Hunter’s high petrol prices

UNREGULATED markets are supposed to set fair prices through the mechanism of competing sellers matching supply to demand in a constant contest for business.

For obvious reasons, such markets only function properly when competition is genuine. The more sellers there are, the more likely it is that competition will be real and effective at ensuring prices are pitched at a point where they provide a good return for sellers but don’t permit excessive profit margins.

When markets are dominated by a small handful of major players the effectiveness of competition can be called into question. This is arguably the case in many areas of Australian business, with banking, retailing and energy often cited as markets in which consumers would benefit from the presence of more competition.

Petrol is another area where the same argument is often put. It appears to be commonly believed by many Australians that, among petrol sellers, competition is more of a show than a reality, with the dominant big players keeping a close eye on one another and matching their pump prices to maintain comfortable market share and margins across the industry.

It is suggested that the existence of higher profit margins in areas with fewer retailers and fewer outlets supports this widely held suspicion. The Hunter, being such a place, tends to generate considerable protest at petrol pricing. Recent figures that indicate margins in the Hunter of up to 10 cents a litre higher than in Sydney are a case in point.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which seems almost as suspicious of petrol retailers as are motorists themselves, is investigating the extent to which retailers might be using on-line information-sharing about each other’s prices to avoid real competition.

Unfortunately, the government, which rails against so-called ‘‘price signalling’’ and is set to ban the practice in the banking industry, has elected not to impose a similar ban in the case of petrol. Many consumers, especially in low-competition, high-price areas such as the Hunter, might see this as a political green light to petrol price gouging.

HELEN Grainger, 29, terminated a pregnancy on medical advice and was then given an antibiotic to reduce the risk of post-operative infection.

Confronted with a patient apparently suffering a rare and unexpected anaphylactic reaction to an antibiotic, health staff administered adrenalin to Ms Grainger. Her heart and breathing stopped, cutting off oxygen to her brain.

Questions about the appropriateness and timeliness of emergency responses remain in the minds of the young woman’s relatives, who have also queried the readiness of staff to meet such sudden emergencies.

The deputy state coroner, Scott Mitchell, has recommended training upgrades for medical staff in similar roles. It is hard to know what else he could have suggested, other than a review of the use of antibiotic prophylaxis after terminations, or mandatory emergency plans in situations where that practice is common.

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