Alan Jones and Groceries


Last week, new legislation  was introduced in Federal Parliament to strengthen the powers of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and explicitly outlaw ‘predatory pricing’ a practice in which large companies take advantage of their diverse interests to lower prices on a particular range of goods, to the point where smaller businesses can not keep up.

If Alan Jones had not been in southern France, manning the microphone at the Packer wedding, he’d be smug behind his usual one at 2GB, crowing for all the credit.

Predatory pricing has been a bugbear of Jones for some months now. According to Jones, the supermarket juggernauts Woolworths and Coles subsidise discounts on food and petrol to an unsustainable level, because they can absorb the losses elsewhere which small businesses cannot.

Jones claims that prices in areas where the chains have competition are consistently lower than in areas where competition has been squeezed out. Furthermore, large shopping complexes like Westfield charge larger lessees, like supermarkets, a much lower rental rate per square metre than smaller, boutique businesses.

The end result is that the big chains out-gun the local butcher, baker and greengrocer and when they close their doors, prices rise. This, Jones says, is ‘The Woolworths effect’ and the ACCC, apparently, is doing nothing.

This is a real issue. Moreover, it’s a complicated and unpopular one, which Jones has made real and understandable for his audience. Jones is certainly a great talker. The problem is, he’s a terrible listener and a selective one, too.

ACCC chairman Grahame Samuel has stated that he will not talk to Jones for precisely this reason. And Alan Jones made a point of telling his listeners so. But the ACCC nonetheless bore the brunt of his attack, as the body most to blame for predatory pricing. Yes, Coles and Woolworths were behaving like a ‘hard core cartel,‘  he claimed, but the ACCC should step in and stop them. When Samuel outlined at an ACCC conference why such measures were frustratingly beyond their jurisdiction, Jones dismissed it as ‘a lecture by bureaucrats and academics that have no experience in running a small business in a competitive environment.’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Similarly, when Jones interviewed Treasurer Peter Costello on 15 June, Costello attempted to explain some of the price discrepancies Jones had been detailing. Supermarkets pay lower rates of rent because they lease the space in bulk. Prices can vary from region to region because of different transportation costs and suppliers. But Jones, in his typical interview style, just spoke over the top.

As a part of his attack on the ACCC, Jones pointed out that it cannot litigate cases under section 46 of the Trade Practices Act, which deals with abuse of market position. That is, he attacked the ACCC for not doing its job in an area that isn’t actually its job.

But Jones doesn’t see this as contradiction. Rather, it is a conspiracy. The weakness of the law proves only that the Government is protecting Woolworths, Coles and the oil companies that work with them. He may have a point.

It is interesting to observe how Jones balances the sources he ignores with the ones he celebrates. On 10 May, he opened his TODAY show editorial by referring to the ‘irrefutable evidence’ (namely, shopping dockets) of Jack Hurkett, a pensioner interviewed the previous night on A Current Affair (later adding, without a hint of irony, that ‘a Brisbane pensioner has a better idea of what’s going on in the retail sector than the entire ACCC ‘). He rebuts the Reserve Bank and Treasurer with a citizens’ committee from rural Queensland. His interview questions to small business owners don’t so much lead as insert words into their mouths.

It’s the usual Jones shtick supporting the battlers against those who would trample upon them, on the strength of ‘common sense’ over statistical evidence.

What statistical evidence Jones does use, he manipulates beyond all recognition. This is the beauty of talk radio. Listeners can’t immediately check the figures quoted from themselves, and a simple aside (‘these are Government figures I’m showing you here’) is enough to establish their authority.

Throughout his campaign, Jones frequently made reference to OECD statistics comparing overall inflation rates with increases in the prices of retail goods. In no other country but Australia, he claimed, did grocery prices increase more than inflation. And this is true. Last year, according to the OECD website,   grocery inflation outstripped overall inflation by a whopping two per cent.

But Jones also relies on evidence from a variety of other countries and eras a questionable practice when the issue is economic, and therefore influenced by specifics of policy and culture. These include a 1912 political speech by Theodore Roosevelt, and a paper from 1776. A Current Affair is also a frequent informant.

Then there’s the fact that Jones hosts a talkback show which means that when his listeners support his views, directly after his editorials and combative interviews, they too become ‘irrefutable evidence.’

There’s no denying that Jones is an incredible force as a political activist and in tackling this issue, he has achieved concrete and important change. But his handling of the issue, like so many before it, has been patchy, and his understanding of the broader forces at work not always clear.

Alan Jones is always a broadcaster with an agenda, and his shows are carefully designed to allow him to pursue it regardless of anything so inconvenient as accuracy or balance.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.