Consumers’ champion or paper tiger?
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.’’