Papers refuel the flames of history

By Jared Lynch
Updated November 7 2012 - 1:13am, first published January 1 2009 - 11:05pm
Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and his successor as member for Wannon, David Hawker, in 1975.

ENVIRONMENTALLY sensible or just boosting government coffers?Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser faced some tough decisions at the start of his second term in office back in 1978.No doubt his most unpopular one was introducing an import parity pricing formula, which set cheap Aussie-produced oil at the far higher world price.It was a far-reaching measure which netted an estimated $678 million in revenue in 1978-79 and continues to be cursed by Aussie motorists.The then treasurer, John Howard, announced the move, estimating fuel prices would rise by three cents a litre as a result -- a modest increase compared to recent record highs of about $1.70 a litre.But the release of 1978 cabinet papers this week revealed Bass Strait oil was then at $2.35 a barrel, while the world price was about $US10 a barrel.It is no surprise the tax hike was noisily condemned by the Australian public at the time.Today, leading fuel commentators, including the RACV's petrol spokesman David Cumming, openly criticise import parity pricing Mr Cumming has called for a review of the formula which he said "artificially inflates" Australian fuel prices, particularly diesel.Because our benchmark price is in line with Singapore, the pricing formula works against Australian motorists, Mr Cumming said."Asia runs on diesel, therefore the demand is far greater and that in turn pushes up Australian diesel prices, when most of it comes from Bass Strait," he said."It wouldn't hurt to have a look at the formula. It hasn't been touched in 25 years."But the former member for Wannon stands by his decision, which he said netted far more than the extra revenue back in the economic turbulent times of the late 1970s."Petrol is a finite resource," he told The Standard. "Countries like the US which artificially lower their resources are remarkably stupid. I don't deny it was an important revenue-raiser."But there was a good environmental reason to put the price as near as possible to the world market price."Mr Fraser said an import parity pricing structure ensured the future of oil exploration in Australia would remain economically viable. He said if the US introduced a similar policy its major car makers would have avoided financial troubles."All the arguments for it (parity pricing) were overwhelmingly powerful."Perhaps if America did the same thing General Motors and Chrysler would have stopped making fuel-guzzling cars and made more environmentally-friendly vehicles, instead of now begging for billions of dollars from the US Government to stop going bankrupt." Former Fraser government minister Fred Chaney was guest speaker at the cabinet papers' release. He said Mr Fraser's wife Tammie gave the best possible answer to public concern shortly after the formula was introduced."She told an interview on TV something like this: "The policy must be right mustn't it, because who would do something as awful as that if it wasn't right."

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