Editorial: Sometimes 'closer' still misses

Last updated 05:00 08/02/2014

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OPINION: The C in CER stands for closer - not chummier - economic relations with Australia.

Things still get right testy, as they are now. We can go crook about Australian supermarkets taking New Zealand-produced goods off the shelves, we can invoke the spirit of the by-now-venerable CER agreement, but it's by no means clear there's a legal case to be mounted against what Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott shrugs off as a decision the markets are entitled to make.

Dominant Aussie chains Coles and Woolworths have been swayed by an ardent Buy Australia campaign, the tenor of which isn't a million miles away from those in New Zealand urging us to do the same over here.

The question becomes whether CER really gets in the way of that, given that it's a government-to-government agreement.

The Labour Party is adamant that it's distinct, rather than spiritual, breach of the agreement. John Key is not so sure and Mr Abbott's approach is a serene invitation to prove it to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

This might be tricky indeed. Much as CER is evoked as representing a single economic market there's surely a distinction between abolishing tariff barriers, thereby giving companies on each side of the ditch access to each other's markets, and having some sort of right to have your products stocked on the shelves of retailers regardless of whether or not they want to sell them.

As Mr Abbott so irritatingly purrs, that's a commercial decision.

So far these are products which, we might add, were hardly beaming out New Zealand brand identity. Ironically people were buying many of them under each individual chain's rather more anonymous (and in the circumstances slightly ironically titled) home brands.

That's not to deny that the bans could spread to other Kiwi products. The implications are serious.

Inevitably, many a New Zealand breast will be puffing out with the tit-for-tat reaction that we might just start shunning Australian products, and encouraging our supermarkets to focus more on New Zealand brands.

Just how biddable our own chains would be in this respect is an interesting thought. It's likely to come down to the perceived economics of such a move, just as it has in Australia. Does anybody think Coles and Woolworths made their call while gazing moist-eyed at an Australian flag?

It's one thing to feel minded to factor some punitive intent into our shopping, but our retail decisions should surely be based on more substantial judgments; the very ones that should already be swaying us as we consider our buying options. Like price, quality and - yep - buying Kiwi made.

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If Labour's right about the legalities of the move, and our products head back to the shelves, then any celebrations on our side would need to be mitigated by the potential implications on our own retailers' decisions, past present and future.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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