OPINION: Countdown categorically -as opposed to convincingly - denies using standover tactics with New Zealand suppliers.
The incendiary allegations Labour MP Shane Jones has made under the protection of parliamentary privilege come without a shred of public proof.
But there's sufficient plausibility here to engage a great deal of public suspicion.
The MP accuses Countdown of the worst sort of grasping avarice. He says the Australian-owned company's management has been demanding retrospective payments from Kiwi businesses because its shareholders were not happy with prior profitability and wanted the gap between what their expectations had been, and the results actually were, to be bridged forthwith.
And this was an offer suppliers couldn't refuse, if they wanted shelf space in future.
Mr Jones trowelled on the Mafia comparisons and darkly added that the suppliers had also been warned that they'd be blacklisted if they breathed a word of it. He then called for a Commerce Commission investigation.
Without explicit supportive information from the aggrieved suppliers, this would have amounted to little more than a test of which of two abiding areas of public scepticism would prevail. Which would be more compelling - people's scorn for the trustworthiness of grandstanding politicians speaking in a forum where they're immune from legal action, or widespread suspicions about the bullying practices of supermarket chains?
Countdown would essentially have us believe Mr Jones is being mischievous, or misled, or is hallucinating.
Crucially, it quickly became more than just his say-so.
Food and Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich, a former National MP, promptly lined up behind Mr Jones, citing "a number of incidents" without specifically identifying them.
This matter will now be investigated. The public will accept no less.
But calls for a boycott are wrongheaded.
As things stand this is still more a matter of perception than of proof and Countdown is in the unenviable position of shadowboxing against damaging but unsubstantiated claims.
If it is shown, on investigation, to have been guilty of such a brutish shakedown then there must indeed be a pointy reckoning. But let's have proof first.
For some it will take a clenched act of will to withhold judgment, but at at this stage we must be open to the possibility that the accusation is, entirely or substantially, a crock.
Maybe it's just a fabrication, pure and simple. A ruse involving manipulative suppliers, and perhaps their dupe, to twist the supermarket's arm at a time when it's already in disodour with many Kiwis unhappy with its parent company for shunning New Zealand product in favour of a Buy Australian campaign.
Or maybe Countdown's discussions with suppliers have been honestly misunderstood. You don't look impressed by that one. We grant you, it seems pretty unlikely. Call it a typical Kiwi generalisation but most of us would surely expect that that negotiations with Aussie supermarket chains aren't likely to have been subtle and nuanced.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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