My views in short:
- The private test for whether a facility is uneconomical to duplicate (laid down by the High Court in Fortescue) will remain law for the foreseeable future.
- Amending criterion (b) in the manner proposed by the PC would:
- Reintroduce a variant of the natural monopoly test to the National Access Regime; and
- Reopen export infrastructure to the possibility of declaration.
- Many State based access regimes which were imposed pre Fortescue, under a natural monopoly test, will remain in legal limbo. This may result in:
- Infrastructure owners seeking review of State based regimes;
- States imposing access by fiat rather than under rule-of-reason declaration criteria.
The National Access Regime provides a number of mechanisms by which third parties can gain access to certain nationally significant infrastructure facilities. The most notorious of these mechanisms is declaration:
- if the infrastructure and associated markets meet a number of criteria then the service provided by the infrastructure is "declared"; and
- if the infrastructure is declared then an access seeker can force the infrastructure owner into negotiation with recourse to binding arbitration by the ACCC.
The High Court ruled on the declaration mechanism in the National Access Regime in 2012 in Fortescue (The Pilbara Infrastructure Pty Ltd vAustralian Competition Tribunal  HCA 36 (14 September 2012)).
Another mechanism in the National Access Regime is for infrastructure owners to give an access undertaking to the ACCC under Div 6, Part IIIA of the CCA. These are sometimes called "voluntary" undertakings however there has not to date been a Part IIIA undertaking given voluntarily. Rather these have generally been required under separate legislation (this is the case for the wheat export undertakings which are required under section 7 of the Wheat Export Marketing Act 2008).
The most controversial aspect of declaration under the National Access Regime is criterion (b). Criterion (b) makes access conditional on (in part) whether it would be "uneconomical for anyone to develop another facility to provide the service". Competing interpretations of criterion (b) go to the heart of one (often claimed) intention of the National Access Regime in relation to productive efficiency: is the National Access Regime intended to:
The Federal Government started the PC's inquiry into the National Access Regime in October 2012. Following initial public consultation the PC released its draft report in May 2013. The PC undertook further public consultation before providing its final report to the Federal Government in October 2013. The Federal Government released the final report on 11 February 2014.
- The National Access Regime should be retained, although some amendments are proposed.
- Governments considering whether to regulate access should demonstrate that there is a lack of effective competition that is best addressed by access regulation.
- The ACCC should have the power to direct infrastructure expansions and extensions but this power should be exercised subject to safeguards and ACCC guidelines.
Criterion (b) proposal: a logical disconnect?
So far so good. However there appears to be a logical disconnect between the PC's recommendation for amending criterion (b) and the PC's view that the purpose of access regulation is not "to improve productive efficiency through avoiding wasteful duplication" of infrastructure (Report, p86).
The PC is at pains to state that the purpose of the National Access Regime is to address a lack of competition (allocative efficiency), rather than productive efficiency that might arise from duplicating infrastructure. In fact the PC approach proposes that access regulation should address competition issues in two distinct notional areas:
- markets for infrastructure services where there is an enduring lack of competition due to natural monopoly; and
- markets where competition is dependent on third parties gaining access to the above mentioned infrastructure services.
The problem with that response is that the facts in Fortescue had natural monopoly rail infrastructure that was profitable to duplicate. It was profitable to duplicate because world prices for iron ore were well above the costs of production in the Pilbara (prices were set by the costs of marginal producers - Pilbara producers are "inframarginal" producers). This arguably allowed Pilbara producers the luxury of some inefficiency in the form of duplicated natural monopoly infrastructure.
Perhaps what troubled the PC is that the private test worked in practice but not in theory or that the PC sought to narrow declaration still further. I would think that a better way to achieve that may be to leave criterion (b) unchanged (and carrying the High Court's private interpretation) but add its proposed natural monopoly variant as an additional criterion.
Criterion (f) proposal: a do-all criterion?
I also believe that the PC's proposed full public benefit test for criterion (f) has problems.
The current criteria apart from criterion (f) require benefits of certain kinds (for example, promotion of a material increase in competition in at least one market). Current criterion (f) allows a decision maker to check that, in spite of benefits accruing from the other criteria being satisfied, there is not some other matter that will weigh against the public interest.
Under the PC's proposal, criterion (f) would become the main game before decision makers. Anyone who has been involved in the full public benefit test elsewhere in the CCA can attest that it is a significant burden for an applicant to bear and a substantial task for decision makers to assess claimed benefits and counter claims.
The Federal Government's response to the Report has been to put the National Access Regime on the list of matters to be considered in the upcoming "root and branch" review of Australian competition policy. The root and branch review is due to be completed in December 2014. The Government is, in effect, getting a second opinion and giving itself some further thinking time.
Given the issues with the Report that I have outlined above I believe that the Government is well advised to take the time and opportunity afforded by the root and branch review to give the National Access Regime some further thought.
In addition, the States are likely to want a say in what happens to third party access law in Australia. The National Access Regime was enacted in 1995 following agreement between Federal and State governments (see clause 6, Competition Principles Agreement, 1995). The States, particularly Western Australia and Queensland, have taken a close interest in third party access law as it applies in their respective States. Western Australia and Queensland have both sought to impose State based access regimes by executive decision and not subject to prolonged review by the judiciary (as happened under the National Access Regime in Fortescue). Rather than follow the PC's advice, which would weaken the ability to bring or keep facilities under access regulation, the States might in future simply impose third party access by fiat rather than the rule of reason, criteria based approach in the National Access Regime (and currently in State based regimes).