Australian Prime Minister ABC NewsRadio Breakfast

Prime Minister

: This week, we’ve been talking a lot about allegations of price gouging and unfair supplier practices by Australia’s big two supermarkets in the wake of a Four Corners investigation. If you missed it, you can catch it on ABC iview now. Yesterday we heard from Nationals Leader David Littleproud, who called for increased supermarket competition and greater powers for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. But the Prime Minister has shrugged off any suggestions to forcibly break up major supermarket chains, making the quote this week ‘we’re not the Soviet Union’. So, what, if anything, can be done to help lower your grocery bills? Now the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, joins us. Prime Minister, good morning.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Tom. Good to be with you.

ORITI: Thanks for your time. A lot of us saw Four Corners last week, and I guess now that infamous walkout from the Woolies CEO Brad Banducci. A lot of angry farmers cost living crisis, at the moment, what’s your view, are Coles and Woolies ripping people off?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, quite clearly they have excessive market power. We have effectively a duopoly in large parts of Australia. In some places, IGA or Aldi or other supermarkets will play a role, but overwhelmingly there is a concentration of power, which is why we have three inquiries at least going at the moment. There’s the Senate inquiry, the ACCC are looking at whether the voluntary code of conduct requires some mandatory component of it, in addition to that we’ve got Dr. Craig Emerson having a look at supermarkets, having a look at competition and what could be done there as well. We know that when farmers are saying they’re getting less for their products, that hasn’t necessarily translated through to cheaper prices at the checkout. And it should. If farmers are getting less, and we’re not necessarily arguing for that, of course, farmers should get a fair price for their product, but when you have that disconnect between the prices being paid by supermarkets and then the prices being paid by consumers, then something’s going wrong.

ORITI. So, what specific measures, you mentioned, there are a number of inquiries, Prime Minister, is there anything in particular that you’re considering to perhaps encourage competition, new entrants into the market, to help people dealing with cost of living pressures and to solve some of these issues that you’ve just identified? Excessive market power, the duopoly?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we certainly will look at any recommendations coming forward of how you would encourage new entrants into the market. That would obviously be helpful. The more competition, the way that economics should work, of course, it should lead to lower prices, if people are competing. In many places, of course there’s not a duopoly, there’s a monopoly in some smaller markets. So, the key as well, though, is this voluntary code of conduct where there should be some mandating? The other issue is the issue of transparency through the supply chain. People getting, being able to access what are the prices being paid for the goods that are then being on sold through those supply chains. So, greater transparency could lead as well to more positive outcomes. And we’re having a look at, we’ll have a look at any recommendations that come forward.

ORITI: Forgive me for interrupting, but we had David Littleproud on yesterday and he sort of accused the Government of taking too long to act. I mean, perhaps expected from the Opposition.

PRIME MINISTER: If only he’d been in Government for ten years, he might have been able to do something about any of this. He sat back and did absolutely nothing for ten years.

ORITI: But in saying that now, with due respect, now though, we’re looking at this ACCC inquiry, for example, the final report due in February 2025. There are farmers who are crying out on the land, we’re going through a cost of living crisis. Do you feel as though the Australian public have the time or the patience to wait for more recommendations from more inquiries?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you’ve got to get expert advice. What you don’t want to do is to intervene in a way that has quite contradictory impacts. And that’s why the ACCC is the appropriate body. Of course, that’s the date for the final report, but we expect to receive interim advice well before then and they’re having a proper examination of it and that’s the appropriate method. I mean, David Littleproud was the Minister for Agriculture in the former Government. He needs to accept some responsibility for the fact that they sat back and allowed this. Market power occurred largely over the decade in which they were in Government. There was a further concentration there. They did nothing about it.

ORITI: Do you concede, though, with all of these inquiries underway and that final report not due until for another year, okay, sure, interim findings, sure, but do you concede that really, it looks like nothing could change with the supermarkets this year when people are dealing with a cost of living crisis now?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don’t concede that at all.

ORITI: What do you anticipate could change?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what you’re already seeing with greater transparency and focus on supermarkets, I think you are seeing some changes in behaviour already as a result of the focus that’s on that. You’ve seen, of course, through the work that’s been done, including by the media with the Four Corners program, that pressure go on. And that, of course, because supermarkets rely upon people to support them, then you are seeing some change, not enough, but you are seeing some change flow through. And you’ll see interim reports this year. And the Government said quite clearly, by us indicating that we’re prepared to look at mandating, rather than just a voluntary code, you see a change in behaviour as a result of that.

ORITI: What about this? Would you like to see other international supermarket chains, apart from Aldi, who we heard Brad Banducci praise on Four Corners, but would you like to see other chains apart from them open up shop in Australia to drive more competition and, in a way, try to dismantle that duopoly?

PRIME MINISTER: I always want to see more competition in whatever sector you are looking at, the more entrants, the better the outcome when it comes to competition. What you can’t do, of course, is establish, and we’re not proposing to establish, a government run supermarket. And of course, we can’t mandate foreign entrants to come here. What we can do, though, is look at the economic environment, the regulatory environment, and give encouragement for more competition.

