Well whip me with a feather – ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel is telling the media he has told the naughty petrol companies that he will tell the media they are naughty if they don’t reduce petrol prices in a week. When did we step through the looking glass?

It’s a pretty sad state of affairs for the consumer watch puppy to be in when it has to resort to jawboning about jawboning petrol prices.

It’s also an embarrassment for the ACCC to admit there’s something amiss in the petrol market when it waved through the very change that is now the prime suspect – the rise and rise of Coles and Woolworths in yet another area of retailing. The Terror quotes FuelTrac to point the finger:

Profit margins have widened sharply since Coles and Woolworths increased discount vouchers from 4c a litre to 10c, prompting petrol industry watchdog FuelTrac to accuse them of manipulating bowser prices to pinch back the savings.

“The fuel discount isn’t costing them anything and people are running around filling up trolleys with $80 worth of groceries they don’t need to pay the same as what they should be paying for petrol,” FuelTrac’s Geoff Trotter said. “Graeme Samuel has been asleep to this for too long.”

Samuel defends that charge by saying half the market still isn’t Coles and Woolworths – give ‘em time, give ‘em time — but that belies the effect that the retail duopolists have had on all petrol stations.

The Colesworths discount docket offer has seriously damaged the opposition, robbing them of pricing power. Now that margins have briefly blown out, it would be unrealistic to expect the weaker parties to suddenly give any away.

Colesworths spokesfolk deny any link between their current 10 cents a litre discount offer and the pump price. The Mandy Rice-Davies rule applies.

The ACCC’s website contains all manner of information about petrol price cycles, how prices are set and such, the output of numerous inquiries over the years. Those inquiries predate the ACCC-approved march of Woolworths and Coles into the market.

Maybe it’s time for a new chapter: The application of jawboning about jawboning when the system ceases to function.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey