Saturday, August 04, 2007

Cheap chocolate, pricey potatoes.

Shopping for potatoes this morning? Expect to pay more than you would in any other Australian city, even Darwin.

The army of shadow shoppers employed by the Bureau of Statistics to work out the consumer price index finds that Canberra residents were paying $2.76 a kilo in June - a good deal more than the cheapest city for potatoes, Sydney, where they were selling for $1.45.

Every three months the Bureau publishes the actual prices jotted down by its staff for many of the thousands of goods it prices in each of Australia’s capital cities, and yesterday’s figures suggest that the prices paid in Canberra don’t compare well...

We are expensive for fruit and vegetables, and especially expensive for meat. In June roast beef was priced at $13.47 a kilo in Canberra but only $10.96 in Melbourne. Our sausages are by far the most expensive surveyed, priced at $6.91 per kilo, compared to less than $5.50 in Sydney and Darwin.

Our essentials - bread, biscuits and baby food - are among Australia’s most costly. As is our soap. It costs $5.68 per packet in Canberra; only $4.04 in Brisbane.

But our vices are cheap. A 250-gram block of milk chocolate costs just $3.55 in the ACT. It sells for $4.25 in Melbourne.

A glass of full strength draft beer over the counter costs here costs $2.66, the lowest price found. By contrast it costs $3.68 in Adelaide. We are just about Australia’s cheapest city for a nip of scotch in public bar as well, a distinction we share with Hobart.

Generally Adelaide appears to enjoy the lowest prices of any city for staples (although Adelaide tomatoes are uncharacteristically expensive), with Darwin by far the most expensive city.

Hobart scores at both ends, with many of the lowest prices surveyed (toilet paper for instance) but also many of the highest (instant coffee and strawberry jam among them).

If nothing else the prices published by the Bureau make clear the complexity of the operation it undertakes every three months to establish Australia’s consumer price index.

It has to make judgments. It prices only a 420 gram can of baked beans, because that movements in that price represent what is happening to the price of other sized cans. It averages the price of generic and brand name goods and it averages the price of free-range and cage-produced eggs.

Labor’s leader Kevin Rudd has promised to ask the Competition and Consumer Commission to monitor grocery prices should he win office. The work already done by the statistician suggests it will find itself facing an immense task.