Premier points finger at supermarkets over probe ‘snub’

Keira Jenkins |

Premier Steven Miles says he’s concerned the supermarket giants aren’t taking the inquiry seriously.
Premier Steven Miles says he’s concerned the supermarket giants aren’t taking the inquiry seriously.

Woolworths has been challenged by a premier to apologise to families doing it tough during the cost-of-living crisis.

Steven Miles has also rebuked Australia’s other supermarket supremo, Coles, for a perceived lack of contrition amid concerns the two retailers are not taking a parliamentary inquiry into the matter seriously.

The Queensland premier made a surprise appearance at the supermarket pricing probe in Brisbane on Monday, firing questions at the grocery giants.

Seizing the opportunity to extract answers, Mr Miles asked Woolworths chief commercial officer Paul Harker if he would apologise to families forced to reduce their fresh food consumption because of price increases.

“I certainly have empathy and will we seek to do more for consumers? Yes, we will,” Mr Harker said.

“But I don’t believe we’ve done anything wrong.”

The premier questioned the payout for departing Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci.

“It’s been reported your outgoing CEO will take with him a payout of $24 million in shares and a further $6.5 million, is that accurate?” Mr Miles said.

Mr Harker said he didn’t know details about the payout, which was described by the premier as “pretty generous”.

Woolworths and Coles supermarket
Coles and Woolworths opted not to send their CEOs to a Queensland inquiry. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

Mr Miles took Coles to task, asking public affairs head Adam Fitzgibbons whether there was anything the company could have done better during the past six months. 

Mr Fitzgibbons said the company was providing the best value it could to customers, sparking a response from the premier.

“I think this goes to what is most frustrating for policymakers and for consumers,” Mr Miles said.

“Every time we hear from spokespeople from … Coles or Woolworths, they insist that they’ve done nothing wrong.

“I think what Queenslanders would like to hear is a supermarket boss say, ‘We could have done better and we will do better’… my frustration is we don’t get to hear that.”

The premier expressed his frustration over the chains not sending their top bosses to the inquiry, a month after their CEOs fronted fiery Senate hearings on supermarket prices. 

Coles Group CEO Leah Weckert
The inquiry was told Coles CEO Leah Weckert was at a board meeting. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

“I think frankly, in particular Coles, is thumbing their nose at Queenslanders, thumbing their nose at the Queensland parliament,” Mr Miles told media before attending the inquiry.

“This process is … important to me and I’m disappointed it’s not important to them.”

The premier had proposed the inquiry into the gap between grocery prices and what farmers are being paid for their produce during a cost-of-living outcry.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Angus Scott asked about Coles CEO Leah Weckert’s absence on Monday and was told she was at a board meeting.

Mr Fitzgibbons conceded more transparency was needed from Coles about how prices were set for farmers.

“We’d be very willing and keen to be part of the conversation as to what appropriate transparency measures looks like for the horticulture sector,” he said.

A shopper enters a Coles supermarket in Canberra
Coles concedes more transparency is needed for how produce prices are set. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

The inquiry was told prices for fruit and vegetables were set weekly.

Suppliers propose a price for their produce using an online portal, Coles responds and an agreement is struck a few days later.

Mr Harker said Woolworths would support increased pricing transparency between supermarkets and suppliers but warned against detail which could lead to “cartel conduct”. 

“No supplier knows what another supplier is actually charging for their goods, that would be anti-competitive behaviour,” he said.

The inquiry will hand down its report at the end of May.