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Meet The Press -

View in ParlView



10th August 2008


MEET THE PRESS PRESENTER PAUL BONGIORNO: Good morning, and welcome to Meet the Press. Through the
economic gloom of falling house prices, rising food prices and a collapse in consumer spending, the
Government offers a prices shopping aid. Grocery Choice was launched on the Internet after the
consumer watchdog's 6-month grocery inquiry found only "workable competition" between Coles and

ACCC CHAIRMAN GRAEME SAMUEL: This is giving consumers something new that the supermarket chains
won't tell them - who is cheapest in each region overall.

ASSISTANT TREASURER CHRIS BOWEN: We cannot guarantee that grocery prices will come down, because
the biggest impact on grocery prices is those international factors.

OPPOSITION LEADER BRENDAN NELSON: Giving shoppers a pair of binoculars and telling them to look at
the price of groceries is not going to do anything to bring it down.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Consumer Affairs, Chris Bowen, is our guest.
And later - are the Olympic ideals being lost in the smog of Beijing? Australian swim legend John
Konrads joins us. But first, what the nation's papers are reporting this Sunday, August 10. The
'Sunday Telegraph' leads with 'Russia Sends in the Tanks as Georgia Declares a State of War'.
Fierce battles between Georgian and Russian troops in the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
There's escalating violence, a mounting civilian death toll, and no early end to the conflict.
Russian warplanes have also staged a raid near a major international oil pipeline, but didn't
damage it. The 'Sunday Age' headlines 'Coach's Relative Murdered'. The first day of the Beijing
Games was rocked by the knifing death of an American tourist related to the coach of the US
volleyball team. The 'Sunday Mail' has 'Labor Suffers Massive NT Vote Swing'. In the first election
since the Rudd Government came to power, a 9% swing against the Northern Territory Government has
it struggling to cling to power. The 'Sun Herald' reports 'Slight Fright but Hackett Makes it
Through'. Swim star Grant Hackett will swim the 400m freestyle final later today after the
Australian had a tight win in his heat.

PAUL BONGIORNO: There was a lukewarm to hostile reception when the Government released the
much-anticipated ACCC report into grocery prices. Australia seems saddled with a cosy supermarket
duopoly, happy enough to generally match each other's prices rather than undercut them. Could or
should the Rudd Government be doing more to spoil the party? And welcome to the program, Chris

CHRIS BOWEN: Good morning.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, Minister, just going to the Northern Territory result first of all - a 9%
swing against the Labor Government there. It needs one seat to hold power. Are Australian voters
already getting sick of Labor, do you think?

CHRIS BOWEN: Oh, well, look, the conservatives in the Northern Territory were coming off a very low
base. I think they had four seats. So in many respects, the only way was up as far as conservatives
in the Northern Territory are concerned. I didn't detect many federal issues running through the
Northern Territory campaign and I think it's always very dangerous to try and extrapolate State
results on to federal results, or vice versa. Australians are pretty clear about their levels of
government and are pretty clear about what they're voting on. So I think it's very dangerous to
take one election and read into it more than that would imply.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Alright. Well, moving to consumer affairs, which Australians are very interested
in, and it's your portfolio area. A "workable competition", I think, is the way in which -
"workably competitive" is the way in which ACCC describes what's going on between Coles and
Woolworths. That's not good enough, is it?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, no, it's not. The report indicated significant benefits for consumers if we can
get more competition, and made a series of recommendations as to how to do that, which we're
adopting. Whether it's planning laws and stopping these barriers to entry and expansion for other
grocers. Whether it's other things that we can do to encourage more grocers into Australia, like
our freeing up of the foreign investment laws, which we did a few months ago. So what we do need to
do is get more competition into the Australian retail grocery sector so that everybody benefits.
When there are people fighting for our dollars, as consumers, we're all better off. Even if we
choose not to shop at the new entrants into the market, the competitive pressure that's brought to
bear helps all of us.

PAUL BONGIORNO: The strongest criticism in the report seems to be for Metcash, and Metcash has the
monopoly on supplying groceries to virtually all of Australia's independents. Now, shouldn't the
ACCC be into monopoly busting? I mean, if it hasn't got the power to force Metcash to divest or to
be less monopolistic in its behaviour, shouldn't you give it the powers to do that?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, you only go into breaking up monopolies or breaking up heavily concentrated
industries if there's real and demonstrated consumer benefit. And what the report showed that, for
example, in Coles and Woolworths, the profit margins in Australia are no greater than other
countries. Indeed, countries with less concentrated markets.

