Con­sumers’ cham­pion or pa­per tiger?

Taranaki Daily News - - National Portrait -

could put pres­sure on the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

‘‘Peo­ple were work­ing at 11pm at night, to the early hours of the morn­ing to meet dead­lines. Those are the pres­sures that staff have to face from time to time. We are well versed in do­ing ma­jor projects to very tight time­lines.’’

Some be­lieve the Gov­ern­ment has al­ready made up its mind that mo­torists are be­ing ‘‘fleeced’’ – Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern’s term – on fuel prices.

‘‘I’d have to say in my 10 years here we have never been on the end of any kind of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence or per­sua­sion,’’ Berry says. ‘‘Our in­de­pen­dence is prop­erly and truly re­spected. We are an in­de­pen­dent, quasi-ju­di­cial body. We act with com­plete in­de­pen­dence and ob­jec­tiv­ity . . . we won’t be swayed by any kind of ex­ter­nal com­ments.’’

The ex­panded pow­ers have height­ened pub­lic ex­pec­ta­tion about fu­ture probes. The su­per­mar­ket du­op­oly, re­gional air­fares, and the bank­ing sec­tor have all been mooted as po­ten­tial tar­gets. Don’t hold your breath.

‘‘The re­al­ity is we have got fund­ing for one mar­ket study – $1.5m, which over 12 months will ad­e­quately re­source a thor­ough mar­ket study,’’ Berry says. ‘‘The pub­lic may have a hope that we will iden­tify is­sues, and that our stud­ies will re­sult in goods be­ing priced more com­pet­i­tively . . . It is not go­ing to be just that easy.

‘‘Each of th­ese mar­ket stud­ies will be com­plex and till you have done them you don’t know what the out­come will be or if there is any kind of res­o­lu­tion to the prob­lems.’’

He does sin­gle out the con­struc­tion sec­tor. ‘‘The one that has prob­a­bly had the most call for it is the cost of build­ing ma­te­ri­als . . . it would have to be a very tar­geted part of that in­dus­try.’’

He’s also got con­cerns about air­port prof­its. While the watch­dog can re­view profit ex­pec­ta­tions, it has no teeth to curb price goug­ing. ‘‘We do, from time to time, look into the con­duct of var­i­ous ports and air­port author­i­ties and, be­cause they are so small, the costs out­weigh the ben­e­fits of re­ally look­ing into it closely.

‘‘But it is a New Zealand Inc is­sue and might be some­thing that could be thought about for a mar­ket study.’’

Re­cently, the com­mis­sion has re­peat­edly hit the head­lines for knock­ing back large cor­po­rate deals. It de­clined merg­ers be­tween Sky TV and Voda­fone, me­dia com­pa­nies Stuff and NZME, in­sur­ance com­pa­nies Sun­corp and Tower, and auc­tion com­pany Trade Me’s takeover of Mo­tor­central.

The monopoly watch­dog has at­tracted a size­able amount of crit­i­cism. Berry, who has for­mer Fair Go pre­sen­ter Gor­don Har­court as his me­dia ad­viser, is un­trou­bled. ‘‘We are of­ten ac­cused by par­ties who are dis­sat­is­fied with out­comes. It’s not an un­nat­u­ral thing for them to say that we don’t un­der­stand their busi­ness – that comes with the ter­ri­tory – but there is al­ways two sides to th­ese cases. You’ll speak to oth­ers in busi­ness who are very happy with the de­ci­sion. We are stuck in the mid­dle of it.

‘‘If you take the Voda­fone-Sky case . . . Spark was an ac­tive op­po­nent and I ex­pect they thought we un­der­stood the mar­ket well.’’

He be­lieves the in­sur­ance de­ci­sion was a win for con­sumers. ‘‘If we had al­lowed that merger to go through then for in­sur­ance of con­tents, cars, you would only have had the choice of two in­sur­ance com­pa­nies. By keep­ing Tower there as an in­de­pen­dent com­peti­tor, it is good for con­sumers in the long term.’’

The com­mis­sion is now go­ing after truck shops that sell door to door in New Zealand’s poor­est com­mu­ni­ties, charg­ing high prices, and de­fault fees for missed or can­celled pay­ments.

Berry is as level and mea­sured as any pow­er­ful lawyer. He doesn’t emote or show frus­tra­tion. But he does show a rare flash of dis­plea­sure for those who prey on vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties, such as South Auck­land.

‘‘We are re­lent­lessly pur­su­ing the truck shops, stand­ing up for peo­ple who have the ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties of life re­pos­sessed, like heaters and other things, which law­fully can­not be done.

‘‘We are re­ally tak­ing steps to en­force re­spon­si­ble lend­ing laws to stand up for con­sumer rights where peo­ple are in the debt spi­ral. They are led into ex­ces­sively high op­pres­sive loans for ev­ery­day goods.’’

Dodgy on­line re­tail­ers are also in the com­mis­sion’s sights. And after a del­uge of com­plaints, it’s also sue­ing Switzer­land-based ticket re­sale web­site Vi­a­gogo.

When he packs up his desk in May, will Berry leave the New Zealand econ­omy a fairer place?

‘‘New Zealand is al­ways is go­ing to have the prob­lem of be­ing re­mote and small. Our scales of pro­duc­tion are small, and much of the com­pe­ti­tion is driven by im­port com­pe­ti­tion, and who is tak­ing mar­gins where, in terms of im­ported goods, may of­ten ex­plain the price dif­fer­en­tial.

‘‘Those fac­tors do func­tion in the way that goods are priced and what we as New Zealand con­sumers face.’’

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