Politics Analysis

Food, fuel and news: A neoliberal nightmare

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(Image by Kathryn |Flickr, adapted by Dan Jensen)

A review of supermarket industry standards in an attempt to ease ever-increasing food prices has begun, but will this address the underlying cause of inequality? Managing editor Michelle Pini reports. 

AN INQUIRY into the Food and Grocery Code of Conduct is now underway to examine whether the voluntary supermarket industry code, which is meant to regulate behaviour in the sector, is having any effect.

Former Labor MP Dr Craig Emerson will lead the review into the industry standards of Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and wholesale distributor for IGA, Metcash.

WHO NEEDS FOOD OR FUEL?

PM Albanese told ABC News Breakfast that aspects of the current code may need to be made mandatory:

“We know that when we’ve seen a reduction in the cost to supermarkets, that hasn’t been passed on in an appropriate way to consumers, and we want to make sure that happens. Everything is on the table because we want to make sure that customers benefit.”

There is no doubt an inquiry into supermarket pricing is a positive step in light of crippling food prices. Certainly, instigating mandatory requirements instead of a voluntary code that sets out some nice suggestions can only be a good thing. Anyone familiar with the banking industry would know that voluntary codes of conduct are not worth the paper they're written on. 

However, an inquiry into supermarkets does seem to play on the human desire for a villain to blame while ignoring the root cause.

This is not to say that food chains haven’t taken advantage of market conditions to make a killing — because they have. 

First quarter results in 2023 show Woolworths’ revenue grew by 5.3% for a total of $17.2 billion on the previous year and a 3.6% rise to $10.25 billion in sales for Coles.

Over the same period, according to Trading Economics, 'Australia's annual food price inflation fell to 7.5% in Q2 of 2023 from 8% in Q1'. This slight decrease hardly accounts for the massive profits posted by the duopoly. 

Latest official data also shows inflation has slowed from 5.3 to 4.6% after the ABS "trimmed" inelastic commodities, such as fuel, and fruit and vegetables in line with the RBA's preferred measure — good news!

But supermarket prices, insanely high though they are, do not solely constitute the cause of our current crisis.

The idea that markets should be free of government regulation, that the rich should not have to pay too much in taxes, if at all, and that everything should be privatised because private companies are better managers, has created an overriding culture where money doesn’t just talk, it is given a golden megaphone, drowning out any voices that dare to speak up for the low-heeled and downtrodden.

It is almost a cliché now, but it is this neoliberalism that is behind most of what ails our inequitable society. Neoliberalism is responsible for supermarket price gouging. It is the reason power prices continue to soar. It is why many have to choose between heating their homes and putting food on the table. It explains why rents have skyrocketed, and so many are displaced and dispossessed. And it certainly goes a long way in explaining why the super-rich have become even more obscenely rich in recent years, while everyone else is getting poorer.

This emphasis on wealth as a measure of character fuels public perceptions of the destitute as being somehow responsible for their lot. Public statements revealing the revulsion of the haves towards the have-nots, then become acceptable — even normalised.

In this environment, where only money gives you a seat at the table – the one where the mega-wealthy get to ruminate over how it should be spent – things such as climate change or minority groups getting a say over their own welfare are merely small inconveniences in the profit cycle. They can usually easily be dealt with by donating money to aid organisations, attending climate summits or offering well-publicised, sympathetic platitudes.

The crippling price of grocery staples, energy or rent, therefore, is neither here nor there.

WHO NEEDS TO KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON?

Remember when then-Treasurer Josh Frydenberg came up with the News Media Bargaining Code? According to the Morrison Government, everything wrong with the media industry had nothing to do with oligarchs like Murdoch owning almost all information outlets. No. It had to do with Google (the only search engine mentioned) and Facebook (the only social media platform included) publishing their news for free.

Of course, creating a “code” rather than implementing legislation, while ignoring the fact that vast swathes of information are controlled by so few organisations, means there is no obligation for either Google* or Facebook to comply. This Code largely excludes independent media outlets, while Murdoch and Co continue to control and manipulate all the information, receiving additional funding to do so, and still charging the public for the privilege of access.

Moreover, Facebook not only refuses to pay independent publishers – including IA  but continues to manipulate its algorithms, effectively shadow-banning them, demanding payment for posts even to be seen and indiscriminately censoring anything it regards as unsuitable. Other platforms like Musk’s “X” (formerly known as Twitter) are not even mentioned in the Code.

At best, this was a bandaid measure designed to appease the mainstream media barons — and especially one in particular.

It is not by coincidence that Australia's concentrated media landscape has not changed at all. It continues to go about its business as usual, manipulating the news to suit its agenda, only now it receives additional funding from Facebook and Google, on top of government handouts to do so.

IT'S A NEOLIBERAL THING

The News Media Bargaining Code doesn't do much to address the decline of the media industry or its controlling monopoly, the lack of media diversity or the hijacking and manipulation of news by a few mega-rich players. In the same way, a probe into supermarket conduct via a voluntary industry code is unlikely to solve the burgeoning inequality within our society.

It’s interesting, if unsurprising, that there has been no mention of an inquiry into Australia's media monopoly, despite the change in government. Perhaps the Gillard Government's 2011 Finkelstein Inquiry and subsequent mainstream media pile-on is the reason. 

The inflation figures, trimmed or untrimmed, do little to ease the burden on the non-mega-rich.

The planned third-tier tax cuts will also only exacerbate the divide. At least the Albanese Government has not ruled out government regulation for the current food crisis. 

The affliction of neoliberalism our democracy faces leads to eye-watering profits for corporations and oligarchs, and can only end in tears for everyone else. It cannot be addressed with inquiries and voluntary codes or even more government handouts to prop up unsustainable business models. The only way to address this scourge is by increasing taxes for the rich, regulating markets and nationalising essential services. This is not radical. It is not about handouts. It is what's fair. It's social democracy.

DISCLAIMER

While Facebook has refused even to engage with us and most other small independent publishers, IA benefits from an agreement with Google.

You can follow managing editor Michelle Pini on Twitter @vmp9. Follow Independent Australia on Twitter @independentaus and Facebook HERE.

 
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