, you've got Marisa Paterson here in the ACT.

SHIRLEY. So, that kind of goes again to that, I guess, concept you spoke about of having team discipline and following the team line, because I wonder whether not being a part of a faction allows you to be freer and less in debt to those factional allies who might have helped you?

LEIGH: I'm not sure I'd regard my factional colleagues as being in debt to anyone. I think they would see themselves as very much robustly making the case for policy but doing that within a factional framework. Parties have factions - that's just inevitable and the more your factions are organised on ideological lines and personality lines, the better off you are. The worst of it is when it becomes sort of a competing executive recruitment agency, rather than a way of channelling ideological conversations.

SHIRLEY: Andrew Leigh is with us 18 minutes to eight. He's Assistant Minister for Competition and Dr Leigh, that's where I want to pick up this conversation we're having this morning, because it seems the Nationals and the Greens are getting together to say, enough: Coles and Woolies as a duopoly are too big, too much. They need to be broken up. Now, given those two parties aren't usually bedfellows, how much merit is there to that argument? And as Competition Minister, are you going to investigate breaking up coals and Woolies?

LEIGH: Adam, that's not in our agenda. We've got a big and ambitious competition agenda, but when we look at divestment powers that exist in other countries they're very rarely used. I'm not aware of Britain or the United States making any moves to break up supermarkets. What we're doing is raising penalties for any competitive conduct. We've banned unfair contract terms. We've got former competition minister Craig Emerson reviewing the Food and Grocery Code of Conduct, seeing whether it should be made mandatory. We've got the Australian Competition Consumer Commission looking into supermarket pricing and allegations of price gouging. So, the reform agenda is a significant one, led by the Competition Task Force, which we established in Treasury, and is now working with states and territories to revitalise National Competition Policy. Because if you want more supermarket competition, that often involves things like planning and zoning laws, which are the remit of states and territories.

SHIRLEY: We are getting a few texters saying they fully support the use of competition laws to break up the supermarket duopoly. This is seriously a nerve that people have with this, I would argue, unique duopoly and powerful one in Australia. Why not consider it when those two players have the market dominance they do?

LEIGH: These powers are very rarely used elsewhere. They haven't proven to be a major spur to competition. What we're focusing on is practical changes that really make a difference. I know people are frustrated at the supermarkets. I'm frustrated at the way in which they're squeezing both suppliers and consumers. We need to make sure we've got better data that we're bringing to bear. This used to be an ideological conversation. Now we've actually got high quality data and the ACCC's inquiry is going to be using some of that. And we need to look very carefully from the perspective of suppliers, not just at the supermarkets, but also at the processes. So, if you're looking at the meat processing industry, for example, you got a lot of farmers selling to quite a small number of processers. The so-called monopsony power is hurting suppliers, just as monopoly power hurts consumers. But we're focused on practical reforms that will make a difference. We don't see divestment as being among that.

SHIRLEY: You've said a couple of times these powers haven't been used commonly elsewhere. But could the argument be made that nowhere else has a market dominance like Australia does and is it blinkered, in fact, not to consider divestment or breaking up these two big corporations?

LEIGH: No, we're just focused on what works. We're really concerned about making sure we deliver for consumers. We've got to do a better job of reducing market concentration and markups, which have grown recent years.

SHIRLEY: So, how do you do that if it's not going to be about breaking up the big two, the data you referred to as well, how do you ensure that prices don't get overinflated and that regular working people aren't the ones who are hurt?

LEIGH: Well, right now we're reviewing Australia's merger laws, which is the first serious review of the merger laws in more than a decade. We'll soon be announcing where we plan to go on that review of merger laws. In terms of the ability of workers to move we're looking at restraints of trade and non-compete clauses, which we believe could have driven down wages are another way that market power can hurt consumers. And then the work of the states and territories really is about revitalising National Competition Policy that served Australia so well in the 1990s and according to one estimate, delivered around $5,000 a year of benefits in the pockets of the typical Australian household. The reforms of the 1990s aren't something we can just hit play on again. Back then, they had to do with reforming electricity markets and railway gauges. The reforms now have to do with things like net zero, making sure we get the care economy as competitive as possible and really delivering for consumers through the better use of data by regulators. We've got a strong competition agenda targeted on building productivity and boosting living standards for Australia.

SHIRLEY: Dr Leigh, really appreciate your response to that, well, political push, but also one that people see as a practical push to take some of the power out of the duopoly in supermarkets here. Thanks for stating that the Government's position to this point. We'll see what response it gets.

LEIGH: Thanks so much, Adam.


Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Georgia Thompson
    published this page in What's New 2024-03-19 09:43:50 +1100

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.