Treasurer Jim Chalmers takes aim at Greens’ Nick McKim, Coalition’s Angus Taylor over mergers shake-up

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Treasurer Jim Chalmers has launched a personal spray against the opponents of his mooted mergers overhaul, suggesting his Coalition and Green counterparts know little about the economy.

The changes, unveiled by Dr Chalmers on Wednesday, will bolster the powers of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) by establishing a mandatory notification scheme for takeovers and establishing a cost recovery system for assessing mergers and acquisitions.

The reforms follows a recent review of the nation’s merger control regime conducted by Treasury, amid concerns that anti-competitive takeover deals can stifle innovation, reduce products and services available, and cause price hikes.

Responding to the overhaul, Greens Senator Nick McKim described the reforms as “weak and inadequate”, and claimed they demonstrated Labor had caved to the demands of corporate Australia.

“This is becoming a well established pattern for Labor – giving themselves a huge pat on the back for doing the bare minimum and caving into big business demands,” the Green’s economic justice spokesperson Senator McKim said.

Pointing to demands from the competition regulator for a new approval test for merger cases, which was ultimately refused by the government, Senator McKim said the ACCC had not been given the tools required to stop further concentration of market power.

“This will not reverse the onus of proof for the substantial lessening of competition test, which means the default will remain to approve mergers.”

Companies are currently required to prove a proposed merger or acquisition wouldn’t be likely to “substantially lessen competition”, however, the ACCC sought to have the power to determine whether a case meets this threshold itself, effectively reversing the onus of proof.

“This is yet another example of Labor dancing to the tune of big business, instead of doing what is right by consumers,” Senator McKim added.

Meanwhile, shadow treasurer Angus Taylor was more guarded in his direct criticism of the government’s proposal, instead pointing to perceived failures in its agenda on competition and economic policy.

“It’s important the government doesn’t confuse competition policy with competitiveness of the economy,” Mr Taylor said, citing Labor’s policies on energy, industrial relations and tax.

“Labor is on a go-slow on competition policy: on the news bargaining code, on cash, and on reform to support our farmers and growers – Labor is failing to stand up for Australian consumers, Australian businesses, and Australian jobs.”

But railing against criticism of his merger reforms, Dr Chalmers took aim at the economic credentials of Mr Taylor and Senator McKim.

“Nick’s not the worst guy, but like Angus Taylor he knows almost nothing about the economy and even less about competition policy,” Dr Chalmers said.

While Senator McKim does not have economic qualifications, Mr Taylor studied a Master of Philosophy in Economics as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford where the competition challenges facing British pubs was the subject of his final thesis.

In the review of the proposed merger shake-up, the Business Council – corporate Australia’s chief advocate in Canberra – railed against the proposal, arguing that a reversal of the onus of proof would stymie investment and kneecap deal making activity.

In comments released after the changes were announced, Bran Black, the lobby group’s chief executive said that while the reforms had struck the right balance, further consultation was required so that big businesses were not saddled with “unintended consequences”.

“There is still a lot of detail that is to be determined and further consultation will be required with business on many important elements in this package,” Mr Black said.