This is ACCC Chairman Graeme Samuel on Western Australia’s Fuelwatch scheme in 2006:

…there have been three separate commentaries made on the Western Australian arrangements. In May 2005, the NT had an inquiry into fuel prices, and it did not recommend introducing the WA arrangements…

In April 2006, the Queensland Parliament had a petrol inquiry, and it concluded… “that the WA legislation has impacted adversely on independent fuel retailers…these provisions should not be introduced in Queensland.”

Finally, the National Competition Council… “considers that WA is yet to conclusively demonstrate that its petrol pricing restrictions provide a net public benefit.”

And this is Graeme Samuel a couple of weeks ago, in response to the rollout – under the ACCC – of Fuelwatch nationwide:

The really important saving for motorists is the power it gives them to know when prices are going to be lifted and when prices are going to be reduced.

If you know the price of petrol is going to be lifted by 10 cents tomorrow, you’ve got 15 hours notice under the FuelWatch scheme to buy today, that’ll save you 10 cents per litre.

So what prompted this change in attitude on the part of Samuel, first spotted by The Courier-Mail earlier this month? The ACCC says analysis undertaken last year as part of their Petrol prices and Australian consumers report, which revealed a “statistically significant” 1.9c per litre drop in prices as a consequence of the WA scheme.

It probably also helped that in extending the scheme nationwide, the Government is providing an additional $20.9m over four years to the ACCC for the establishment of what will have to be an enormous database and reporting system for every petrol station in the country, as well as people on the ground to do spot checks on service stations.

Until now, the ACCC has spent about $100,000 pa using petrol price monitoring service Informed Sources to keep an eye on prices, but now it will have to develop its own system, in addition to the array of fuel price monitoring services available both privately and from petroleum companies.

The ACCC has to face a consistent campaign by all major party politicians to somehow uncover some hitherto-hidden evidence about collusion or find a magic solution to the operation of the petrol market that will send prices back down significantly. It’s never going to happen, but no politician, from Kevin Rudd down, wants to be honest and tell “working families” that petrol prices are pretty much where supply and demand say they should be, and what’s more they should be a damn sight higher if we’re going to start weaning ourselves off a carbon-based transport system. So the ACCC gets to waste its time and considerable resources checking petrol price signs.

Samuel is not in a strong position to object. His term expires at the end of June. Under the Government’s new guidelines for merit-based appointments, the ACCC Chairmanship is required to be advertised, meaning he’ll have to apply for his own job if he wants to be reappointed.

And the depth of Labor’s animosity toward Samuel when he was appointed by Peter Costello – over the objections of several Labor states – in 2003 should not be forgotten. Samuel, long associated with the Victorian Liberal party and state treasurer for three years, had pushed the Howard Government hard for a GST when head of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Bob McMullan, then shadow Treasurer, repeatedly declared that Samuel was unfit for the job due to conflicts of interest. Mark Latham referred to “Costello’s cronyism” and Samuel as his “Melbourne mate”, comparing his appointment to putting Robbie Waterhouse in charge of the AJC. And Stephen Conroy – now a senior government figure – made a series of searing attacks on Samuel’s corporate record and personal honesty under Parliamentary privilege.

Which should make for some interesting debate if Wayne Swan takes Samuel’s reappointment to Cabinet.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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