Australia, land of market domination

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Feature Story - 26 August, 2013
Power remains highly concentrated in many sectors, from banking to the retail food industry. This aggregation of control should be scrutinised.

Originally posted on 27 August 2013 - The Guardian Australia

Whatever happens on 7 September, we already know who rules in Australia. We like to think of ourselves as an open and equal country with appropriate checks and balances but in truth, power is highly concentrated within our nation.

Let’s start with banking and finance. According to an IMF report last year, "Australia’s four major banks hold 80% of banking assets and 88% of residential mortgages," making Australia one of the most concentrated banking market in the world – more so than, for example, China or the US. The big four were also among the world’s eight most profitable banks studied, demonstrating that they benefit substantially from their market domination.

Within our retail food industry, the two supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths control between 55-60% of Australia’s overall grocery share and up to 80% of dry groceries. We may want to buy our bread from corner bakeries, or fresh fruit from a family-owned grocer, but small business is squeezed out by the duopoly and their automated check-outs. Many claim their practices is bad for fair competition.

Turning to our news supply, Australian newspaper circulation is among the most concentrated in the democratic world. Three companies – News Australia, Fairfax Media and APN collectively hold 98% of our print media circulation. Among the three, News Australia’s daily and Sunday newspapers account for approximately two-thirds of all the dailies sold across the nation. And as the revenue model for traditional media collapses, the potential for corporate vested influence on newspapers becomes ever more likely, with obvious implications for political decision-making.

Indeed, the sway of industry over our government is all too apparent. To cite two notorious examples, the mining industry’s heavily resourced campaigns against a carbon price and a resource profits tax were key factors in Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull losing the leadership of their respective parties in 2010.

The aggregation of control over our information, food, money and industry is darkly complemented by a fierce intolerance of dissent within Australia’s two major political parties. According to research by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, "(p)arty discipline in Parliament is so strong that many analysts now refer to the Commonwealth as not having a system of responsible government but, instead, a system of responsible party government." An associated trend is ever greater power being concentrated in the executive.

At a time in which social upheavals continue to erupt across the world – in which the central demand is always for a redistribution of power – politics in Australia feels curiously hermetic. As the election approaches, in stark disparity to the "spring" movements elsewhere, the leaves of an "Australian autumn" are falling – debate turns inwards, and the status quo is further entrenched. If anything, political and cultural debates seem to be narrowing, not broadening, reflecting what Simon Copland has described as an obsession with symbols rather than structures.

The easy explanation, of course, is that Australia’s overall prosperity and high levels of inter-generational mobility mean that the preconditions for major unrest simply don’t exist here. But globalisation, neoliberalism and their discontents are experienced in varying ways in different states and regions. At the same time as political and economic power has been grasped by fewer and fewer hands in Australia, the majority of us have been subject to ever-increasing uncertainty as the old structures of our society have been corroded.

Australians as a whole may be comfortable and wealthy by any earthly standard, yet a sense of insecurity – of disempowerment – is rising. Restlessness about asylum-seekers, for example, can be interpreted as an expression of felt powerlessness, engendering anxieties which foreclose on the possibility of greater generosity towards refugees. As Richard Cooke has suggested, "the boats issue has become the way in which the different classes of Australian society argue about globalisation." Popular concern about Australia’s population levels can be understood in a similar way.

The possibility exists in Australia for a new politics answering socio-economic anxiety with a political program reforming the structures that are really responsible for the experience of powerlessness. Otherwise, no matter how many poor sad souls are locked away in Papua New Guinea, nobody is going to feel any better and the fixed winners will remain those few who continue to wield too much influence over Australia.