PAUL BONGIORNO: But the fact is Metcash is doing better than Coles and Woolworths.

CHRIS BOWEN: Yeah, with Metcash the ACCC did identify that one of the competitive issues in
Australia is that if you're an independent grocer, you really only can have one supplier. And the
ACCC also indicated that it's very difficult in a smaller market, that Australia is, to encourage
that extra competition into the Australian market, but that we need to do what we can.

PAUL BONGIORNO: But there's a lesson there, isn't there? I mean, the ACCC actually allowed Metcash
to take over smaller wholesalers.

CHRIS BOWEN: Over time, over a period of several years under various administrations and various
chairmen, there has been consolidation.

PAUL BONGIORNO: The Americans go in for monopoly busting. Why don't we?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, look, we've put out the biggest reforms to the Trade Practices Act in 23 years.
We've substantially increased the powers of the ACCC in regards to competition, and they give the
ACCC the powers that the ACCC's been asking for years, which the previous government refused to
give them, in terms of promoting competition. We're a government serious about competition. We had
the first competition minister in Australia's history. We have a government which wants to promote
competition, which is pro-business but also pro-competition, because that's what benefits

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, retailers claim Grocery Choice, the website we spoke about, is basically a
free ad for Coles and Woolworths, mainly at the expense of the independents.

SCOTT DRISCOLL, QUEENSLAND RETAILERS ASSOCIATION: I wouldn't bother logging on. The website's a
nonsense. It's an absolute farce. This is a cheap stunt by the Government to try to be seen to
fulfil an election promise that they're trying to wiggle out of, which was to make sure that prices
were cheaper for Australian working families in the grocery market.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, Minister, just picking up one of the points Mr Driscoll made there, the Super
IGA stores, which are in direct competition with the big supermarkets, Woolies and Coles
supermarkets - they don't appear on the website. That's obviously an omission, isn't it?

CHRIS BOWEN: No, we have a segment for independents -

PAUL BONGIORNO: Everybody's in there.

CHRIS BOWEN: No, no. It's important - there's been some misunderstanding or some misinformation
about this over the last week. Every store in the independents column is an independent that is
supplied by Metcash. So there's no 7/11s, no convenience stores. Every store is a store over 1,000
square metres which is in that independent category. So they are supplied by Metcash on the
mainland or by the equivalent on Tasmania - in Tasmania. So there's no mixing up IGAs and other
independents with other groups. They're all there in the independents column. And it's all about
transparency. People can log on, check the prices in their area, and then make their own decision
based on convenience, customer service, quality, etc.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, the Prime Minister spoke about needing to finetune Grocery Choice. What
finetuning has he in mind?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, in fairness, I actually raised the issue of improvements when I announced
Grocery Choice, and I've been in discussion with some of the retailers, consumer groups, for some
time. But these are only really discussions you can put out once the website's up and running and
once the report is out. So this is an important step but, really, what we have now is more
information than consumers have had before. Up until recently, all consumers have had to go by is
the 'CHOICE' survey, which comes out every so often, and which is quite broad in its scope. Now,
this is a monthly survey across a region. It doesn't apply to every supermarket. It was never going
to. It doesn't apply to every good, because that would be too difficult to do. But it does give
people a snapshot and a guide. Lots of us get into the habit of shopping at the same supermarket. I
think many of us do, and the ACCC report showed that not many people shop around, but that over 50%
of people would change supermarkets if they could find one which has got prices 5% or more cheaper.
So I think more information is something very hard to argue with.

PAUL BONGIORNO: When we return with the panel - fuelling discontent at the petrol pump - will
FuelWatch survive the Senate? And the spray of the week came from that master of political
invective, Paul Keating. In his sights - former treasurer Peter Costello.

FORMER PRIME MINISTER PAUL KEATING: So bereft is the Liberal Party of talent, they're even thinking
about having that clodhopper back. My nickname for him was thallium - a slow-acting dope.

PAUL BONGIORNO: You're on Meet the Press with Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen. And welcome to our
panel Jennifer Hewett from the 'Australian'. Good morning, Jennifer.

JENNIFER HEWETT: Good morning.

PAUL BONGIORNO: And Malcolm Farr from the 'Daily Telegraph'. Good morning, Mal.

MALCOLM FARR: Good morning, Paul.

