Urgency required from commission

Labour list MP Shane Jones has seized the high ground in his battle with supermarket chain Countdown by suggesting one of New Zealand's most respected business leaders leaned on local suppliers to discourage them from taking part in a Commerce Commission inquiry.

Mr Jones was due to meet yesterday with the Commerce Commission to outline his concerns, after spending nearly two weeks accusing the Australian-owned Countdown chain of forcing retrospective payments out of New Zealand suppliers.

The commission yesterday confirmed it would launch a formal investigation - and not before time.

In the latest string of allegations made under parliamentary privilege, Mr Jones asked Commerce Minister Craig Foss whether he thought it enhanced or undermined the commission process if parent company Woolworths Australian chairman Ralph Waters was found to be calling New Zealand suppliers and discouraging them from participating in the legal process lest they face dire consequences in his supermarkets in Australia.

Mr Jones also alleged a secret meeting took place between Prime Minister John Key and Mr Waters.

Mr Waters, an Australian, spent 12 years with Fletcher Building and is credited with making New Zealand's largest company a global power in the building and construction industry.

He also served on the Fonterra board before he was appointed as chairman of transtasman supermarket group Woolworths.

He is replacing James Strong in March as chairman of the organising committee for the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup.

Given that background, it would not be unusual for Mr Key to meet with one of Australasia's influential business leaders, although Mr Key denies any private meeting occurred.

The situation has escalated quickly after a chat Mr Key had with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott about allegations the two major Australian supermarket chains - Coles and Woolworths - were taking New Zealand-made products off their shelves in an attempt to become the ''most Australian''.

Mr Abbott suggested any supplier with a grievance could take their case to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the equivalent of New Zealand's Commerce Commission.

From there, Mr Jones took the fight into Parliament, pushing up his profile as a Labour MP who cares about the ''small business owners'' of New Zealand.

In doing so, he has gained Labour's first positive publicity in months. Mr Jones campaigned hard for the Labour Party leadership which was eventually won by David Cunliffe.

Perhaps Mr Jones is setting himself up for another tilt at the top job, especially if Labour does not succeed in forming the next government after the general election later this year.

There is a risk to Mr Jones. He says he has scores of examples where Countdown has put pressure on suppliers to front up with retrospective cash payments.

He must take those examples to the Commission Commission.

The examples quoted in Parliament are outrageous, if true. New Zealanders are so far inclined to believe Mr Jones.

However, if he does not front with proof, the list MP simply does not have a future in Parliament.

And how far can an MP, or the commission, interfere in a free market? Two decades ago, the outskirts of Dunedin were full of market gardens.

The pressure from supermarket chains to introduce ''take it or leave it'' contracts saw those gardens become housing estates or revert to paddocks.

Central Otago orchardists, disillusioned with seeing their apples - in particular - being sold at many times the price they were paid, cut down their trees. Small suppliers could not compete.

The grocery business is cut-throat and there can be no doubt Foodstuffs, the New Zealand-owned chain which operates the New World, Pak'n Save and Four Square brands, drives hard deals with its suppliers to get the best price.

The commission now needs to act with urgency on Mr Jones' complaints.

There can be no excuse for dragging out an investigation as Mr Jones continues to use parliamentary privilege to attack Countdown.

While not known for its speed, the issue is of such importance the commission owes it to suppliers and consumers alike to reveal the true situation by expediting its inquiry.

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