Professor Ian Harper, the chair of the competition policy review, told an audience of small business people at the 12th COSBOA National Small Business Summit in Melbourne yesterday: “I hear your pain.”
Harper is heading up the federal government’s “root and branch” review of competition policy in Australia.
The panel was appointed on March 27, produced an issues paper in April and since then has received more than 300 submissions.
The review promises to be the first major overhaul of competition laws since the Hilmer inquiry more than 20 years ago.
Harper says the review will include areas not touched by Hilmer, including health, education and intellectual property.
“All of the issues that surround the rapid development of the digital economy are on our agenda,” he says.
Harper says the review will be “no holds barred” and the voice of small business is “extremely important” in the competition review.
As the son of a butcher, he says: “I have grown up with a fear of large supermarkets.”
To date Harper has heard from small businesses about a number of concerns including “the exercise of market power by large players” and “being squeezed as suppliers to large businesses”.
Harper says competitive neutrality—“when the government decides to set up in business in competition with you”—is also an issue of concern, along with planning and zoning rules and access to justice for small business.
“People need to know that they can get redress for the solutions that concern them,” he says.
Harper says the review will look at three key questions: does the law need to change and if so how; does the regulator need to change and if so how; and does the government need to change the way it conducts its own operations, at a federal, state and local level.
Harper says the panel is in the process of preparing a draft report which will be available by the end of September.
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The report will include a number of draft recommendations and then the panel will take responses before preparing a final report for the government in March 2015.
But Paul Nielsen, deputy chair of COSBOA, told the audience there was a fear amongst small business that increased competition equals lower margins.
“A lot of us don’t make much now to start with so we are worried about making less,” he says.