PAUL BONGIORNO: The caravan that is the Senate inquiry into FuelWatch continues its hearings around
Australia. Set up by the Coalition while it still had the numbers in the upper house, witnesses
seem to agree the scheme won't force prices down and opponents haven't changed from this view
expressed at the outset.

SHADOW TRANSPORT MINISTER WARREN TRUSS: The problem is with setting the prices in advance, fining
people if they dare to put the price down in the following day, and the clear implication that if
you set your prices at a particular day then you're going to lose cheap Tuesdays. And that means
that the majority of motorists in the eastern States will pay more on an average during the week.

MALCOLM FARR: Minister, I'm sure you'd insist that FuelWatch isn't dead, but you'd also know there
are a lot of non-government MPs gathering for a funeral. Are you going to have to refine this
scheme as well to get it through the Senate?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, negotiating any piece of legislation through the Senate is always a challenge.
I've had discussions with some of the crossbench senators. They will continue, and we will continue
to argue vigorously the case for FuelWatch. You know, let's go back to basics. What is FuelWatch?
When the Government puts out a tender, when the Government wants to buy something which is
expensive, it says to people who want to sell it to them, "Put in a price, put in your best price,
and then we'll judge it, and you can't reduce that price because we want your best price up front."
This is giving motorists a chance to call for a tender for their petrol and really, the
conservatives in the Senate should get out of the way and let motorists have that opportunity.

MALCOLM FARR: But you can't even get the motoring organisations directly representing the consumers
to agree on this. How are you going to get the Senate to do it?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, when I recommended FuelWatch to Cabinet I said it would be controversial, and I
don't think I've been proven wrong. And if you're only interested in doing the non-controversial,
then you shouldn't be in politics. But look, the biggest motoring organisation in the country, the
NRMA, supports it. And the motoring organisation that has lived with FuelWatch in WA for eight
years, which was sceptical when it first came in but is now one of its strongest supporters, the
RACWA, argues for FuelWatch. There are differing views in different motoring organisations. There
are differing views from different academics. There has been evidence before the Senate inquiry
from academics this week supporting FuelWatch and some opposing FuelWatch. But the Government
considered all these arguments deeply before it entered into FuelWatch, and will continue to argue
for it vigorously.

JENNIFER HEWETT: Minister, controversial is right. Are you embarrassed to be kind of known now as
the Minister for Websites, particularly websites that don't do much to actually put any downward
pressure on prices?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, let's take the grocery website for example. In its first four days, it's had 1.8
million hits. Now, that shows that the community is very interested in the information it can
provide. The Liberal Party wanders around saying it's all a waste of time. Presumably they would
abolish it. Presumably they believe in less information for consumers. But consumers recognise that
in a competitive market the more information they can have the better, and we agree and we're
determined to give them that information. On FuelWatch, you have price differences across capital
cities of between 20 and 30 cents, but you've got to drive around looking for the best price for
fuel. FuelWatch will give those consumers that information up front from their loungeroom or from
their office.

JENNIFER HEWETT: Nevertheless, Minister, there's a political problem, isn't there, between
promising to feel people's pain when in opposition, and then actually delivering in government.
It's a lot tougher in government. Do you think that the Government is going to be marked down for

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, look, in the context of the last election, we had the then prime minister
wandering around saying, "Australian working families have never been better off, and by the way
we're going to attack your working conditions through WorkChoices." We said we respectfully
disagreed, that Australian working families needed extra assistance. So we brought down our family
assistance package in the Budget which provides tax relief to working families. But we've also said
that consumers should benefit from improved competition. Consumers should benefit from schemes like
FuelWatch. Consumers should benefit from the increased competition that we can get into the grocery
market, through knocking down competitive barriers, fixing the planning laws, unit pricing, and
that information it gives to consumers. So we take consumer affairs and competition very seriously
and we'll continue to vigorously argue for them.

MALCOLM FARR: But in the political sense, as Jennifer said, there have been three significant
reports over recent weeks. Groceries - not much you can do. Well, on petrol, yeah, not much you can
do really. On carbon pollution reduction, you bet you can do things - you can add to the price of
all sorts of fuels and commodities. That's not a good look for the Government, is it?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, we said before the election that the biggest impact on grocery prices was
international factors. We said before the election the biggest impact on petrol prices was world
oil prices, and that continues to be the case. But we were also upfront about what we could do. The
now Prime Minister, the now Treasurer were asked "Can you guarantee you can bring prices down?"
They said before the election, "No, but we'll do whatever we can to put more competitive pressure
into the market." The Liberal Party ran around before the election drawing attention to that, now
they are trying to run around saying that we'd said something different. The only people who give
false promises are those who say things like, "We can keep interest rates at record lows", promises
they know they can never keep.

