Two major industry bodies called yesterday (satjul25) for changes to the powers of the Trade Practices Commission.
They criticised the TPC’s “”extravagantly wide” powers to interrogate people under oath.
The criticisms come after the rejection by the Federal Court on Friday of an action bought by the TPC alleging petrol price fixing by the service-station industry.
The executive director of the Motor Trades Association of Australia, Michael Delaney, said, “”The TPC should be required to re-assess its objectives and its procedures in the investigation and prosecution of alleged restrictive trade practices.”
He criticised the TPC for not attempting to reach a settlement before putting the parties to great expense with legal action; for taking action against an industry association and its officers and not the industry principals; and for excessive use of its Section 155 powers which require people appear at the commission and to be interrogated under oath.
The action was brought by the TPC in response to the Service Station Association of NSW’s “”Prosper from Petrol” campaign in 1990. The campaign proposed a recommended margin, but said pricing was ultimately a matter for service-station owners.
Mr Delaney said 12 people had been compelled to appear before the commission.
“”Those people were required to answer questions even if the answers might have tended to incriminate them, which is a procedure that seems to be totally at odds with basic natural justice and the legal principles on which Australian society is based,” he said.
He criticised the TPC for not attempting to reach a settlement before putting the parties to great expense with legal action and for taking action against an industry association and its officers and not the industry principals.
If the decision had gone the other way many good quality people would have refused to work for industry associations with that sort of exposure.
Judging by the nature of the case and the complexity of the evidence there would be little change out of $400,000 in total legal expenses of both sides.
The chairman of the TPC, Professor Allan Fels, defended the bringing of the action, saying the TPC thought there had been a serious breach of the Act. It was considering an appeal.
The assistant director of the Business Council of Australia, Clive Speed, said the case caused great concern in the business community and showed that TPC should have new guidelines on how it gathered evidence.
Natural justice required that people ought to have protection against the TPC’s wide interrogatory powers.
“”It is worrying for business that a regulatory body can be so high-handed,” he said.
Business was also concerned that Professor Fels was also chairman on the Prices Surveillance Authority. This had gone on for almost a year.
“”It’s unfathomable why the Government has not made a decision about the two bodies,” he said.
Professor Fels had called for them to be amalgamated but business thought that, if there were to be a PSA, it should be separate with a separate head. The TPC was pro-competition and the PSA was a control body; they had two entirely different functions. Business thought there was no need for the PSA.