Peter Dutton ramps up election pitch vowing to crack down on supermarkets and address price gouging

Ellen Ransley
The Nightly
A Coalition government would introduce supermarket sector-specific divestitutre powers as a last resort to crack down on market concentration and address price gouging. 
A Coalition government would introduce supermarket sector-specific divestitutre powers as a last resort to crack down on market concentration and address price gouging.  Credit: William Pearce

Major supermarkets could be broken up to counter price gouging and crack down on the Coles and Woolworths duopoly, should the Coalition win the next federal election.

As the Coalition wargames for a possible early election, heightened by confirmation Prime Minister Anthony Albanese wouldn’t attend a NATO summit this month and amid reports Labor had quietly shuffled budget funds around, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton told Liberal and Nationals MPs on Tuesday to “be ready” for the upcoming campaign, and that a range of policies would be announced in the coming weeks.

One such policy, announced with Nationals leader David Littleproud and shadow treasurer Angus Taylor, was that if the Coalition were returned to government, they would “strengthen” the now mandatory Food and Grocery Code, impose tougher civil penalties for supermarkets who fail to comply with the code, and appoint a Supermarket Commissioner.

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The trio announced that should the Coalition win the next election – due before May 2025 – the ACCC would have the ability to force supermarkets and hardware chains with more than $5bn turnover a year to divest or sell off assets if they fail to meet a raft of thresholds.

The Coalition also suggested the consumer watchdog should be able to fine supermarkets upfront up to $2m, far beyond Labor’s proposal of $200,000.

Mr Dutton, who kept quiet on whether or not he would support divestiture powers when the Nationals first put the idea forward earlier this year, said the measures were aimed at protecting Australians from rising food prices.

Woolworths and Coles advertising
The Coalition has pledged to crack down on supermarkets. Credit: TheWest

“People know when they go to the checkout now, it’s just getting harder and harder. And the Albanese government’s got a train wreck energy policy, which is feeding into an increase in food prices. But we also know that the situation in Australia, at the moment, is that there’s a massive concentration of market share within the two major companies — within Coles and Woolies,” Mr Dutton said.

Dr Craig Emerson, who was this year tasked with assessing the country’s grocery code of conduct and recommended it be made mandatory, warned against divestiture powers – which have also been champtioned by the Greens – in part because there were no viable competitors to buy the forced sale stores.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese earlier this year labelled the force sale powers as a “Soviet-style solution”.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers during Question Time on Tuesday branded the Coalition’s announcement as “chaotic” and “half baked”, saying the Liberals had been “rolled” by the Nationals on the policy.

“If those opposite really cared about supermarkets or competition or inflation, they would have asked us about it today,” he said.

“The announcement was only made just before Question Time, and they couldn’t even get around to asking about it. That’s because they’re hopelessly divided on this question.”

But the Coalition’s announcement prompted the Greens to double down on their own divestiture demands, saying Labor was now “isolated”.

“The Coalition’s support for divestiture powers in the supermarket sector makes this a moment of choice for Prime Minister Albanese. He can either keep holding hands with Coles and Woolworths, or he can side with Australian shoppers,” Greens economic justice spokesperson, Nick McKim, said.

“The Greens have long said that a more competitive supermarket sector would mean lower food and grocery prices. It is now only Labor standing in the way.”

Powerful business lobby the Business Council of Australia has previously been critical of divestiture powers.

“Multiple reviews have shown divestiture powers can put jobs at risk and upend the stability of critical sectors, particularly in regional and rural areas, which have very complex supply chains,” chief executive Bran Black said in March.

The Coalition said they would put guardrails in place, including that the powers could only be used when the ACCC believes there is a genuine public interest and a viable competitor.

Mr Littleproud said the Coalition was determined to go “well beyond” what the government — who he labelled “weak” — had done on supermarkets.

“This is a sensible policy solution of us taking on the supermarkets and making sure they understand they’re on notice,” he said.


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