John Armstrong's opinion: Jacinda Ardern can’t afford to look complacent as petrol prices verge on crisis-level

Those of suspicious mind will have likely pondered at some length what was the real motive behind the verbal lashing inflicted by the Prime Minister on New Zealand’s oil company oligopoly.

After all, Jacinda Ardern’s accusations of rampant profiteering on the part of New Zealand’s equivalent of the Seven Sisters was hardly news.

It merely added her name to a long list of politicians who have locked horns with the oil industry — and usually to no avail.

An independent report commissioned in 2017 by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment concluded that "we cannot definitely say that fuel prices in New Zealand are reasonable, and we have reason to believe that they might not be".

That language might have been cautious. But it still left no doubt that the economic consultants who produced the report thought there was a massive market malfunction in the form of major variations in prices at the pump up and down the country.

What is not in doubt is the doubling of profit margins over the past decade has seen a transfer of wealth from consumers to producers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The oil companies claim that when it comes to competition, they have been absolute paragons of virtue.

Yet they have repeatedly refused to divulge the information sought by regulators to test the veracity if that assertion.

That is about to change. Monday's prime ministerial tirade included an announcement by Ms Ardern that the governing coalition would speed the passage through Parliament of legislation giving the Commerce Commission beefed-up powers to investigate suspected anti-competitive behaviour.

This might have been news to just about everyone. Bust it wasn’t news at all.

The drafting of a bill which will force companies to provide commercially-sensitive information to help the commission carry out meaningful studies on market competition was set in train by Energy Minister Megan Woods as far back as last December.

The latter set a target back then of getting those powers into law by the end of this year.

All that Ardern did on Monday was to provide confirmation that Woods' timetable will be met. Ardern added that she would be nominating the supply, distribution and retailing of petrol as the first industry to be subject to the scrutiny of a "market study".

It hardly needs the imprimatur of the Prime Minister for that to happen. It would have occurred regardless.

Ardern's announcement was not really an announcement.

Rather, it was a classic example of the announcement you make when you have nothing to announce. It’s purpose was simple. With the price of petrol having sky-rocketed by close to 40 cents a litre on average over the past year, the last thing that Ardern and her colleagues can afford to do is look like they are sitting on their hands.

Ardern needed to give the firm impression she was doing something — even though there is precious little she can do.

The unpleasant reality is that soaring petrol prices are no longer just a nuisance. They are now verging on being a crisis.

It has taken some time for Ardern to realise the price hikes have serious economic implications and a resulting political downside which stretch far further than the service station forecourt.

For starters, the benefit of hindsight suggests the Labour-driven imposition of increased taxes on petrol both nationwide and additionally and more heavily in Auckland might have been a major political mistake even though the policy objectives are laudable in providing the funding for overhauling transport infrastructure.

Then there is the socio-economic dimension. Grant Robertson's oft-repeated response to charges that the extra tax and levies will hit the poor especially hard has been to stress that Labour’s families package is designed to provide replacement income to make up for extra fuel costs.

But the higher the price of petrol, the harder hit will be the less well-off and the more intense will be the pressure to ditch the imposts to the levels applying prior to the change of government last year.

The Finance Minister’s case has not been helped by his posting of a whopping $5.5 billion Budget surplus at the very time that the utility of Labour’s imposition of added petrol taxes is up for debate.

The governing party will be in much more serious strife, however, if the hikes in fuel costs are putting the squeeze on household incomes in middle New Zealand which are already heavily committed to repaying loans or reducing debt.

Equally worrying for Labour and its partners in Government is that big increases in crude oil prices have an unfortunate habit of sending economies spiralling into recession.

In the face of those forces. Ardern is powerless.

She cannot talk down rising crude oil prices. She cannot talk up the value of the New Zealand dollar.

The risk is that voters’ minds translate such impotence into weakness.

The directing of her ire at the oil companies —most notably her allegation that they are "fleecing" consumers — was consequently designed to make her sound tough-minded.

In hamming things up, she was adopting the age-old adage that attack is the best form of defence.

Above all, Ardern is playing a "blame game". She cannot afford to sit around waiting for the new powers handed to the Commerce Commission to have an impact on pricing behaviour in the oil industry. That could take years.

She is instead highlighting price anomalies up and down the country along with the fact that New Zealand has the highest priced petrol of all OECD nations before tax is applied.

For her, that is evidence aplenty that Mobil, Z Energy, Caltex and BP are engaged in unacceptable pricing behaviour— and thus are responsible for the high prices at the pump as much as factors beyond New Zealand’s control.

That might well turn out to be a line of argument which proves to be difficult to sustain.

But Ardern has one major thing going her way. No politician ever went broke by attacking the oil industry’s oligarchs.

If oil prices soar even higher in coming months, the public is going to have to decide whose version of the complexities of the retail petroleum market is closer to fact rather than self-serving fiction.

Given the faith that the voting public has in Ardern to do the right thing — to borrow her phraseology — and the corresponding expectation that the oil companies will unfailingly do the wrong thing, it is no contest. When it comes to trust, there is only one winner — and it is not the oil companies.

When the PM was asked if she thought the pricing moves were “fair”, she said “certainly motorists won't look upon it as fair”. Source: 1 NEWS