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Monday, 20 October 2008
Page: 9642

Mr HARTSUYKER (6:55 PM) —During the 2007 election campaign, the then Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, bombarded our TV screens with promises to put downward pressure on the cost of living. When he came to power, he very quickly forgot those promises. On coming to government, what was Labor’s policy response on the cost of living? The response was to be seen to be doing something when, in fact, Labor is doing nothing at all. To address the rising cost of fuel, we have Fuelwatch, a scheme which would disadvantage independents, potentially drive up the cost of fuel and introduce price fixing to our fuel markets. The scheme has been widely ridiculed. Most recently, Annabel Crabb in the Sydney Morning Herald said of Fuelwatch, ‘The scheme should be taken out the back and shot to put it out of its misery.’ That sentiment is widely shared by a range of motoring groups. Then we had the ‘son of Fuelwatch’, or GROCERYchoice, which was a rolled-gold, gilt-edged waste of taxpayers’ money—in fact, a waste of $12.9 million.

Let us examine the points raised in the motion. On the first point, the issue of meaningful information delivered in a timely fashion: if you log on to the website, you are greeted by a cartoon size map of Australia, with large areas covering thousands of square kilometres, if not millions of square kilometres, all included in the one part of the site. That is particularly so in the north-west of Western Australia, where there are millions of square kilometres in the one GROCERYchoice area. You cannot identify the town where the sample was taken and you certainly cannot identify the store. Is a person in Coffs Harbour going to drive to Taree or, more absurdly, a person in Broome going to drive to Geraldton to shop for their groceries? Surely not. The selection of the areas alone is evidence enough that the Labor government now in office pays only lip-service to cost-of-living issues. The sample size—some 500 items—is ridiculously small when compared to the 25,000 to 30,000 which typically are available in the average large supermarket. Not only is the information geographically useless but also it is hopelessly out of date. Prices in stores change every week, every day and every hour, yet GroceryWatch monitors prices once a month.

On the second point, the comparison of price and quality: the contents of the basket are not published by the ACCC, so the consumer knows only the price of a mystery pack of items, some of which he may never purchase. What does a ‘general groceries basket’ mean? I am confused. And what meats are in a meat and seafood basket? Are they premium quality? Are they low quality? We are left in the dark. So what does the taxpayer get for his $12.9 million? The resounding answer is: not much—certainly not value for money and certainly not useful information. At best, you get vague, out-of-date information courtesy of the ACCC.

I move now to the issue of bias against independent grocery stores. If I am a competitive independent, I am lumped in with others who may be far less competitive than my store. The sample taken will almost certainly not be in my store, yet I may be greatly disadvantaged depending on which stores are sampled by the ACCC. Independent retailers come in all shapes and sizes. Some—like super IGA stores—compete directly and effectively with Coles and Woolworths. Other independent retailers serve smaller communities or compete with larger supermarkets based on convenience and service rather than on price. GROCERYchoice classifies all independent retailers in the one group. Regardless of whether the store is a large metropolitan supermarket or a smaller regional store, they are listed beneath one heading.

I have been informed that stores of less than 500 square metres have been surveyed for GROCERYchoice. It is obvious that a small store does not and cannot compete with a large supermarket, so including such stores is meaningless. This means that the prices charged by small independent stores in rural areas may be averaged together with prices charged by super IGA stores, to give a biased final result. According to NARGA, many large independent stores are directly price competitive with Coles and Woolworths, but this fact is concealed by the method the ACCC uses to calculate the average basket prices. GROCERYchoice would have you believe that independents are around $6 to $12 more expensive than Woolworths or Coles for a complete trolley of goods—every store, every time. This result is an average, and when the consumer goes out to shop he does not pay the average price; he pays the price that prevails in the store at the time. However, with GROCERYchoice, he cannot identify that store. It is proof positive that the material provided by GROCERYchoice does not benefit consumers.

The methodology used to compile the information severely disadvantages independents who are trying to compete with the major supermarkets. GROCERYchoice is misleading consumers into believing that all independent retailers are more expensive than major supermarket chains. This all comes down to one thing: a lack of transparency. The whole GROCERYchoice exercise has been shrouded in secrecy. As I said earlier, no-one knows which supermarkets have been surveyed, which products have been surveyed or what is in a basket of groceries. As a result, the information provided by the website is of no benefit to consumers. It discourages shoppers from visiting independents. It is just a farce.

The grocery price website tells me that I could save almost $19 by buying a basket of staple goods at the German owned supermarket Aldi instead of an independent supermarket. But it is ridiculous to compare the quality of generic products sold at Aldi with the premium branded products sold at traditional supermarkets. The GROCERYchoice website consistently portrays Aldi as being the cheapest place to purchase your groceries. While this may be true, the website is misleading because it ignores the fact that private generic products sold by Aldi are often inferior in quality to those premium branded products.

To add to this deceit, the Assistant Treasurer is on the record numerous times espousing the virtues of shopping at Aldi. He is the minister for Aldi, the minister for a German, foreign firm, and he is recommending Aldi over our local independent stores. I never thought I would see the day when we would have a federal minister espousing the virtues of a foreign competitor over our hardworking local businesspeople. Why has our Assistant Treasurer become the voice of Aldi? Perhaps he is learning German in his spare time! Does he have a vision of a life after politics as the German ambassador? I would have thought that he would be supporting the diverse range of independent stores who provide good service to the local communities they support and who work hard to provide groceries at the cheapest possible cost under the structures within which they operate.

GROCERYchoice is one of the great political frauds of our time. It fits the mould perfectly with regard to the Rudd government’s stance on cost-of-living issues—being seen to be doing something when in fact you are doing nothing at all. Providing out-of-date information at great cost to taxpayers is of no use to anyone. That is the definition of a waste of taxpayers’ money. The Assistant Treasurer should apply the advice of Annabel Crabb with regard to that other great political fraud Fuelwatch and take GROCERYchoice out the back and shoot it. It will save us all a lot of taxpayers’ money.