23 February 2024

ACTU calls for increased ACCC powers after report highlights price gouging

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Sally McManus

ACTU secretary Sally McManus said Australians have had enough of price gouging by big business. Photo: Sally McManus Facebook.

After reviewing the results of a report into price gouging and alleged unfair pricing practices, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has called for increased powers for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Former chair of the ACCC Professor Alan Fels handed down the report on 7 February. It found supermarkets, banks, energy providers and airlines were hurting Australian consumers by exploiting their market power.

The report came after Professor Fels chaired an inquiry launched in August 2023 which conducted public hearings in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Cairns. Academics, think tanks, unions and businesses made more than 750 submissions and 20 detailed contributions as part of the inquiry.

The report claims “profit pushing” and price gouging, particularly in the wake of the COVID pandemic, are major contributing factors to the hardships many Australians are facing. It states nearly half of the public submissions to the inquiry are about supermarket prices.

READ ALSO Fels report blasts corporate greed for hurting Australians

After considering the report and its recommendations, the union movement says it will prioritise the following reforms:

  • Price gouging should be unlawful: The Australian Competition and Consumer Act should be amended to make it an offence to charge excessive prices.
  • Public ownership and universal provision: The union movement believes in the universal public provision of essential services, which would address systemic market failures.
  • Power to name and shame: The ACCC should be permitted to name and shame businesses that overcharge.
  • A permanent Prices Commission: We support the establishment of a Competition and Prices Commission – separate from the ACCC – which has the power to unilaterally examine high prices and pricing practices.
  • A stronger ACCC: The ACCC should have power of its own to initiate price and market studies to stamp out unlawful and unconscionable behaviour.
  • Stop mega corporations consolidating: That in merger matters, the onus should be on applicants to satisfy the ACCC, and on appeal to the Australian Competition Tribunal, that the merger is not anti-competitive, is in the public interest, and would provide good jobs for working people.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus said Australians have had enough of price gouging by big business.

She said the post-pandemic behaviour of inflating profits and keeping prices higher than needed was appalling.

“They have not acted in the public interest; they have acted in their own interests. Instead of assisting the country and their customers with the cost of living, they have made it worse,” she said.

“They have shown they will not act without stronger laws.

READ ALSO ACCC to conduct inquiry into supermarket competition and pricing

“The privatisation of essential services has exacerbated the problem, so we call on all governments to abandon the failed privatisation experiment. We need to make price gouging unlawful and name and shame businesses that overcharge.”

She said the ACTU would advocate establishing a Competition and Prices Commission, separate from the ACCC, which would “continuously examine high prices, their causes, and if those prices should be brought down”.

“Working people should not have their pay increases eaten up by excessive prices and profit-taking. The parade of huge profit announcements at a time when everyday Australians’ budgets are under so much pressure can no longer be shrugged off by CEOs and boards, as the public has had enough.”

The ACTU’s call came a day before Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci announced on 21 February that he would resign later this year. Current head of eCommerce division WooliesX Amanda Bardwell will replace him from 1 September.

Mr Banducci’s resignation follows an interview aired on ABC’s 4Corners program in which he appeared to impugn the credibility of former ACCC chair Rod Sims who retired in 2022, and then momentarily walked out of the interview after asking if what he’d said could be cut because he “shouldn’t have said that”.

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David Watson1:22 pm 25 Feb 24

The ACTU maintains it relevance by calling for more and more regulation. It would be great for everyone to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. We are regulating ourselves to death promoted by organisations funded by either government or apathetic paying members with leadership solely responsible for making a noise to maintain their jobs. When are any of our Members of Parliament going to challenge the burgeoning industry called “Safety” and the unproductive mentality of “dumb and thoughtless ” compliance”.

Capital Retro7:04 am 25 Feb 24

The ACTU has always contributed to economic and social policy debates.

Under the leadership of Bob Hawke the ACTU went into partnership with business owner Lionel Revelman to establish Bourke’s ACTU store in Melbourne. The aim was to break retail price maintenance so that prices reduced but incomes did not. It was not an economic success.

Less successful were the ACTU’s forays into providing cheaper services for union members such as insurance, banking, holidays and petrol.

So, best the ACTU stay out of telling us what is good for us.

Where in goodness name do you get your tangled ideas from CR? What is it with you people who constantly deceive and talk down the union? One of Hawke’s greatest successes was when he was president of the ACTU and collaborated with businessman Lionel Revelman in using his union’s power to force down high retail prices. Up until then manufacturers, with the support of a long term and inward-looking Liberal government, had been unlawfully using their powers of supply to control retail prices. Hawke’s actions were highly successful and unprecedented at the time.

This was not Hawke’s only success while leader of the ACTU and Prime Minister, there were many. He led the fight against apartheid whilst ACTU president. In his early prime ministership, his government negotiated with business and the union movement to find middle ground in tackling Australia’s economic and wage crisis. This followed years of economic mismanagement by the Fraser government. The Hawke government negotiated the Accord with the union and gave us 13-years of economic success in its various iterations until the Howard government dismantled it. The Hawke government also took the bold step of floating the Australian dollar which transformed the old protective and inward-looking economic visions of previous Australian parliaments.

The lucklustre governments that have followed pale into insignificance. I find it hard to imagine leaders of this quality ever leading our country again!

Capital Retro10:02 am 27 Feb 24

Thank you Comrade Jack D.

I wasn’t attacking the unions generally, more the example of how little they knew about running a retail business but since you want to bang on about what you believe the good things were that they and Hawke did let’s get some balance into things and look at their venture into banking through ME Bank which never made a profit.

It was sold to Bank of Queensland a couple of years ago mainly to get liquidity into the Industry Super Funds who were facing unprecedented withdrawals during the COVID crisis.

They got off lightly with this to: https://www.news.com.au/finance/business/banking/me-bank-slapped-with-almost-1m-in-fines-after-providing-misleading-home-loan-information-to-customers/news-story/5c38847226606657aaf166feb3d99ddd

I think the unions are also into news publishing too but I’ll let you tell us all how successful that has been.

For the record, I believe Bob Hawke was a great PM and I have banked with ME Bank (and still do) for a number of years.

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