When the supermarket Bill introduced by independent MP Bob Katter was raised at retail industry event in Sydney on Tuesday, the question was greeted with a moment of silence.
“Now … this is a children’s show,” Wesfarmers home improvement and office supplies boss John Gillam warned his fellow panellists.
Gillam, who is in charge of Wesfarmers’ Bunnings Warehouse and Officeworks chains, was speaking alongside several other high-profile retail executives including Coles managing director Ian McLeod.
McLeod, who heads up a supermarket chain that together with rival Woolworths controls an estimated 80% of the Australian market, labelled Katter’s Bill, which is supported by fellow independents Andrew Wilkie and Nick Xenophon as an example of “protectionism.”
Introduced on Monday, the Bill would force the two supermarket giants to sell up to half of their stores, making any chain with more than 20% of the market divest the extra outlets over six years.
“Five years ago when I came to Australia we were in the dock for our prices being too high,” Mcleod said, describing Katter’s proposed law as a “protectionist policy of the past.”
“Where is the consumer in all of this?”
“We have got to make sure protectionism and excessive regulation does not become the norm.”
When it was put forward yesterday, Katter said Coles’ and Woolworths’ market share meant they could force unfair deals on suppliers.
“The Americans are screaming blue murder because WalMart and their competitor have now reached about 23 per cent market share,” Katter said according to Fairfax Media.
“Here we have two supermarkets with a market share of over 80 per cent so if they decide to cut down the amount of money they are going to pay farmers and jack up the price to consumers, they can because there is no competition.”
Of Katter’s comments, McLeod said: “We actually have a good relationship with suppliers, despite what you read in the newspaper.”
“Unfortunately … with politics the facts often do get in the way of a good story.”
Speaking at the same event on Tuesday, Woolworths managing director of Australian supermarkets and petrol Tjeerd Jegen said: “some people would like to get re-elected, and need attention,” without directly referring to Katter, Wilkie or Xenophon.
“We have a great relationship with many farmers,” Jergen said. “We always buy in the local state, local area,” though “our business is distribution.”
All three of the MPs have also put their names to a Bill that would let Australia’s central bank act as an “Australian Reconstruction and Development Board.”
This would give it the power to buy distressed agricultural businesses, helping them trade out of trouble rather than be closed by banks they are in debt to.
“Our plan would provide a soft landing so that there’s no implications for the Australian economy, no implications for banking and everyone takes a bit of pain,” Katter said yesterday.
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