On 21 February 2013 the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission released its new Compliance and Enforcement Policy. The policy outlines its priority areas for the year and sets out the factors that it will take into account when deciding whether to pursue matters.
The 2013 policy states that this year the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) will prioritise its work in the following areas:
- Consumer protection in the telecommunications and energy sectors.
- Online competition and consumer issues including conduct which may impede emerging competition between online traders or limit the ability of small business to effectively compete online.
- Credence claims, particularly those in the food industry with the potential to have a significant impact on consumers or the competitive process.
- Misleading carbon pricing representations.
- Enforcement of the law on consumer guarantees, being the legal rights of the consumer upon acquiring goods or services.
Competition issues - Supermarket sector
The ACCC has stated that conduct such as cartel activities, anti-competitive agreements and misuse of market power will always remain top priority. This is due to the fact that this type of conduct is especially detrimental to consumer welfare and the competitive process. This year, a specific area of focus will be on competition and consumer issues in highly concentrated sectors, in particular the supermarket and fuel sectors.
The Chairman of the ACCC, Rod Sims, has announced that the ACCC will increase its rate of intervention in relation to competition issues. Mr Sims explained that competition matters are resource intensive and consequently the ACCC will focus on the most important or problematic areas. As at February 2013 the ACCC was conducting 20-30 in depth investigations into anticompetitive conduct.
The ACCC has commenced its investigations into the major supermarket chains. The ACCC has had confidential discussions with approximately 50 suppliers to those chains in the hope of obtaining information concerning breaches of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (the Act). At present the ACCC is unwilling to comment on what they have learned in those discussions and Mr Sims has said that the ACCC has “a long way to go, with much work required to obtain, analyse and assess the available evidence before we can draw firm conclusions concerning breaches of [the] Act.” The ACCC will continue to focus on acquisitions made by the major supermarket chains in the supermarket, liquor and hardware sectors, such as greenfield store developments.
The Policy states that the ACCC will encourage and assist genuine voluntary compliance initiatives by individual businesses and industry sectors. Mr Sims explains “A supermarket and grocery industry working group, including Coles, Woolworths, the Australian Food and Grocery Council and the National Farmers’ Federation, is proposing an industry code to govern supply chain issues.”
The ACCC recognises the merit in such a code and has been providing input to the industry on the code. The ACCC has stated that the obligations under the code should be clear, actionable and auditable. Mr Sims said it was “important that any such code contains meaningful provisions and that these are enforceable under the Competition and Consumer Act, otherwise it will achieve no more than the current ineffective code it seeks to replace.”