Even when landing a victorious case courtesy of a smoking gun, a recidivist villain and plenty of bleeding victims, the ACCC is only seeking a $16 million fine against Woolworths in the Federal Court this week — they’re lucky to get away with so little. That amounts to a minor cost-of-doing-business for a company that shows no regret and seems to continue to offend the spirit if not the letter of the law.

Woolworths itself has reportedly argued for a fine of only a few million for what was effectively an extortion racket — threatening small would-be competitors with unending legal actions and objections unless they caved in and agreed to not compete in specified areas.

It was a particularly grubby abuse of market power, something that should also raise questions about the ethics of Woolworths’ legal team. You might form the opinion Woolworths’ lawyers were happy to be part of an abuse of process, perverting the spirit of the legal system.

Woolworths’ duopoly partner Coles was guilty of the same scam but rolled over, said sorry and promised not to do it again when the ACCC commenced action. Woolworths remained and remains unrepentant – fighting the case as hard as it could and then effectively saying the court got it wrong when the ACCC won.

Woolies has reportedly told the Federal Court it should cop a reduced sentence because, well, it really wasn’t so bad. Rubbish – the ACCC should have gone for more and should now be having a very close look indeed at the sorry saga of Palmers Island General Store v Woolworths.

As we reported on 4 July, Woolworths might not be taking the straight legal threat route anymore, but it appears to be just carrying out the threat without offering an illegal deal. Some two-and-a-half years after applying for a bottle shop licence, the Palmers Island General Store is still being dragged through the legal system by big, rich and anti-competitive Woolworths as it strives to protect the fat profit margin of one of its BWS shops in another town.

Palmers Island General Store co-owner Chris Downing told us they’re still waiting for a court date next year to deal with Woolworths’ costly objections.

There is another mystery about the ACCC’s handling of Woolworths. The watchpuppy commenced its legal action of the bottle shops in back in 2003, knowing full well just what sort of operation Roger Corbett was running.

Yet the next year it happily waved through Woolworths’ ALH takeover. It would be rather like the RSPCA prosecuting a circus owner for repeated cruelty to animals while at the same time approving that person taking over a hundred zoos.

Maybe the Federal Government should allocate whatever fine Woolworths eventually cops to a special legal fighting fund for the likes of Palmers Island General Store. Nothing else seems capable of dealing with the Woolworths “whatever it takes” culture.

Peter Fray

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