Costly tale of a boat trip was never going to fly
And so ends a useless waste of taxpayers' money - the five-month investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission into the alleged attempt by Crown Casino's James Packer to collude with Echo chairman John O'Neill to carve up the Sydney and Brisbane casino markets. The ACCC has dropped its crusade to establish whether, while on his boat, Packer pitched a deal to O'Neill: if Echo Entertainment agreed to share the Sydney market, Crown would not contest the Brisbane market.
The ACCC was never going to find sufficient evidence to support an attempted market-sharing arrangement by Packer.
This was a classic case of one man's word against another's.
These types of cases are difficult to get up even when collusion has taken place. When the alleged recipient of the scheme said no it was always going to be impossible to prove.
O'Neill's reasons for spilling this information to the media would probably have had little to do with his desire to combat the evils of commercial collusion.
Instead O'Neill's agenda was more about influencing NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell, who was in the process of deciding whether to approve Crown's proposal to build a casino at Barangaroo. But once it was in the public domain the ACCC felt cornered into engaging in the investigative process.
Casting a shadow over Packer's negotiating tactics was the aim of the exercise - the arrival of the regulatory cavalry was probably an unintended consequence. This is not to suggest that the alleged conversation didn't take place. But it's a fair bet that O'Neill wasn't inviting a swarm of ACCC operatives to examine the firm's computer hard drives.
Even a squeaky clean organisation doesn't feel all that comfortable with a forensic investigation. I'm sure neither Crown nor Echo are exceptions.
If O'Neill is accurately portraying the conversation with Packer, who went to all the trouble of taking the Echo chairman and chief executive John Redmond into the middle of the harbour to engage in this negotiation, there is little chance that there would be documentary evidence. Once the ACCC announced its interest Echo disbanded this element of its public relations attack.
Meanwhile Alan Joyce from Qantas is screaming predatory pricing from the rooftops (via press release) but is clearly not wanting to engage the assistance of the ACCC in his allegations that Virgin is using a stash of cash to fund uncommercial competitive air fares. He wants to shine the spotlight on offshore sovereign carriers slipping into the Australian market using Virgin as a Trojan horse.
Qantas is appealing to nationalistic interests rather than using the ACCC. Joyce says foreign airlines want to colonise by stealth - which ironically is just what Qantas is trying to do in domestic Asian markets such as Hong Kong and Japan.
Indeed ACCC chairman Rod Sims said on Tuesday that it is in the process of looking at allegations by Virgin that Qantas is misusing its market power.
Qantas is unlikely to find much ACCC support when it remains the dominant Australian domestic and international carrier. And that is probably why Joyce is not pursuing the ACCC route.
But the supermarket battle is another matter entirely.
The ACCC will continue to investigate the behaviour of the major supermarket chains to ascertain if they used their market power to the detriment of suppliers.
The supermarkets and the suppliers have now agreed on a code of conduct that protects suppliers' intellectual property and captures any attempt by supermarkets to restate supplier agreements.
Having a truce between warring parties is not enough to discourage the ACCC from rectifying the alleged sins of the past but it does take a lot of the intensity out of the debate.
Sims rightly takes the view that a peace deal today does not wholly mitigate the sins of the past. And not every supplier is on board with the code. But the prospect that grocery prices will increase as a result of a negotiated code between suppliers and the supermarkets won't necessarily be popular with consumers and supermarket shareholders.
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