ABC RURAL COUNTRY HOUR WITH WARWICK LONG
THURSDAY, 9 MARCH 2023
SUBJECTS: Right to repair agricultural machinery.
WARWICK LONG (HOST): Let's keep talking government right now, but very much an on farm issue. The Federal Government is asking the Australian farming industry for ideas on how best to give farmers the right to repair the equipment they buy. So in January, the American Farm Bureau signed an MoU with major farm machinery dealers to allow US farmers access to machinery repair codes, diagnostics and manuals after they were initially locked out by companies protecting intellectual property rights. The same issue is facing Australian farmers and they want a similar solution. Andrew Leigh is the Assistant Minister for Competition and he says he wants to hear from industry about some of these solutions and work out a deal for Australian farmers. I spoke to him earlier today.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMPETITION, CHARITIES AND TREASURY ANDREW LEIGH: Certainly we’re interested in the potential for expanding the right to repair. For many years, I've been campaigning for data sharing, for mechanics to be able to fix modern cars. Modern cars are computers on wheels, and unless independent mechanics have access to that data, they were looking at going to the wall. And the very same issue arises with agricultural machinery. The movements in the United States suggest a way in which this might be possible to achieve and certainly it would improve agricultural productivity, because you're talking about farmers being able to fix their machines quicker and at harvest time, you've got dollars going out the door if you're not harvesting quickly.
LONG: Do you like the idea of an MoU type deal with manufacturers, or are there other things the government can look at in this space? The previous government implemented the Motor Vehicle Repair Information Sharing scheme but didn't include agricultural machinery. Why not?
LEIGH: I think they want to get up a narrower scheme at the time, but I recognise that there's been a lot of engagement from industry, from stakeholders. The National Farmers Federation have been enthusiastic about this. I'm keen to see whether there's a path forward where we can work cooperatively with the manufacturers in order to make sure that farmers are able to fix the machines that, after all, they've paid for.
LONG: Is the issue here what are you actually buying when you buy a vehicle from a manufacturer if you're not actually allowed to access any of the important machinery behind operating the equipment because of its intellectual property rights?
LEIGH: Yeah, it's an issue of consumer sovereignty. It's also an issue of competition in the repair market in the context of passenger motor vehicles. We had a problem where if data wasn't being shared, independent mechanics would basically go to the wall. They'd be able to wash the wheels, but they wouldn't be able to get under the hood. And so with information sharing, we've ensured that those independent mechanics are able to provide a bit of competitive pressure in the market, put downward pressure on the price of repairs and ensure that people have more choice. It's been important in regional areas because people often would have to otherwise drive a long way to get to an authorised dealer. Instead, they can use an independent mechanic. All those same principles flow through to farm machinery. It's often a pretty long distance to travel and so if you've got to wait for an authorised repair to come out, that can be time and money that you're losing.
LONG: So what happens from here in terms of your point of view? What's the timeline for change here?
LEIGH: Yeah, I'm keen to continue the conversations with stakeholders and with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, to see whether or not they're able to suggest a constructive way forward. Ideally, we'd do this on a collaborative basis, as has been done in the United States. In the area of passenger motor vehicles, it was ultimately necessary to come in with a compulsory scheme. Let's see whether we're able to get something voluntary up in the first instance.
LONG: How fast could change happen?
LEIGH: I'd like to see a change happening quickly, but these issues tend to be fairly complicated and there's an awful lot of issues that arise with farm machinery that don't arise with passenger motor vehicles. There's a smaller number of suppliers and a smaller number of users as well, so we need to make sure that we get it right. But we're standing firmly on the side of competition, firmly on the side of farmers. We need to make sure that Australian agricultural producers have access to a competitive market for repair.
LONG: There's the MoU model, the Memorandum of Understanding, which would have manufacturers at the table if the ACCC was involved. I'd imagine that's more of a code of conduct or regulation type space, is that correct?
LEIGH: Yeah, certainly the ACCC can oversee voluntary codes, but the other alternative is to go for a mandatory approach. I'm open minded, but I know that the goal needs to be getting more choice for farmers and quicker repair at harvest time.
LONG: Do you want to hear more from industry?
LEIGH: Absolutely. I encourage people to get in touch with my office. I’m not difficult to find at the modestly-named andrewleigh.com. Very keen to hear people's views.