ORITI: I do know Andrew Leigh, your colleague, yesterday, he ruled out one thing which interested me, divestment powers. David Littleproud’s pushing for that, this idea of breaking up the supermarket chains. He’s ruled that out. But is that right to rule something out while inquiries are underway? Shouldn’t everything be on the table here?

PRIME MINISTER: We’ve got to have a bit of common sense as well. The Leader of the Opposition, of course, earlier this year called for people to boycott Woolworths. Woolworths are Australia’s largest employer. 200,000 Australians rely upon their jobs at Woolworths to put food on their table for themselves and their families. The idea that you say, “we’re going to demand that those businesses just disappear,” is, quite frankly, overreach. And we do have a market based economy.

ORITI: That’s a boycott, though. I’m talking about the divestment. Why would you totally rule that out?

PRIME MINISTER: If there’s a boycott, guess what? If no one buys goods at a supermarket, in this case Woolworths, how does that supermarket stay open if it doesn’t have customers? So, we need to, I think, have a common sense approach here. And the idea that we have a command and control economy is not what we have in Australia. What we have is a market-based economy with appropriate regulation. And so the idea that you would determine action like that would, I believe, be overreach.

ORITI: Prime Minister, on that note, when we’re talking about the cost of living crisis. Good news this week, Australian workers enjoyed a real annual pay increase for the first time in almost three years. The wage price index out and average base pay rose 0.9 per cent in the December quarter. Can I ask you about that? Are you expecting that trend to continue now into 2024?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, we were expecting real wages to increase during 2024. The fact that we achieved it in 2023 on an annual basis with a 4.2 per cent wage increase compared with inflation of 4.1, is extremely good news. We want living standards to rise, we want people to earn more and we want them to keep more of what they earn. So, if you combine rising wages with the tax cuts that will go to every taxpayer as a result of the changes that we’ve made to the tax system, to ensure that no Australian misses out, who’s a taxpayer, then I think that is positive. We had further positive news yesterday that the gender pay gap had been reduced to 12 per cent, a record low. So, we have, on a range of fronts, positive news. More work to be done, we know people are still under cost of living pressure, but this was good news.

ORITI: And those pay gaps, I should note, published next week for the first time. I guess, effectively naming and shaming companies with those big discrepancies between male and female employers. What are you expecting there, Prime Minister? And what are you hoping that will accomplish?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it accomplishes transparency. So, we have changed the law so that you will be able to see, in a transparent way, for major companies, of course, what their gender pay gap is. But the other thing that we’ve done is to outlaw the provisions that were in various agreements so that people were being forced to sign up and weren’t allowed to tell people what they were paid. We’ve outlawed that because that worked against women in the workforce as well. Low hanging fruit for economic growth is greater women’s workforce participation. So, a range of measures that we’ve put in place, cheaper child care, these transparency measures, paid parental leave, are all aimed at making a difference so that women much more fully participate in the workforce. It’s good for them, but it’s also good for our national economy.

ORITI: Prime Minister, we’re pressed for time. Just Julian Assange, while I’ve got you there, you’ve made the case, you’d like him to come home. If he were allowed to come back to Australia, what happens? Should he be in jail or house arrest, free to live his life? What’s your view on that?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, my view is that enough is enough. When it comes to Julian Assange. He has, regardless of what people think of what he was involved with, with Wikileaks, and there are a range of views that people might have, but the representations that Australia has made on behalf of someone who is an Australian citizen is that there is nothing to be served by the further incarceration of Julian Assange. And my view is that he should be allowed to come home to Australia to spend time with his family.

ORITI: Okay, now just quickly, you’re going to see Taylor Swift this weekend. I’ve got to ask. You’ve recently been engaged. You got any advice for her and her boyfriend, Travis Kelce, in terms of romantic locations?

PRIME MINISTER: I think that if you listen to Taylor Swift’s lyrics, which a lot of which are about love and relationships, not all of them positive.

ORITI: No, I was going to say it’s. Not all positive.

PRIME MINISTER: Due to her personal experience. Look, I think she’s a great lyricist. I really think I’m old enough to be a fan of people like Joni Mitchell and other great women writers. And I think that the maturing of her work over a period of time that people will get to listen to tonight, from 1989 through to albums like Folklore and evermore that I really enjoy listening to.

ORITI: You are a genuine Swifty, then, okay that’s good.

PRIME MINISTER: I’m really looking forward to it. And I think that it’s a phenomenon that she’s very empowering. And if you listen to the lyrics of Shake it Off, they’re about female empowerment, and I think it’s a very good message for young women.

ORITI: I didn’t think I’d chat to you about Taylor Swift at any point, Prime Minister, but there you go. Enjoy the concert. It’s a pleasure having you on. Thank you very much for joining us.

PRIME MINISTER: Not normally the genre that you get on NewsRadio, but there you go.

ORITI: I’m sure she’s listening, mate. I’m sure she’s listening. This morning. We live in hope. Thank you very much for joining us. Take care. Thanks a lot.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Tom.

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