JENNIFER HEWETT: Minister, tax cuts are at least real. I mean, you did give the impression that you
can do a lot more than you actually can.

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, no. We had a tax cut plan out there and we've delivered it, in full.

JENNIFER HEWETT: I'm saying tax cuts are one thing, but for the rest of it you actually gave an
impression of doing more than you are able to deliver.

CHRIS BOWEN: I don't think that's right, Jennifer. I think what we did is said we believe there
should be more competition, we believe there should be more transparency, and we don't think
Australian working families have never been before off, and we won't attack your working conditions
through WorkChoices and we'll rip up the law. That's what we're delivering on.

MALCOLM FARR: How do you add competition to the lending market? Considering that the banks are
there by themselves. Recent economic circumstances has lowered the impact a lot of non-bank
lenders. How can you put pressure, competitive pressure on the banks to make sure they pass on any
RBA interest rate cuts?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, um, any future cuts are a matter for the RBA, but we certainly would expect
reduction to be passed on. But we're introducing the switching package -

MALCOLM FARR: Beyond that, what else can you do?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, one of the important things is, it's very difficult for people to change
financial products. You have deductions, you have mechanisms in place which make it very difficult
for you to change banks. We want to fix that.

MALCOLM FARR: That will be in November. What else might you have to increase pressure on the banks?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, let's get that in and let's give it a chance and let's see how it runs and let's
give people the chance to move their bank accounts if they're not satisfied with the service that
they're getting.

JENNIFER HEWETT: Minister, non-bank lenders over the last decade did put a lot of pressure on banks
and force them to cut interest rates in many cases. Now they're no longer going to be there to put
that pressure on. Can you as a Government do anything more to increase that type of pressure?

CHRIS BOWEN: It's a little dramatic to stay that there won't be any non-bank lenders. I think
they've certainly had some financing issues over recent months, but I don't think there is any
evidence that non-bank lenders are going to disappear completely, and they will continue to provide
some competition. There's no doubt, as I say, that they've found it more difficult in recent times,
but they will continue to be there.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Thank you very much for being with us today, Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen.

CHRIS BOWEN: My pleasure.

PAUL BONGIORNO: After the break - are the Olympics providing Communist China with the propaganda
coup of the century? Gold medal champion John Konrads joins us. And the world's most talked-about
commercial last week came after the very mature Republican presidential candidate, John McCain,
included party girl Paris Hilton in one of his ads. She hit back with a devastating spoof.

TV AD VOICE-OVER: He's the oldest celebrity in the world. Like, super-old. Old enough to remember
when dancing was a sin and beer was served in a bucket. But is he ready to lead?

PARIS HILTON: Hey, America. I'm Paris Hilton, and I'm a celebrity too. Only, I'm not from the olden
days and I'm not promising change like that other guy. I'm just hot. But then that wrinkly
white-haired guy used me in his campaign ad, which I guess means I'm running for president. So
thanks for the endorsement, white-haired dude, and I want America to know that I'm, like, totally
ready to lead. I'm Paris Hilton and I approved this message because I think it's totally hot.

PAUL BONGIORNO: You're on Meet the Press. The Beijing Olympics are off to a spectacular start, and
while the athletes will strive to go swifter, higher, stronger, human right protesters are
demanding a better performance from the Communist government. Pro-Tibet demonstrators first shocked
the regime when they disrupted the torch relay in London. Greens leader Bob Brown then called for
the Prime Minister to boycott the Games.

AUSTRALIAN GREENS LEADER BOB BROWN: Our Prime Minister should stay home. There has to be a greater,
um, response from Beijing. They're not showing a willingness to respond. And the rest of the
world's disapproval has to come home more strongly to them.

PAUL BONGIORNO: And welcome to the program, Australian Olympic swim legend John Konrads. Good
morning, John.


PAUL BONGIORNO: It's water under the bridge, in the sense that the Prime Minister is up in Beijing
and he didn't boycott the opening. Do you think that was a mistake on Kevin Rudd's part?

