Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Countdown head 'leaned on' local suppliers - Jones

Labour's Shane Jones further escalated his battle with Countdown today by suggesting in Parliament that a leading Australasian businessman has "leaned on'' local suppliers to discourage them from taking part in a Commerce Commission inquiry into the supermarket giant's business practices.

Following his allegations last week that Countdown was demanding retrospective payments from suppliers to ensure their products remained on its shelves, competition watchdog the Commerce Commission is assessing whether to launch a formal investigation.

In the latest in his string of allegations made under the cover of parliamentary privilege, Mr Jones asked Commerce Minister Craig Foss this afternoon whether he thought it "enhances or undermines the Commerce Commission processes if the [parent company] Woolworths Australian chairman Mr Ralph Waters - who is also the Fletcher Building chairman - is found to be calling New Zealand suppliers and discouraging them from participating in this legal process lest they face dire consequences in his supermarkets in Australia''.

Earlier he asked Mr Foss: "What we will he do to ensure the Commerce Commission vigorously embraces section 98 and protects the anonymity of New Zealand based suppliers given they are being leaned upon over in Australia?''.

Mr Waters hit back at Mr Jones in a strongly worded statement this afternoon.

"I completely reject Mr Jones' allegations and find his insinuations highly offensive. My contribution to business in New Zealand speaks for itself."

Mr Waters outlined his contribution to New Zealand business over the last 13 years including work "at a senior level" with Fletcher Building, Fisher & Paykel Appliances, Fonterra and Westpac New Zealand.

"I am extremely disappointed in Mr Jones' behaviour. Attacking an individual and business through the Parliament is no way for any politician to deal with an issue of concern or engage with the business sector."

But Mr Jones continued his attack during this afternoon's general debate in Parliament saying Prime Minister John Key had "secret meetings" with Mr Waters and "came home empty handed from a meeting with one of the most powerful commercial men in Australia and New Zealand".

He countered criticism that his allegations lacked specifics by offering examples of complaints he'd received from New Zealand suppliers.

One had told him: "Countdown demanded tens of thousands of dollars from a supplier by 5 o'clock that day as payment for insufficient sales achieved in the previous month from their product lines or it was good night Irene".

Another said: "Even to get anywhere near Countdown he had to pay 7 per cent of his turnover back to the company".

"When he spoke to Australian Countdown suppliers they said they'd never heard of this policy."

He had also heard of "a family owned business" with annual turnover of $ 4.5m and 30 employees that "stood up to Countdown and lost their business".

Mr Jones said the person at the centre of his allegations had "fled from Australia" amid the ongoing investigation by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission into claims retrospective payments were demanded by Woolworths.

"Here in New Zealand, he is the person that has caused these dramas."

Mr Jones said he would provide details of that person to the Commerce Commission.

Mr Key later denied having any private meeting with Mr Waters during this trip to Australia last month, saying the only time he saw him was at a cocktail function at Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's official residence with hundreds of other people.

Mr Key said he raised with Mr Waters issues with New Zealand suppliers being shut out of Woolworths' Australian supermarkets.

"What he actually said to me was he was working very hard to get New Zealand meat into Australian supermarkets."

Regarding Mr Jones' allegations that Mr Waters was leaning on New Zealand suppliers, Mr Key said he didn't know anything about that, "but I'd be both very surprised and deeply concerned if that was the case".

Yesterday Mr Jones suggested New Zealand suppliers may be being pressured by Woolworths in Australia not to speak to the commission under threat of having their products removed from supermarket shelves over the Tasman.

Mr Jones also asked whether Mr Foss would encourage the commission to seek assistance from its Australian counterpart to ensure its investigation did not "falter because of threats and intimidation by Australian based supermarket owners''.

Mr Foss fired back at Mr Jones this afternoon, saying the commission's work would be enhanced by allowing it to pursue due process, ``and not members grandstanding on issues which are not repeated outside the House, making serious inflammatory allegations of blackmail of extortion and retrospective payments which, quite frankly, we're yet to see backed up''.

Mr Jones has been challenged several times by Prime Minister John Key, and also by the Retailers Association, to make his comments without the protection afforded by Parliament, but the outspoken Labour MP has so far declined.

A spokesman for Woolworths Australia told the Herald suggestions that Woolworths was pressuring NZ suppliers over the Commerce Commission's initial investigation were "completely untrue''.

Countdown has "categorically'' denied Mr Jones' allegations and said it would cooperate fully with the commission. It has urged suppliers to contact it directly if they have issues with its business practices.

- NZ Herald

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