Jones attacked after more Countdown claims

HAMISH RUTHERFORD
Last updated 08:21 20/02/2014

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The boss of Countdown owner Woolworths has attacked the approach of Labour MP Shane Jones, after the supermarket faced new accusations in Parliament.

Jones has been using the protection of parliamentary privilege to accuse Countdown of blackmail and extortion against its New Zealand suppliers, and yesterday gave more details of what he claims to have been told.

He claimed families had lost their business after standing up to Countdown, while another had been given just hours to come up with money to make up for poor trading.

"Countdown demanded tens of thousands of dollars from a supplier by five o'clock that day, as payment for insufficient sales achieved in the previous month, from their product list or it was goodnight Irene," Jones said.

An "Australian merchandise manager" who had fled from a regulatory investigation in Australia had "caused these dramas", Jones said, although he declined to name the man, saying the identity would be given to the Commerce Commission.

The attacks, which began a week ago, also turned personal, when he suggested that top businessman Ralph Waters was pressuring Kiwi businesses not to talk to the Commerce Commission.

In a question to Commerce Minister Craig Foss he asked: "Does he think it enhances or undermines the Commerce Commission processes if the Woolworths Australia chairman Ralph Waters is found to be calling New Zealand suppliers and dissuading them from participating in this legal process, lest they face dire consequences in his supermarkets in Australia?"

Countdown, which has denied "categorically" Jones' allegations, simply noted the latest claims and said it would co-operate with the commission inquiries.

But Waters, who was born in New Zealand and has held senior roles at Fonterra, Fletcher Building and Westpac New Zealand, attacked Mr Jones' approach and dismissed the claims.

"I completely reject Mr Jones' allegations and find his insinuations highly offensive," Waters said in a statement.

"I am extremely disappointed in Mr Jones' behaviour. Attacking an individual and business through the Parliament is no way for any politician to deal with an issue of concern or engage with the business sector."

Jones accused Prime Minister John Key of holding a "secret meeting" with Waters.

Key said the pair had met in Sydney recently, but that it was at an event with around 100 guests, and that Waters had reported to him that he was trying to get New Zealand meat on to Woolworths freezers in Australia.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce said Jones had done more than enough to bring the matter to the attention of the Commerce Commission, but continued to use the protection of Parliament to attack Countdown.

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"I think he's basking in the political glory," Joyce said.

"I think if he's going to keep ladling allegations on people he's got to be able to substantiate them."

But Labour leader David Cunliffe has defended Jones' use of parliamentary privilege.

"Mr Jones has absolutely appropriately used parliamentary privilege to deal with a very, very serious matter," he said today on Firstline.

"I think it's an appropriate use of parliamentary privilege... which has now been appropriately referred to the regulatory agency the Commerce Commission, it's for them to investigate."

Meanwhile, Countdown faced a new hit last night, with TV3's Campbell Live claiming a "large and reputable" supplier had sworn an affidavit alleging that the business had been required to give a buyer employed by Progressive Enterprises, Countdown's New Zealand parent company, cash payments of $500 a week.

Campbell Live said there was no suggestion that Progressive Enterprises had any knowledge of the payments, but it quoted the supplier as saying that when the buyer changed, the payments became gifts of travel and occasionally cash.

Countdown was quoted as saying it encouraged the person to take their complaints to relevant authorities, such as the police.

- Stuff

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