THE Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has come under fire from the CEO of the nation's biggest consumer advocate organisation.
When CHOICE CEO Nick Stace visited the Sunshine Coast to speak at a Caloundra Rotary Club breakfast last week, he was here to listen to the concerns of the community more than slam the ACCC.
But it was soon clear that he couldn't keep his feelings quiet on the issue.
“I think the ACCC has been asleep on the job really,” he said.
“The ACCC thinks of reasons not to do things rather than what it can do to bring about a more competitive market.
“It is passive, it is not proactive, it is bureaucratic and slow and because of all of that, it is allowing Coles and Woolworths to get a more dominant position.
“I would give it one out of 10. And one out of 10 for at least existing and having those powers, but I wouldn't give it any more because they don't actually exercise those powers in a sufficiently robust way.
“And it always comes down to the person in charge. A good competition regulator is good if it has a strong and robust leader.”
Coast businessman Mel Luke, who owns seven IGA stores locally, will not want to hear those words even if Mr Stace is now actively fighting in his corner after meeting with him last week.
Mr Luke is in the midst of a David-and-Goliath battle with Wesfarmers-Coles after it bought the Coolum Village Shopping Centre that houses one of Mr Luke's supermarkets.
An attempt to extend his lease by five years was knocked back and he was only allowed to stretch it to January 2012, when it will expire, with an option for Wesfarmers to evict Mr Luke from January next year with three months' notice.
He made a complaint to the ACCC claiming unfair trading practices and a hearing is currently underway.
“The ACCC has given me an indication there is no deadline to this particular submission I put in and it could go on for some time or it could be finalised soon,” he said.
“It's been going on for four months and during that time, the ACCC have requested a lot of information from us, the people we deal with and our customers.
“I don't get overconfident about these matters, but we must have some sort of chance. Once you look at the Trade Practices Act, a competitor just can't acquire premises to eliminate another competitor.”
As vague as the ACCC “deadline” is, Mr Luke is hoping for a result soon.
“I'd like to see some closure, not only myself but all my staff who have been on tenterhooks for some time.
“While we are still here we've got a chance, but the biggest constraint is we can't improve our premises because it's foolish to spend money to improve it knowing full well somewhere down the track we may get a bigger supermarket or be asked to leave. It puts us in a state of flux.
“We've just got to stand our ground. And people are really supporting us, we've grown up with a lot of the people in Coolum over 24 years. We have employed three generations of one family at times.”
Mr Luke was grateful for the support from CHOICE.
“It certainly gives me a boost because we know we've got another group of people I've never been associated with before that have come out in support which is just tremendous.”
Mr Stace said CHOICE would help Mr Luke with national PR as the hearing progressed as well as through the use of senior contacts within the ACCC.
“But more than that, when you take action when you're someone like Mel it can be quite an isolating experience. And to think you've got the support of CHOICE and others can empower you to be a bit stronger and stay focused on the job.
“Mel seems like an honest businessman who is just trying to make an honest living and provide a good service to his customers.
“Sitting opposite him I felt he was basically being bullied by Coles.
“Coles are not just being a competitor to him, they are trying to take him out of the market in an aggressive way.
“There are people's livelihoods at stake. There comes a point where local people, traders and groups like CHOICE need to say enough is enough.”
The ACCC was approached for comment but chose not to respond.
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