21 May 2018

A Mazda 6 that couldn’t get a software update. A Nissan X Trail where the power windows couldn’t be reset. A Kia Cerato where the faulty engine control unit needed a special PIN.

Modern cars are computers on wheels, and every day, independent mechanics are dealing with the software that runs them. From suspension control to anti-lock braking, parking guidance to smart cruise control, the typical passenger vehicle has 25 to 50 central processing units.

But independent mechanics face a problem: when it comes to fixing your car, they don’t get the same information as an authorised dealer. For years now, most manufacturers have refused to give independent mechanics access to the same information that they provide to those in their own networks.

A few years ago, the manufacturers agreed to a voluntary code on data-sharing. But it hasn’t worked. Even although independent mechanics outnumber authorised dealers more than four to one, the independents are facing a crisis. The result for drivers is higher prices and less choice.

A year ago, Labor called for action on this issue, alongside motoring clubs, consumer groups, insurers and unions. Then, at the end of last year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission released a major study of the problem, which concluded that a mandatory code was required.

Five months after that report was handed down, the Turnbull Government still refuses to take the wheel. So we have announced that a Labor Government would steer policy on the right road, by mandating data sharing from car manufacturers.

There’s nothing radical about asking manufacturers to put independent mechanics on a level playing field with authorised dealers. A similar system already operates in the United States and the European Union. Concerns about emissions systems, safety computers and security can be carefully handled, as the competition watchdog’s report notes.

When the rubber hits the road, Labor’s policy is about fairness. No-one tells you which car to buy, so why should anyone tell you where to get it serviced? For drivers in regional Australia, being forced to take their car back to the dealer could mean towing it for hundreds of kilometres.

Every new car sold in Australia today is produced by an overseas-run multinational firm. We welcome their business, but we don’t think it’s fair that they have a monopoly on fixing those vehicles. Australian small businesses shouldn’t be denied the chance to fix new cars.

Fair treatment for independent mechanics ensures that they get a chance to train new apprentices in fixing modern vehicles. As we move towards electric vehicles and driverless cars, the work of a mechanic will involve fewer spanners and more software. If we deny independent mechanics access to the data they need, then we’re robbing their apprentices of the chance to learn the skills of the future.

Over recent years, we’ve chatted with plenty of independent mechanics who are fed up with the Coalition’s failure to deliver a level playing field in their industry. They don’t want a subsidy – just fair treatment.

Mandatory data-sharing isn’t hard to implement: the government just needs to give a green light to the recommendations contained in the report of its own competition watchdog. Without it, small business will suffer, consumers will pay more, and there will be less choice. If the Turnbull Government won’t drive policy in the right direction, Labor will.

Bill Shorten is the Leader of the Opposition. Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Minister for Competition and Productivity.