With planning one of the hot-button issues in the Victorian election, it was perhaps a tad unsubtle of Woolworths CEO Michael Luscombe to go out of his way at the AGM in Brisbane yesterday to thank John Brumby for completely side-lining local communities and councils.
As Luscombe spoke enthusiastically about the way Woolies and American giant Lowes are going to take it to Bunnings with their 150-store home-improvements joint venture, this is what he said about Brumby:
“I would also like to acknowledge the recent decision of the Victorian government to fast track planning approvals on 10 stores. From day one, they really grasped the extent of the investment in jobs and infrastructure and conducted a very diligent and thorough process to review the development applications.”
Crikey has previously reported about the hypocrisy of Woolworths doing sweetheart planning deals with Spring Street on its own developments while trying to game the planning system to foil competitors.
There is no better example that the City of Manningham, where Woolworths has just run off to the Victorian Supreme Court to try and prevent our council selling its car park at Jackson Court in Doncaster to facilitate the development of an Aldi supermarket.
Luscombe was right across the detail of this legal stoush, claiming the car park is too small, the traders are opposed and council was gifted the land by a charitable trust. Have a listen to the full audio exchange.
Luscombe’s claims are bollocks. Woolies walked away from the community by turning its supermarket into a giant Dan Murphy’s grog shop. The traders are right behind the Aldi proposal and the redevelopment would naturally involve adequate parking. The original car park was transferred to council in 1954 as part of a pretty standard developer contribution. The idea it was some sort of charitable contribution in perpetuity, as Woolies is claiming in Supreme Court documents, is utter garbage.
The other fascinating element of the Woolies-Brumby government relationship relates to poker machines.
The Brumby government’s decision to kick duopolists Tatts and Tabcorp out of the Victorian pokies industry after 2012 was hugely beneficial to Woolies, which has since picked up almost 5000 licences it will be able to operate directly at its Victorian venues after August 2012.
As Crikey reported last week, councils across Victoria are now looking to hit pokies venues with higher rates following the lead of Moreland City Council.
The Age also covered the story and quoted Brumby’s chief spinner as follows:
ALP spokesman George Svigos said ”given that Moreland Council’s last attempt on this issue was overturned by the courts we are going to wait and see if it is subject to a legal challenge before we form any view”.
Moreland has since corrected Svigos, with CEO Peter Brown saying:
“It is unfortunate that the advice the government has received about Moreland City Council’s withdrawal of last year’s Gaming Differential Rate (GDR) is incorrect. Last year there was a minor legal flaw in the approved GDR as advised by senior counsel. In response, council withdrew its GDR and the flaw in the rate has been corrected. The matter was not determined by a court. This year Moreland’s gaming proprietors have not objected to the rate yet and in fact all of them are up to date with payments or fully paid.”
All off this was put to the Woolies board yesterday and it turned into quite a ding dong. Have a listen to the audio.
It was like pulling teeth, but eventually Luscombe admitted there wasn’t any deal with the state government to shaft councils on special rates but they reserved their right to challenge again in the Supreme Court.
Finally, there is the question of political donations. Woolworths takes a holier-than-thou approach claiming to have a board policy that bans them.
The directors looked decidedly uncomfortable when it was pointed out the pokies division had given the Queensland ALP $20,000 about the time of the last state election. Have a listen to the audio.
Truth be known, Woolies feeds its donations to both political parties through the Australian Hotels Association, given it is the largest member of an industry lobby group that has donated millions to both sides of politics over the past decade.
*Stephen Mayne is a City of Manningham councillor and independent “No Pokies” candidate for the Northern Metropolitan upper house region in the Victorian election. He was not paid for this item.