ACCC boss Gina Cass-Gottlieb commits to protecting small businesses, suppliers against major supermarkets

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The head of Australia’s consumer watchdog has flagged the importance of keeping monopolising businesses in check, issuing a promise to protect small businesses in negotiations with major supermarkets ahead of a large-scale price inquiry

Addressing small business leaders at the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia National Small Business Summit on Thursday, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said it was a key priority of the watchdog to ensure competition in the market.

A lack of competition would allow “economic dominance” by larger and fewer companies, which could lead to “discriminatory action against small businesses, exploitation of consumers, and featherbedding (hiring more workers than is required) of industries”, she said.

Her comments come as the watchdog probes the supermarket sector and the impact of the Woolworths and Coles duopoly (which controls about two-thirds of Australia’s grocery market) on grocery prices, farmers, and other competitors coming into the market.

The inquiry will be led by ACCC deputy chair Mick Keogh and has been given until February 28, 2025 to deliver its final report.

On Thursday, Ms Cass-Gottlieb acknowledged the “keen interest” in the inquiry and called on input from small business stakeholders.

“It is very important and valuable to hear your comments about engagement as suppliers, customers of, (and) competitors to the major supermarkets,” she said.

Flagging law reform priorities, Ms Cass-Gottlieb listed areas like codes protecting small business franchisees and agriculture and food and grocery codes governing how smaller suppliers engage with major supermarkets.

“(This) is an enduring priority, we are committed to ensuring that the protections of competition and consumer laws (and various codes) not only apply, (but) apply in an effective way to businesses, and you also get the benefits of them,” she said.

Ms Cass-Gottlieb also thanked members for their support of ACCC’s merger law reform, which would require companies above a certain threshold to notify the authority and seek approval before they merge.

The proposed overhaul, which has been put forward to the Treasury Competition Review, also notes statistics that reveal half of the 1000-1500 mergers are made by the largest 1 per cent of businesses.

Ms Cass-Gottlieb also highlighted more reform on unfair trading practices, like automatic renewal terms, which are widespread on dating and web pages platforms.

“We find that what occurs is that you have very little notice, it clicks over and it’s automatically renewed. You then wish to exercise termination; however, you have to pay a fee to do so,” she said.

Earlier on Thursday, Nationals Leader David Littleproud called for more “punitive penalties” for supermarkets found guilty of price gouging farmers and shoppers in policy supported by the Liberals.

Mr Littleproud said he was examining grocery, food and wine codes alongside shadow treasurer Angus Taylor and would firm up their policy within weeks.

“At the moment the biggest penalty on the grocery code is $145,000, I mean they pull that out of one of their Melbourne stores each morning,” Mr Littleproud said.

He also called for an independent arbiter who would be employed “at an arm’s length” from the supermarkets themselves.

“These penalties are all deterrents … but I think the evidence is clear,” Mr Littleproud said, listing examples where sheep and cattle farm gate prices were lowered by 60 to 70 per cent; however, the flow-on effect at supermarkets was about 8 per cent.

“Something’s not right, and that’s when governments should take action to protect suppliers and consumers,” he said.