JOHN KONRADS: Not at all. I think - I don't think boycotts work in the Olympic environment. I might
start by saying I was born an anti-Communist Latvian, and in 1980 when the boycotts were all on for
the Moscow Olympics, I was in favour of that. And with hindsight, a lot of hindsight, the only
people who suffer are the athletes. We're talking about our own Grant Hackett, with his third
1,500m coming up next Sunday, and we forget that Vladimir Salnikov, the first man to go under 15
minutes for the 1,500m freestyle in 1980 and won the gold in '80 and also because Russia then
boycotted - or the Soviet Union, I should say - boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics, he missed out
on the middle gold medal, which he would have certainly got - he was 15, 20 seconds ahead of the
world at the time - and won in Seoul in 1988.

PAUL BONGIORNO: You're making the distinctions between the athletes. But what about politicians
like a prime minister? Would he have made a better statement had he not gone?

JOHN KONRADS: I don't think so, because once it's on, it's on. The Olympics have always had a
chequered history in terms of political upheaval. We forget that Melbourne 1956 - I was on the team
as a 14-year-old - even Holland, the Netherlands boycotted because of the Suez crisis. And it's
always been - because it's such a huge stage, it's a great place for any sort of protest. I think
that a lot of the Tibetan protests have already been achieved through the torch relay, through what
we just saw on screen just now. And in many ways it was better the Olympics go on so they do have
these opportunities rather than boycott.

JENNIFER HEWETT: John, do you think there's more pressure on the elite athletes now than there was
in your day? Or is it much the same?

JOHN KONRADS: I think everything's bigger. Obviously the media are much bigger. When I won the Rome
Olympics in 1960, there was a newsreel that had to be flown by Qantas to Australia to be replayed
on TV. Four years later in Tokyo in '64, where the great Ian O'Brien won the 200m - breaststroke, I
might add - the video already existed and international telecommunications. I think the pressures
are the same. It's just a bigger world. Instead of millions of people watching, it's billions of
people watching. I was on the front page of the 'Sydney Morning Herald' when I got my gold medals.
So is Thorpie or Grant.

JENNIFER HEWETT: There was government support, obviously, for the Olympics then. There's some now.
Do you think there should be a lot more public funding?

JOHN KONRADS: There was none then, not one brass razoo. In fact, Australia suffered a lot from the
fact that we were more purely amateur than the rest of the world. Even the Americans had their
national collegiate system which people like John Hendricks, Murray Rose and I benefited from. But
funding, government funding is still insufficient. We're rather an amazing country to do as well as
we do with the relatively small government funding that we get. I say relatively to other developed
nations, and even some underdeveloped nations.

MALCOLM FARR: Look, we can have a couple of 16-year-old girls, you know, tearing up and down the
pool in Beijing and because of all this pressure, our credibility as a sporting nation is going to
hang on them. We've got the other factor of a lot more dope, instances of doping in sport
generally, and you can't exclude swimming from that. Have we lost perspective of this whole thing?
Particularly when you think of the two 16-year-old girls, yet to be mature women, who are going to
be carrying this huge load?

JOHN KONRADS: No, I - I was 15 exactly 50 years ago, almost to the date, when I won three gold
medals - sorry, I'd turned 16 by then, just turned 16 when I won three gold medals at the
Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. My 13-year-old - rather 14-year-old gold medallist sister won two.
That's all the events we had. We only had those number of events. Gold in every event. So it's
nothing new. And I think Cate Campbell and Emily Seebohm - I watch those two kids in the Olympics -
it's just such a stupendous environment that if you don't freak out, people go and do amazing
things and do their PBs by large margins.

MALCOLM FARR: And if they lose?

JOHN KONRADS: They've got next time around, at that age. You mentioned drugs. The battle against
drugs just has to keep on going and keep on going. And it's the Olympics and other sports have a
vested interest. Nobody's going to watch a bunch of junkies running around a track, and television
audiences would collapse. Therefore the television rights, the whole funding structure of the
Olympic Games and other sports would simply be reduced by half. A lot of American friends of mine
now don't watch pro football, they just watch the American college football. You get 80,000 people
at a mid-season match because it's purer, so to speak, and it's fantastic.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Just about out of time. Do you think the Brits are going to knock us off at the
London Games? That seems to be the big fear, that they're finding out all our secrets and they'll
be able to win more medals than us.

JOHN KONRADS: Well, I think in coaching - one of the fantastic things about the Australian team is
becoming worldwide is there are no secrets. These guys are in there for the sport. They do change
nations. But even without changing nations, they talk at conferences about what they do.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Thank you very much for being with us today, John Konrads. And thanks to our panel,
Jennifer Hewett and Malcolm Farr. Until next week, goodbye.