Key signals Countdown probe

HAMISH RUTHERFORD
Last updated 05:00 18/02/2014

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Prime Minister John Key says he will not be boycotting supermarket chain Countdown on the back of ‘‘unsubstantiated’’ claims, but has signalled a Commerce Commission inquiry will take place.

Last week in Parliament Labour MP Shane Jones accused Countdown, owned by Australian group Woolworths, of using ‘‘Mafioso’’ tactics, including demanding payments from growers for prior losses.

Countdown has rejected the claims and says it has nothing to fear from a commission inquiry. The regulator has said it is considering whether to investigate.

The allegations made by Jones came soon after after claims that Kiwi suppliers were being pushed off shelves across the Tasman in favour of local products, and drew attention to calls for a consumer boycott.

A Facebook group calling for a boycott of Countdown has now drawn close to 10,000 ‘‘likes’’.

Yesterday Key said that he was reserving judgment and that had he done the supermarket shopping at the weekend he would have made a point of going to Countdown.

‘‘These are unsubstantiated claims,’’ Key said.

‘‘Until somebody proves to me that they’re right I wouldn’t be boycotting them.’’ 

While he had not been given official advice that the commission would make an inquiry, Key said several times yesterday that it was a matter of ‘‘when’’ an inquiry took place.

Although he could not rule out that the allegations were correct, the company should not be judged in the meantime, he said.

‘‘We should all sort of, hold our water, so to speak, until we actually know the facts,’’ he said.

‘‘Everyone accepts that when it comes to small suppliers and dominant supermarkets, there’s a power imbalance, and I suspect when the inquiry takes place there will be suppliers that say that they feel the pressure of that power imbalance. Whether that actually marries up to what Mr Jones is saying is quite a different issue.’’

Key has repeatedly called for Jones to make the claims outside of Parliament, which the Labour MP has refused to do.

Key told reporters said that New Zealand food producers reported to him that the supermarkets drove ‘‘hard bargains’’ but he believed that ‘‘by and large’’ this benefited consumers through lower prices, and nothing untoward had been drawn to his attention.

It was possible that an inquiry would not prove Mr Jones was correct in his allegations, but that other findings about supermarket behaviour would come to light, and the Government would be ‘‘listening with both ears open’’.

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- Fairfax Media

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