Saturday, June 27, 2009

Craig Emerson, cosy duopolies, consumers, Choice and incorruptible ideologies

Whenever I hear neo cons or neo liberals or neo Costas or neo Lathams rabbit on about the wonders of free markets and the joys of competitiveness, I wonder where they do their supermarket shopping.

For that matter I wonder where they buy their liquor or their petrol. Then I think that if Janet Albrechtsen is from Pluto, as First Dog on the Moon has cogently argued, then surely the likes of Mark Latham - with his talk of the incorruptible ideology of neo liberalism - is from Uranus. Or thereabouts, since I mean no disrespect to Uranus.

For the Australian retail grocery and fresh food market in Australia is a cosy duopoly - it's estimated that Woolworths and Coles control about 80% of the retail market, and Woolworths in turn dominates Coles. The rest of the sector is a rag tail mob of minor players with the clout of a wet tissue. Let's not argue about the exact figures - let's just say there are a couple of big mf whale sharks and a few fingerlings, and the mf's like things just the way they are.

Actual consumers who actually shop in supermarkets (do politicians ever communicate with the wives, husbands or servants who do their shopping?) know the fix is in, and chafe under the constraints. 

But where to go, what to do? Most locations feature stores run by the big two, and where ever there's a different state of affairs, a chain like Woolworths is only too happy to kneecap the opposition (remember dear old Mullumbimby's plight as they saw their family owned hamlet style charm get knocked over by Woolworths, as described in A big box comes knocking?)

Enter the Labor party with an easy election promise to fix things by getting up a website which would detail supermarket pricing and allow consumers a competitive way to shop. Sure it wouldn't help neighbourhoods where the big two already had a stranglehold on proceedings, but it would at least let those interested know exactly how they were being ripped off.

Next thing you know the bureaucrats assigned the task of developing the web site stuffed it up at vast expense. Why are you surprised? So to help wipe the egg from their collective faces, the Labor government decided to sub-contract the consumer advocate group Choice to re-badge the site and get it up to speed.

Then five days from the launch of the new site, the government kills the whole notion. Why?

Well if you read the Murdoch press - no stranger to a cosy duopoly in the newspaper game - it was always a silly stunt. That's right, giving consumers useful information about pricing is a silly stunt. (Shopper website's shelf life comes up).

How you might be able to work this out without actually sighting the revamped site is one of the deeper mysteries of investigative journalism. But then all's well in the world of the duopoly:

The original notion of seeing whether Woolworths and Coles were ripping off consumers with unjustified price rises also looked a little illogical when their prices turned out to be cheaper than many of the supposed victims, the independents.

Which is such a stupid comment about the way dominant forces can control the market, and independents at the margin must charge more to survive that it makes you wonder if Jennifer Hewett has started channeling Mark Latham.

Then of course there's the other angle, explored adeptly by Dennis Shanahan in his column Reality hits PM as millions wasted.

In this world, you can have it both ways. You can slag off the Rudd government:

This is a broken election promise, a betrayal of expectations of voters and a repudiation of Rudd's promise, a promise that was always a pretence.

Because you see it was always a pretence. And you can slag off the web site that in its revamped form you've probably not seen in action because it was killed off five days before it went in to action. How's that for a Nostradamus insight?

A website that didn't provide real-time grocery price comparisons was useless from day one. Furthermore, Grocery Choice provided only averages for some supermarkets in a region, which were meaningless to shoppers such as me and hundreds of thousands of others who set out on a Saturday morning to hunt and gather the best food prices for their family. It was an empty joke from the beginning that had to be sustained to save Labor's face.

Initial curiosity over the website, which sustained relatively high hits, quickly faded as shoppers realised they couldn't work out where to get the cheapest grocery items in their area.

Well here's the interesting question. If it was going to be so useless, why did Woolworths get out the baseball bat, hammer the nails in the big end, then go take their spikey weapon and thump it deep into the brain of Minister Craig Emerson - who when given such cruel and unusual punishment decided he and his government, under the fearless Chairman Rudd, had the balls of a neutered sheep?

If you answer that it's because Woolworths deeply cares about transparency, and even now is working on ways to become more transparent and is deeply concerned about how consumers can get more timely and accurate information about their pricing policies, go jerk your chain in a supermarket aisle. Or in a conference of neo liberal stooges explaining the wonders of duopolies as a way of ensuring fierce competition, as opposed to cosy featherbeds.

Sadly as a consumer advocate organization, Choice is full of wide eyed optimists, naive enthusiasts and a generous sprinkling of cardigan wearers. The silly gits actually believe in consumer rights, and they've been comprehensively rolled by a duopoly that actively loathes them, and a government which doesn't have the guts or the imagination to care.

The poor dears are probably wandering around right now like stunned mullets, wondering what hit them. Well the short answer is a huge 22 wheel semi trailer carrying joy from the fresh food people. If you think joy is the concrete for the bucket in which your feet will be set so you can be dropped off the coast to feed the fishes.

My mail is that industry friendly forces already had in place a campaign designed to intimidate the government about the new site, ready to run with industry friendly journalists from duopolies that just love duopolies, and that it was the kind of campaign that wouldn't be afraid to link the new head of Choice's relationship with Gordon Brown (or should I say Nick Stace, former spin doctor for the failed British PM?), and tag the Labor government down under as a kind of deviant branch of the Brown-ites. What with their nasty radical consumerism, up against the soft, sweet siren call of the good folk of Woollies.

But no need for anything nasty or unsavory old chum. Just watch the craven kneecapped Emerson buckle at the knees and fall to the ground, and then watch the duopolists spin the result in the ways they love - a failed policy, meaningless, window dressing, full of contradictions and holes.

Wouldn't it have been nice to have been able to decide that in five days time when the new website was unveiled?

Why was it killed off? Well you might ask Craig Emerson, but don't expect anything other than dissembling and nonsense. Come to think of it, don't bother asking, you'll be able to read what he's been told to think in the Murdoch press for the next few days.

Why not ask Woolworths?

What, you think you'll get an answer? Or that Woolworths gives a damn what you think? What are ya? A consumer?

Which leads me to mention that I've stopped shopping at the local Woolworths. Have been going elsewhere for some time and enjoyed the experience. I pay a little more at the local independent which mainly serves hippies and indigents without a car, but the atmosphere's cheerfully eccentric and the check out people don't look as if they've been given valium to ge through the day.

When I need some basics I go a little further to an alternative outlet. I never shop at a Woolworths controlled petrol station, and I never shop at a Woolworths liquor store.

Call me mad, or call me someone fed up with cosy duopolies. You know you can always call me a loon. But whatever you call me, if you start mouthing off like Mark Latham about neo liberalism being an incorruptible ideology, expect me to call you a blithering idiot.

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