Dita De Boni 's Opinion

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: We need Govt-owned supermarkets

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Instead of raging against the supermarket mafia, why not tackle them head-on?

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

It's a week in which one longs to stick it to the supermarkets, to be sure. If they are not making outrageous demands of their suppliers, they are banding together with "big food" to lobby pliant politicians to stay well clear of effective (read: costly to them) anti-obesity measures.

They pump cheap alcohol into communities with gay abandon, and essentially hold the food-buying public to ransom by dividing billions of dollars in grocery sales between them.

But what to do? Families can frequent farmers' markets, speciality marts, even grow their own veg, but avoiding the big-brand supermarkets is impossible for most. Instead, we've collectively developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, believing 40c off a tin of baked beans or tray of chicken thighs makes everything fine and dandy.

Well, today I present an idea that would not only irk the supermarkets but also cause much foaming at the mouth among free-market advocates - a combination of outcomes that makes my proposition almost unbeatable from the outset.

The idea is this: government-owned supermarkets. Wooo! that's got a few of you going, no doubt. It could be the last straw if state-subsidised solar panels have already put you in the hypertensive danger zone. But while the idea sounds outlandish, I beg you to consider a few of its positive facets.

First, New Zealand suppliers would get a better deal. There's no doubt that some supermarkets deliver bargains for consumers, but it's not the supermarket that takes the hit when prices are low, it's the poor supplier. The same supplier whose order can be changed, augmented or scrapped at any time, and who can be billed for all sorts of extra costs. A government-run supermarket, with transparency as part of its modus operandi, would be required to foster consistency and decency with suppliers, as well as its customers and staff - a genuine ethical choice for consumers.

It would also be required to ensure local food gets a fair run alongside cheap, nutrient-deficient imports.

The way I see it, a government-owned supermarket chain (KiwiShop? GovtShop? Godzone Grocer?) would need to pay its way, but not necessarily turn a profit - no more rorting of the poorly paid Kiwi workforce to placate shareholders.

Freedom from profit would also give the government room to enact some of its anti-obesity ideas without upsetting those who believe it is their God-given right to scull Coca-Cola, scarf pies, and ignore that "5+ a day" nonsense. You could sell fruit and vegetables without GST added, for example; you could even provide food coupons as part of a benefit payment. Plain-packaged cigarettes, restrictions on soda sales to minors - it would be a great market testing ground.

By God, there'd be objections. But in a "free market", shouldn't the Government be free to compete against big Australian interests in ensuring a reasonably-priced supply of quality foodstuffs to the populace? It's already happening in banking, after all, and competitors have not collapsed in a screaming heap.

Many other countries regulate their supermarkets heavily; ours seem to be largely left to their own devices, getting a few wet bus ticket-slaps only when it's unavoidable. The best solution to this situation can only be more competition - ideally provided by a party with the people's best interests at heart.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Dita De Boni

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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