EDITORIAL: Peter Dutton’s supermarket swipe is past its use-by date

The Nightly
Companies including Coles and Woolies are on notice this morning, facing fresh threats over the rising cost of living.

Australians are paying too much. For everything, every day.

Thirteen rate rises in two years have drained household savings reserves and left many families struggling.

As costs increase, so does discontent.

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Australians want to see a pathway out of this cost-of-living crisis. They want to know that sensible people are at work coming up with sensible solutions to bring inflation back under control and ease the pressure.

Instead, they get grandstanding and populist policies.

Peter Dutton’s plan to arm Australia’s competition watchdog with the “last resort” power to force big businesses to sell off assets if they were found to have engaged in price-gouging, is a policy one would expect to come from the Greens’ grab bag of mad socialist populism.

Not the party whose manifesto is supposed to be all about getting government out of the way as much as possible and allowing the free market to operate without unnecessary interference or bureaucratic red tape.

Instead of coming up with sensible policies based on sound economics, the Opposition has resorted to tired supermarket bashing — a time-honoured tradition in Australian politics for parties out of ideas.

The Coles and Woolworths supermarket duopoly makes an easy target for a politician looking to score points with voters who are looking at their outgoings with increasing concern.

Turning up at the check-out is now an anxiety-inducing experience for many.

There are no votes in sticking up for the supermarkets.

But instead of actually coming up with policies that could help bring inflation back under control, the Coalition is looking for a bad guy to divert anger towards.

Multiple reviews of Australia’s grocery landscape, including the just-completed one by former Labor minister Craig Emerson, have advised against divestiture powers.

One reason is that forcing break-ups could have the opposite of the intended effect, by discouraging new players from entering the market.

And as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese pointed out in his criticism of the “super-Marxist” Coalition plan if Coles is forced to sell a store, could Woolworths swoop in to pick it up?

It’s worth remembering that previous calls for similar powers came from the Nationals during the so-called “supermarket wars”.

Not because prices were too high, but because they were too low, which the Nats argued left farmers short-changed.

The key to cost-of-living relief at the supermarket isn’t Soviet-style intervention. It’s increased competition and easing inflationary pressure.

Grocery prices are just one piece of the cost-of-living conundrum. Housing, child care and utilities costs are also draining household finances.

Our leaders would be better off finding ways to bring those under control than indulging in stupid populist games which will do little but erode business confidence and increase red tape.

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