Like Foster’s, I too was intrigued by the offer by a local liquor outlet of Penfolds Bin 389 at under $40 a bottle. 389 is a fine $40 bottle of wine that sadly these days retails for a lot more than that, so I don’t normally buy it.

Apparently that low price so outraged Foster’s that they’ve dispatched employees to buy up cases of 389 at the cheap price. It’s reminiscent of how Scientology in pre-internet days would send members to US courthouses to check out embarrassing documents filed in legal actions all day so no one else could read them. Ain’t no one going to enjoy cheap 389 if Foster’s can help it.

Discount wine, and yesterday’s claims about, egad, discount beer, which angered Foster’s too, also appears to have infuriated politicians. The Greens and Nick Xenophon and both Liberal and National politicians were quick to suggest there was something untoward about cheap alcohol and that there needed to be better regulation.

Hmmm.

There’s a theory that there’s an infinite number of universes, generated by quantum uncertainty. For many years I’ve been mildly obsessed with the idea that, by some freak accident of physics, I might slip into an alternate universe that is almost exactly the same as this but for one tiny, perhaps trivial, detail, and I might not know it until, as per a Twilight Zone episode, I stumble upon that one tiny but telltale difference. I call it quantum OCD.

And clearly my obsession is justified, because apparently it has indeed happened. Until a few weeks ago, I’m positive there was considerable angst about the rising cost of living, with politicians all expressing concern about rising prices, despite official inflation figures telling a quite different story. Joe Hockey would come out and declare that the CPI might be low but households still faced rising costs in important areas. Wayne Swan would come out and declare that the Government understood households were “doing it tough”.

Yup, doing it tough with low inflation, near-full employment and a resources boom. OK. But anyway.

However, that was presumably an alternate universe, because for several weeks there’s been considerable anger at the supermarket changes for lowering the price of milk. There is even a Senate inquiry into it, to investigate this outrage. And now there’s a problem with cheap beer, and threats to investigate that as well.

Australians complaining about cheap beer. Now I must really be in a different universe.

It’s not just politicians. I mean, they’re fickle, changeable creatures who would jump on any passing bandwagon if they thought it would round up some votes. But it’s the media, too. The Fairfax press has been in the thick of it. It rolled out a series of articles about the outrage of cheap milk, like how it doesn’t froth properly for baristas (finally an issue to unite farmers and latte-sipping inner-city elitists), that it will lead to the end of fresh milk, even that cheap milk is contaminated by, um, dairy products.

Now it’s led the way on the outrage of cheap beer, complete with “public health concerns”. Someone from the preventative health industry was brought in to demand a legal minimum price for beer.

The hysteria flies in the face of evidence from the ACCC to the Senate inquiry, that there was no evidence of predatory pricing by Coles, which initiated the milk price war. But at least the milk war is portrayed as a clash between the evil grocery duopoly (that’s only half-joking) and dairy farmers doing it tough.

But Coles and Woolies versus Foster’s? That would be the billion dollar transnational Foster’s, being done over by Coles and Woolies?

For a society that prides itself on its open economy in which “bureaucracy” and “red tape” are regularly attacked, it seems the commitment to free markets is awfully thin, and not just among journalists and editors but among politicians. It’s not just that the party of free markets and individual choice is backing government winner-picking as its approach to climate change, or the self-declared party of micro-economic reform continues to pump billions into the local manufacturing industry. The urge to Do Something about anything and everything still runs deep in politicians of all persuasions.

Luckily, I got in quick and bought a case of 389 for $38 a bottle, before Foster’s, or a politician, could stop me. Marvellous thing, competition.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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