ABC Canberra Drive with Ross Solly Wednesday 10 April 2024 - Transcript


SUBJECTS: Palestinian statehood, merger reforms, competition policy, Australia’s Indigenous history, British influence and multicultural story.

ROSS SOLLY: Great to have you on the show, Dr. Leigh.

ASSISTANT MINISTER, ANDREW LEIGH: Great to be back with you, Ross.

SOLLY: Just before we talk about this, can I get your thoughts on what Penny Wong had to say last night? About the only way to work towards a long-term peace prospect in the Middle-East is that maybe we should recognise Palestine as a state. What are your thoughts?

LEIGH: Well, I think everyone recognises that the two-state solution is the only lasting way of achieving peace. And this is about building the pathways out of an endless cycle of violence. You only get security and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians with a two-state solution. So, while Australia is a respected voice, we're not a central player in the Middle East. Our role is to argue for a humanitarian ceasefire, return of hostages, the protection of civilians, but also to give our support to what the international community has broadly recognised. A two-state solution.

SOLLY: And is it something we should be doing sooner rather than later? Or can we just wait? Can we just wait for peace to one day return to that region?

LEIGH: Well, we've seen 33,000 lives lost in Gaza. We had the 1200 people who were killed by the Hamas attacks on October 7. This has been a bloodbath in the Middle East, Ross, and the senseless killings must stop. The way to get that to end is to have a lasting peace in the region. And Australia's diplomatic efforts are pointed towards that end, albeit that we're not a central player.

SOLLY: Alright, let's talk about the new legislation, the new laws that you're proposing - Jim Chalmers is proposing - regarding mergers of businesses. What are you trying to do here? What new powers are you giving the ACCC?

LEIGH: Well, it's worth thinking about how our system works at the moment, Ross. So right now, our system has three different paths to merger approval, which is inefficient, means that companies can game the system, and it often means that merger approval takes a long time. Most mergers aren't bad, but some mergers can be really problematic. What we want is a system that allows the competition watchdog to focus its energies on the high risk mergers and have the low risk mergers dealt with speedily. I don't want to see Australia end up the land of the duopoly. I want us to be doing proper merger scrutiny in line with the way other countries do things. There's only a couple of other advanced countries that don't require compulsory merger notification. So, we are really an outlier in having the hodgepodge outdated system we currently have.

SOLLY: The ACCC wanted you to go further, though. They wanted what many are calling a presumptive ban. Why is that not feasible? Why wouldn't you do that?

LEIGH: They did initially, and ultimately, they came around to the view that this was the best way forward. And this has been really a reflection of the conversations that Jim Chalmers and I have led with the business community, having those thoughtful conversations. The Business Council of Australia were initially quite lukewarm about the idea of merger reform, but I think they recognised the benefits of having a modernised, more efficient system. And as we did the data analysis, Ross, we realised some of the unusual facts. Like the fact that right now the competition watchdog doesn't see three out of four mergers, and it can't block what it can't see.

SOLLY: Well, and Ms Cass-Gottlieb from the ACCC was saying that one of the ways to maybe get on top of that is to make the companies prove that these mergers would not be likely to substantially lessen competition before approving a merger. Is that just too hard for companies to prove that? I mean, why - what's the Government got against that? Why is that too difficult?

LEIGH: We looked at flipping the onus of proof, which, as you say, was the competition watchdog's initial view. The considered view that we came to was that it wasn't appropriate and that would have been out of step with the way in which other countries do their merger scrutiny. Really, this is about ensuring we get a more competitive and dynamic economy. Last time we had a big wave of competition reforms through the 1990s, productivity surged and living standards increased to the tune of about $5,000 for every Australian household. So there's big payoffs from getting competition policy right, and there's no issue more central to market concentration than our merger laws. This really is serious economic reform, reflecting our commitment to boosting living standards and making sure consumers get a better deal.

SOLLY: I know this is an area which you have a lot of interest, Dr. Andrew Leigh. Some might even describe you as a competition policy wonk.

LEIGH: I would welcome that appellation. 


SOLLY: Have you seen examples of mergers which you've looked at and thought, gee, that's not a good - that's not a good outcome, that is not good for the Australian consumer?

LEIGH: Look, in my role it doesn't make sense to be identifying particular mergers.

SOLLY: No, let's not name names. But have you seen examples where you've thought, gee, this is really not a better - not a good pairing?

LEIGH: Absolutely. And with the benefit of hindsight, you look at a range of mergers that have taken place that have increased market power and where the impacts have been different from what the proponents said at the outset. One of the key things we're going to be able to do with this new data-driven approach is really to use the data of how the market is situated to test some of the claims that proponents are making. So, if you claim that prices aren't going to go up, then we'll be able to look afterwards and actually see those price impacts. That'll mean that the competition watchdog will get better and better at scrutinising mergers because it'll be learning every time. That's just not part of the current system, which is much less data-intensive than it should be, in the view of the Treasurer and me.

SOLLY: Andrew Leigh, good to speak with you. Actually, I have one other question for you, Dr. Leigh, and it's unrelated, totally unrelated to anything we're talking about, but we have - we've been discussing it on the program today. The Department of Health wants to change the name of its building here in Canberra. It's currently called Sirius, which is named after the HMS Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet. Members of the staff were uncomfortable with that name, so they've said, this is not going to be the name of our building anymore. Do you think this is a good move? Are you comfortable with this? Do you think we should be changing the names of buildings that have some sort of a link or some sort of a tie in with the First Fleet and the arrival of European settlers?

LEIGH: Well, Ross, I assume that someone's already done the "Surely you can't be 'Sirius’.'"

SOLLY: Yes, they have. You're the 26th person.

LEIGH: Yeah, I figured that might be the case. So, I think it's part also of recognising that names evolve as a country recognises its rich Indigenous heritage. I remember as a kid there were the celebrations for the 1988 Bicentennial, with Indigenous people being almost entirely left out of the story. I really love being in a country that celebrates its Indigenous heritage. The more we can do that through names and through understanding the history, the more pride that we who are non-Indigenous can take in sharing the land with a peoples whose history goes back more than 60,000 years. How lucky are we as non-Indigenous people to have that? So, if changing a name helps improve that celebration and bring about more reconciliation, I'm all for it.

SOLLY: Do you think that we should also, though, be distancing ourselves from the arrival of the First Fleet, from the arrival of a European settlement like this?

LEIGH: I love Noel Pearson's notion that Australia is the confluence of three big rivers: the British history, Indigenous heritage and the multicultural stories that have come, particularly in the post-war era. So, it's not about pretending that somehow our legal institutions, our political institutions don't have strong roots in Britain. But it is about giving equal recognition to the roles of Indigenous Australia and multiculturalism. And with those three big rivers coming together, that I think is the foundation for an Australia that understands its deep past, its immediate past and its multicultural future.

SOLLY: Dr. Andrew Leigh, good to speak with you this afternoon. Thank you.

LEIGH: Thanks, Ross.

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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.