Wednesday, 30 March 2011
There is currently an inquiry into the price
of milk. This is taking place in Canberra and it has come about because our two biggest supermarket chains are at war - supposedly with one another but also with every other supermarket in the country and with others as well. The current milk war is not about competition. It is about market share for the most powerful. It is about trying to exclude small business from the supermarket trade. It is about selling petrol and alcohol and all manner of other goods that supermarkets could not once sell. I can remember my first ever visit to a supermarket. It was called "The Red Owl" and it was little more than a small shop. We were amazed by this place. The idea that you went in and took a basket and helped yourself and then waited at the counter to pay for the goods was completely foreign to us. I can remember worrying that people might walk out the door without paying for what they had put in their baskets. What was to stop them? It was all very different from the rural "general stores" we were used to, or the shop next to my grandparent's home. Rural general stores sold almost everything. You went in with a list and left it. The farmers would "book things up" in little memo sized books and pay the shopkeeper when the "wheat cheque" or the "wool cheque" came in. You could buy groceries in one part of the shop, haberdashery in another and hardware in another. You could not buy milk. There were no refrigerated goods at all. My mother bought powdered milk for years. She would measure it into water and beat it up. The result was not much like milk but it was all we had so we drank it anyway. When we moved to a dairying district and we had, for a short while, mains power we had gallons of milk and thick layers of cream. Icecream was of no great interest then. The milk and cream tasted too good for that - and nobody worried about cholesterol levels. The dairy farmers worked hard. They still do. Cows needed to be milked twice a day. Now some of them are milked three times a day. Modern methods are highly mechanised and guided by computer. It is more competitive than ever. Nobody has yet worked out a method for allowing cows to be milked only five times a week. The supermarkets which sell the milk to us do none of the work. They merely buy milk. They want us to pay as much as possible but the profit does not go to the dairy farmer. Big supermarkets know they can afford to "lose" on milk for a short while if it means that they reduce their competition. They are not worried if more small "Red Owl" supermarkets disappear. Their shelves are full of Asian sourced and branded food. There is cheap cheese to be had from China - but no fresh milk, not yet. If we are fortunate there will still be local fresh milk at the end of the Senate Inquiry. We will pay more for it again - and so we should.