There’s nothing like a bashing of a leading businessman and company to build the reputation of a regulator. Alan Fels was a past master of ‘touching up’ a company or businessman to make the point that the ACCC was on the side of the angels (consumers, small business people) rather than the big end of town.

Since his appointment 18 months ago Graeme Samuel has laboured under the reputation that he’s a friend of the big end of town, despite some attempts to bash a business or three and leap to the defence of a consumer or three.

But the past week or so, and especially this morning on the TV business programs, Samuel had skillfully used Patrick Corporation and its executive, Chairman Chris Corrigan to show that he’s on the side of the ‘big battalions the consumers and others.

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The argument over the adequacy or otherwise of port capacity, profits, efficiency and investment is really a storm in the container.

There’s nothing wrong with the ports, as Corrigan continually pointed out in the interviews with Nine’s Business Sunday, Seven’s Sunday Sunrise and the ABC’s Inside Business. The Patrick chairman quoted from the ACCC report and press release, which he nursed through each of the interviews.

As did Samuel in a live interview on Business Sunday! It was all a bit, he said, you said, I say.

But from Samuel’s point of view and that of the Commission, it was good news and had the desired outcome.

Good regulator, big nasty, profit-making business.

The reality on the ports is a bit more, with the slow moving state governments, especially in Victoria and NSW unable to move fast enough to allow new investment in facilities.

Samuel did make one other good point in his interview with Ali Moore, the big hint that the Commission is looking at the takeover battle surrounding General property trust. With Westfield sniffing around GPT and Lend Lease, there will be definite competition problems, likewise Stocklands and GPT.

The egos of Matthew Quinn and Frank Lowy are on display and only Lowy has the real firepower. But he is encumbered by his market share in retail shopping centres.

But have no fear, I reckon that in any bid that’s contested by the ACCC, the bidding group will hope straight off to the Australian Competition Tribunal and get a friendly ruling that ignores the reality of the Australian economy (as Qantas and Air New Zealand did).

That’s the Howard Government’s sneaky gift to business and a question to Samuel from Ali Moore on this issue would have been interesting, especially if it made the point that the ACT would make the ACCC irrelevant.

This sidelining of the Commission by using the Tribunal will become a common ploy next year. Businesses will use it because of the gains to be made in terms of options and share packages and bonuses becoming payable on completion of big mergers. Bugger the price or the efficiencies.

Alan Fels rabbiting on in his commentary on Business Sunday about how the four pillars policy should be removed by the Federal Government was strangely odd as well, at odds with what ordinary consumers want to see. If the big banks want the ACCC to oversee banking competition, you can bet the Australian Competition is their real destination for approval.

There are NO votes in bank mergers, and Fels should have realised that by now.

Corrigan was the only interview of note on the programs this morning. Business Sunday had an interview with Maurice Flanagan of Emirates that seems to have been done when he was here for the Melbourne Cup earlier this month.

But the Business Sunday interview with Corrigan didn’t have anything about Virgin Blue and Patrick’s ambitions to expand internationally, especially on the Trans-Pacific route.

Alan Kohler on the ABC managed to extract from Corrigan that Virgin Blue had “18” proposals for new business and the Trans-Pacific would be one of those.

On Seven Pascoe got more interesting when he pinned Corrigan on whether he and Patrick had an attitude to Singapore Airlines flying the Pacific.

It’s something that the Federal Minister for Qantas, sorry Transport, John Anderson, has to confront soon.

Pascoe forced Corrigan to be cagey but admit Virgin Blue was looking at the Pacific and had inquired of the government about Singapore’s interest.

It’s actually a bit more than that. Virgin Blue is opposed to Singapore’s involvement, sort of.

Qantas will decide, and who knows what deals will be done in Singapore with its new biggest shareholder, Temasek Holdings, the biggest shareholder also in Singapore Airlines and Qantas’s partner in Jetstar Asia.

And finally, Graeme Samuel summed up the stagy nature of the whole week and Corrigan’s attitude when he said Patrick was criticising the Commission over ports, But Virgin Blue was wanting to Commission’s help in dealing with airports and their charges.

It was a nice point to Ali Moore on Business Sunday to sum up the lack of consistency on all sides.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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