The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Chris Bowen

Chris Bowen

Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs

3 December 2007 - 8 June 2009

Transcript of 10/07/2008

Interview with Michael Smith

4BC Drive

Thursday, 10 July 2008

SUBJECTS: Out of use bowsers, Petrol Commissioner

MICHAEL SMITH:

We spoke earlier about the servo's. The Daily Telegraph in Sydney leads with a very strong first paragraph. It says 'petrol stations have been caught red-handed holding back cheap fuel, forcing families to pay higher prices later in the weekly discount cycle'. It's got a photograph of a bloke with that little thingo on the fuel pump that says 'sorry this pump is out of service', but he's obviously filling the car up with it. That's the issue that Shell has responded to. We've got a call in right now for Chris Bowen who is coming out of a meeting to speak with us, so we'll speak with Chris in a moment.

[Takes call from a listener]

One bloke who I reckon could vote Labor, has been good enough to come out of a meeting and have a chat with us, he's the Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen. G'day Chris.

CHRIS BOWEN:

G'day, how are you?

MICHAEL SMITH:

Yeah, really well thankyou. By geez mate if you watch the satellite TV or listen to the talkback radio, this issue of servo's allegedly holding back the cheap fuel on Tuesday's has taken off hasn't it?

CHRIS BOWEN:

It has, it's a topical issue that comes up every so often, something which causes people a lot of concern.

When it's come up in the past I have to say we've investigated it and in the vast majority of cases we've found that the service station is being fair dinkum, that there is actually no fuel in the bowser. That makes some sense when you consider that the cheaper fuel - service stations that are cheaper than their colleagues near by - tend to run out more quickly. Of course, in any industry you'll find rogue operators and people doing the wrong thing and so if people do have suspicions it is very important that they contact the ACCC because there are several thousand service stations across the country, they can't be permanently monitoring all of them.

MICHAEL SMITH:

So the first point there Minister is the ACCC should be your first point of call?

CHRIS BOWEN:

ACCC, or your state Fair Trading office. Both the ACCC and the Petrol Commissioner have powers to go out, for example, and ask to see delivery dockets, to make sure that if a service station is claiming they have no petrol in their bowser, but received a delivery the night before, for example, which would indicate that that's not perhaps true and they have other mechanisms for determining whether the bowser is actually full or not.

MICHAEL SMITH:

Is that right? They've got the power to ask for delivery dockets?

CHRIS BOWEN:

Yes. Under the monitoring powers that the new Government has given the ACCC, they have powers to seek all sorts of documents from petrol companies and service stations.

MICHAEL SMITH:

And that's new Chris? You've done that?

CHRIS BOWEN:

We increased the powers of the ACCC shortly after being elected, that's right.

MICHAEL SMITH:

Well that's a sensible move.

CHRIS BOWEN:

Yeah, in relation to petrol we considered that there's enough concern in the community about anti-competitive behaviour et cetera, that the ACCC should have full power to examine anything which causes them concern.

MICHAEL SMITH:

We've got one bloke, he's in the motor trade industry and he's filling up a lot of cars regularly, he knows the cycle inside-out. And every week, he just noticed that every week, what appeared to be an arbitrary reduction in the number of these E10 bizzo's down to just one until his son said 'well lets just give it a try dad' and his son has tried it and lo and behold the bowser works. It was, in their view, a little label was being put on the machine 'out of use' falsely.

Now if that was proven to be the case, what sort of penalties would they be looking at Chris?

CHRIS BOWEN:

Well the Trade Practices Act requires everybody in business to behave honestly, not to mislead consumers and so there are penalties, criminal penalties, for deceptive and misleading conduct.

MICHAEL SMITH:

Criminal penalties, who's that for?

CHRIS BOWEN:

Well penalties, they apply to, where the ACCC has the view that it's a very serious case, they can bring a criminal case. Now, you wouldn't do that lightly, it would have to be a very serious case of misleading and deceptive conduct.

One of the things we're looking at is whether there's scope for more penalties which aren't quite at criminal level, but more penalties and fines which could be put on and of course the ACCC has the power to seek an injunction to stop that behaviour if that's necessary.

But what's important here is, I think, naming and shaming, just as much as anything else. I mean, the publicity that this particular service station has got today has been very unwelcome for them and I'm sure that they'll be very careful now. They claim, in fairness, that this is situation where the particular bowsers can't be seen from the shopfront and they had a particular problem with drive-offs.

MICHAEL SMITH:

Sorry Chris, you're talking about Sydney – the Sydney Telegraph.

CHRIS BOWEN:

Yes, there's a particular service station in Sydney at the moment which this allegation was made about.

MICHAEL SMITH:

Are you aware, just before you go on Minister, that we had specific examples here down at Logan and on the Gold Coast and I'm told that it's been published in the Gold Coast Bulletin as well. So it's more widespread than simply Sydney.

CHRIS BOWEN:

Oh I'm not suggesting that it's only Sydney, but Sydney's one specific example which has come up today and as I say, that particular service station has claimed that this is not about stopping people buying cheaper fuel and there are other bowsers with the same fuel available it was just these particular bowsers were hard to see and they were having trouble with people driving off.

As I say, in our experiences, the majority of cases we investigate do have a legitimate reason but this is a timely reminder to service station proprietors that if they do try and get away with this then there's plenty of people who will report them to the ACCC and the ACCC will take it seriously.

MICHAEL SMITH:

Righto, well I think we've got the message there Minister. You've been very good to come out and take our call and we thank you very much for it.

CHRIS BOWEN:

Pleasure.