Spineless committee fails on petrol prices

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“The reality is that it is time for the big stick”, writes Michael Moore. “Instead, the committee argues the wish to arm ‘consumers with better choice and information in making fuel purchasing decisions’.”

“The committee report starts with a spineless approach: ‘The committee stresses… it has been deliberately cautious and has taken a risk-averse approach’. Risk averse, seriously!” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE. 

FUEL companies must be splitting their sides laughing. The ACT Assembly Select Committee on Fuel Pricing has simply danced to their tune. 

Michael Moore.

Did they bring multinationals to account for gouging of Canberra consumers? No. Instead the committee was hoodwinked by standard delay strategies.

Delay is a tactic adopted from big tobacco. Even when big tobacco knew that restrictions would be placed on their lethal product, they would challenge, undermine, take legal action and argue against inevitable regulation. For big tobacco, and now for fuel companies, better to get a couple of years more profit than to simply give up.

This is not a committee with a government majority. Liberals Mark Parton and Andrew Wall outnumber the chair, Tara Cheyne. Perhaps the Liberal anti-regulation ideology is to blame for such a wet-feather report. 

Chief Minister Andrew Barr encouraged a more strident approach telling the committee that elected representatives should “stand up for them (Canberrans) against particularly big business who are gouging them in this city”.

The committee report starts with a spineless approach: “The committee stresses… it has been deliberately cautious and has taken a risk-averse approach”. Risk averse, seriously! 

Assembly committees should take courage in one hand, fortitude in the other and strike a blow for the community interest. The committee argument to avoid any possibility of a “measure which may result in higher fuel prices for consumers” is simple codswallop. 

What about some spine? Although a long-time, strong supporter of the ACT Legislative Assembly’s Committee system, the wimpish recommendations in this report undermine so many previous reports. 

The reality is that it is time for the big stick. Instead the committee argues the wish to arm “consumers with better choice and information in making fuel purchasing decisions”.

The forlorn hope of the committee is that arming consumers will have them “making behavioural changes” and it is the view of the committee that this will be the “greatest chance for consumers paying lower fuel prices, without risking unintended consequences”. Unintended consequences! Really! Multinational delay tactic language.

Pathetic is not the role of a committee. If they must, let the government worry about threats of litigation or the like. The Chief Minister opened the door.

The old hoary argument has been recirculated. The problem is about “external factors” such as gate prices in Sydney and Melbourne. This hardly explains how almost all of country NSW invariably has lower prices than Canberra. I regularly refuel in Boorowa where, despite hardly any competition, the price is always considerably less than in Canberra. 

The committee even identifies that Canberra consumers, on average, have been spending between 8 and 12 cents a litre more on fuel than is spent in Sydney. Apparently, this changes in times of adverse publicity. However, closing the gap on Sydney prices has largely proved temporary.

The Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission report in June was used by the committee to argue retailers have very limited control over price and then fail to introduce regulation that has an impact on these multinationals. They cannot have it every which way. Compare Canberra to NZ to understand multinational games. Over the Tasman, the price of diesel is about two thirds the price of the lowest octane petrol while here they are neck-‘n-neck. 

“It is apparent that the ACT fuel market is not meeting consumer expectations”. Damn right. Committee recommendations also fail to meet consumer expectations. Shifting the responsibility back to the consumer in the hope of effecting “behaviour change” is not what is expected from the Legislative Assembly Committee.

The expectation is that the committee will make structural recommendations to assist the government in reining in the excessive gouging by multinationals on Canberra consumers. As the committee pointed out: “There appears to be a tangible link between the committee’s work and ACT fuel prices [with a] connection between widespread media coverage of the inquiry and a dip in fuel prices”. 

If the committee hearing can have this impact on multinationals who are setting the prices – just think what a strident report might have achieved.

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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