Monday, June 02, 2008

Newsmaker: Competition supremo on the edge

So who is this Graeme Samuel person anyway?

He is the man running the government’s grocery prices inquiry, a thorn in the side of Telstra, and the Labor’s point man on FuelWatch, but head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission may not be there for much longer.

Nothing illustrates better the political skill of the former Liberal Party office-holder and merchant banker Graeme Samuel than something that happened the first time I met him.

He was then President of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an employers peak body that these days is totally ineffective in influencing government. Labor won't listen to it because it was too close to the Coalition and the Coalition stopped listening to it when it pushed too hard.

Back in the late 1990's the government wasn't listening to it on the question of tax either. John Howard had just been elected on a promise that he would never, ever, introduce a Goods and Services Tax.

I had asked Graham Samuel into an ABC radio studio to debate the topic...

...with Robert Fitzgerald, the head of the Australian Council of Social Service which was opposed a GST. Neither was physically present. Graeme Samuel was in a Melbourne radio studio and Robert Fitzgerald was in a Canberra one. I was in a booth in Sydney asking questions.

After the radio debate had concluded they kept talking, with increasing enthusiasm. I went away to put the tape to air and offered to leave the lines open so they could continue.

As they talked they discovered that that they each wanted the same sort of tax system - one that would raise enough money to provide social services, one that would be simple and one that would be fair. They met again and decided to work together.

The resulting tax summit ended with them sitting side by side challenging the Prime Minister to reform the tax system in accordance with seven agreed principles.

The Prime Minister and Treasurer began that process, but then froze ACOSS out and silenced Samuel by appointing him head of the National Competition Council.

Somewhat bitter a decade later, Graeme Samuel told the ABC’s Terry Lane that “various vested interest groups talk of tax reform but when you really get down to it what they're talking about is tax deductions, tax encouragement, tax incentives for their particular interest groups.”

As head of the National Competition Council, Graeme Samuel antagonised Australia’s (mostly labor) state governments, which is what he was employed to do. Using the threat of withholding grants he goaded them into improving competition in their gas, electricity and water markets; even into introducing extended shopping hours.

When the Treasurer Peter Costello put forward his name to run the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission after the departure of Allan Fels four of the Labor states rebelled.

With the ACT’s Ted Quinlan as their spokesman, the Treasurers of NSW, South Australia, Queensland and the ACT declared that they would not accept Samuel under any circumstances.

Costello appointed him on an interim basis and within a year the states quietly agreed.

Since then Samuel has left his family in Melbourne each Tuesday morning to take the 7.25am flight to Canberra. He stays in a unit in Barton and flies back each Thursday night.

Last Thursday as he was preparing to board the flight, Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes reported that four government departments had rejected the ACCC’s approach to FuelWatch. Almost alone in his Melbourne office at 9.00pm that night he was searching for documents to back up his case.

The next morning he was strongly arguing that case for the government, just as he has been giving the supermarket chains hell during the ACCC’s six-month grocery prices inquiry.

He is far from universally liked, but has a history of succeeding. He’ll find out whether his contract is renewed in the next four weeks. It expires at the end of this month.