The Greens knock Rudd off his trolley

Greens plans for a moratorium on new Coles and Woolworths stores while ACCC oversight of the sector is investigated will be a roadblock for Kevin Rudd’s quick-fix policy spree.

It’s a good time for lobby groups to get in with their shopping lists of emergency reform requirements – if the Rudd government thinks it’ll lose skin over whatever ‘crisis’ is presented, you’ll have your new policy by tomorrow morning. 

Labor’s quick-fix spree started with issues of general public concern/fear: carbon tax problem, solved; boats, done; return to surplus, no problem.  

But now more substantial issues, listed by the BCA in its comprehensive review of where the Australian economy is running off the rails, are getting overnight fixes too. 

Too much ‘green tape’? We’ll fix it!  

Fair Work Act hampering greenfield resource project EBAs? Give us a few hours.

The Australian reports today that “the government is setting up seven working groups led by cabinet ministers to negotiate changes with unions and business”. 

And what a great time to do it too – after three years of methodical policy reform, hampered at every turn by Rudd’s mission to destabilise the Gillard government, everything can be remade in just a few weeks before the 2013 election. Hurrah!

What a monumental joke on the Australian people. 

But amid all the promises to the BCA, the miners, the energy industry and so on, another ‘crisis’ is veering across Rudd’s path today – competition policy. 

Like a broken shopping trolley hurtling towards the shiny Rudd people-mover, the Greens are out today launching a detailed competition policy to target the growing dominance of Coles and Woolies in the groceries, liquor and fuel markets. 

In a four-page policy document being released today in Melbourne by Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, the Greens are making several demands that could get voters excited.

Without putting a firm figure on the big two’s market share – saying only that it’s between 55 and 80 per cent of supermarket groceries – the Greens want a review by the ACCC into whether or not its actions in the past decade have actually been successful. 

That’s right – an inquiry by the ACCC to determine, ex-post, whether it was in fact a toothless watchdog all along. 

The Greens policy states: “Ex-post assessments are carried out by competition agencies overseas, including in Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, but the ACCC hasn’t yet employed this tool to examine if we have the balance right.”

The Greens want to give $2.8 million over three years to the ACCC to conduct the inquiry, including taking more evidence in-camera from SMEs and farmers who believe they have been squeezed as suppliers to the big two, but who may be afraid to speak out publicly for fear of losing sales.

On top of that inquiry, the Greens are calling for a moratorium on new Coles and Woolies store openings until such time as the ACCC has given the grocery market a thumbs up for being competitive. This is likely to gain traction following the ACCC's decision to block Woolworths' Glenmore Park, Sydney store in June. 

However, if the verdict is a thumbs down, the Greens want a 50 per cent increase in funding to the ACCC’s legal fighting fund (to $100 million over forward estimates) to pursue breaches in the Competition and Consumer Act. They also want the ACCC to be given new forced divestitures powers to shut down stores if required. 

All in all that’s big stick for beating the big two, and disgruntled shoppers will surely like the idea. 

One would expect the idea, therefore, to be referred to Labor’s OPC - the Overnight Policy Committee, more usually referred to as ‘Kevin Rudd’.

However, this is one vote-winner he and Treasurer Chris Bowen will struggle to respond to – because it was Rudd himself who tried to force competitive pricing back into the supermarket business in 2008/09 by setting up first ‘Grocery Watch’ scheme and, when that couldn’t be made to work, ‘Grocery Choice’, run in collaboration with the consumer advocacy group Choice.

The latter scheme also collapsed because it is virtually impossible to map real-time grocery prices across thousands of stores that, on many items, change prices daily.

It was Bowen who was first given the job of setting up Grocery Watch, so presumably he’ll make a strong representation to the OPC to let this one go through to the keeper. “Let the Greens win this one,” he might say. “We’ll get a lot more votes by focusing on the gulags, err, I mean offshore processing centres.”

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