GREG RAY: Big two face new test

GEOBLOCKING is the system used by multinational tech corporations to force Australians to pay higher prices for products than those paid by Americans and Europeans.

You strike it when you try to buy something on-line, only to learn that the really good price advertised isn’t available to Aussies.

It’s a bit like the ‘‘Newcastle tax’’ imposed by petrol retailers on our city’s motorists. There is no good reason we should pay more, but because the suppliers have the market sewn up they can charge us whatever they like.

For years Aussies have been fleeced by the geoblockers, who use software to detect what country visitors to their websites live in, before smashing some of them with higher prices or excluding some of them altogether.

Now a federal government competition review has decided that enough is enough and is proposing an education campaign to teach people how to get around the geoblocking software.

It’s a bold idea, and just part of a whole heap of reforms proposed in the newly released Harper Review.

The geoblockers aren’t the only targets: the review has the big supermarket duopoly in its sights too.

The review has backed plans by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to try to stop the big retailers from abusing their market power to the detriment of small businesses.

Not surprisingly, the big two are squealing.

If you believe what their critics have been saying for years, the dominant retailers have made a fair bit of their money by cannibalising many smaller Australian businesses.

If that’s true, any new law that stops them crushing other businesses could interfere with the part of their business model that involves pinching other people’s margins.

We’ve all heard the criticisms and the moaning from small businesses that complain about horrendous demands by the big retailers for ever-lower wholesale prices, for extra levies to support supermarket advertising and still more payments to get your products on the best shelves.

That’s if you can get your business on the preferred supplier list at all, and if you can survive the creation by the big retailers of their own generic brands, often packed and labelled just like yours and specially designed, you might think, to grind you out of business.

And of course we have heard similar stories from farmers, some of whom have complained of being forced to plough their crops into the ground because they couldn’t make the supermarkets happy enough.

From the point of view of the big retailers and the people who guide their decisions, they aren’t doing anything wrong by targeting the margins of their suppliers and by fighting fiercely to keep competing retailers off their turf. Their sole obligation is to maximise returns to their shareholders, and the way the system stands they would be criticised for failing to scoop up any stray cents that might be managing to fall into somebody else’s pockets, especially if it was mere kindness or a sense of fair play that held them back.

So, having been helplessly listening to the victims of retail duopoly power over a span of years, the review is proposing a new system that might actually offer some protection to complainants.

The idea is to replace the present hard-to-use law against the misuse of market power with a new ‘‘effects test’’ that will provide opportunities to punish big companies that deliberately adopt measures that harm competition.

Perhaps as sweeteners, the review is also proposing the deregulation of retail trading hours and letting supermarkets compete with the highly protected pharmacy industry. Oh, and making it easier for supermarkets around the country to sell liquor from their shelves.

Having cheerily accepted those concessions, the supermarket duopolists are squealing blue murder at the prospect of protection for smaller businesses.

Consumers will suffer, the big two have said, with straight faces, apparently.

My guess is that, if the proposal survives the furious lobbying the big two will probably mount against it, consumers will be better off in the long run. It will probably protect a lot of jobs too, I’d suggest.

Now let’s see if it survives.

Rail passing loop construction to begin in 2015

Loop: A new passing loop at Rowsley is expected to cut the number of train delays between Ballarat and Sunshine.CONSTRUCTION of the Rowsley rail passing loop will not begin until 2015.

While work will begin on the Ballan Train Station car park upgrade before the end of the year, the passing loop will be made a second stage of the $14.3 million project.

The passing loop is seen a being one part of critical infrastructure to cut down the number of train delays between Ballarat and Sunshine.

Due to the single-track nature of the majority of the journey from Ballarat to Melbourne, trains are often forced to wait in the passing loops for other trains to pass.

Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder said the loop would help to improve punctuality and reliability.

“Preliminary design work is well under way on the Ballan station car park upgrade and Rowsley crossing loop,” he said.

“The project is now in the final stages of planning.

“Public Transport Victoria is also completing additional environmental assessment surveys for the Rowsley crossing loop’s alignment.”

Mr Mulder did not respond to questions asking if the loop would help to increase the capacity for the line to add extra services in the future.

V/Line recently published its latest annual report, which was tabled in parliament on September 17.

The report showed a decline in patronage for the 2013-14 financial year, following steady growth in numbers over the past few years.

“While patronage numbers increased on the Geelong, Seymour and Gippsland lines, there was a drop on the Ballarat and Bendigo lines,” V/Line spokeswoman Ebony Jordan said.

“The decline is a result of the line closures during major Regional Rail Link track works and the extension of electrification to Sunbury, with customers now travelling on Metro trains.”

Works were also conducted over the past 12 months between Ballarat and Sunshine to help improve the speed at which trains travel.

The works coincided with Regional Rail Link works and included the replacement of wooden sleepers with concrete sleepers at the Ballarat Railway Station and stabling yard, the removal of mud holes, resurfacing and re-aligning of the track between Rockbank and Ballarat, and the reconstruction of track formation at Ballan.

Ms Jordan said speed restrictions were removed in two places along the line as a result of those works.

She said one speed limit increased from 120km/h to 160km/h and the other increased from 80 km/h to 160km/h.

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Psychiatrist sought

NEW ERA: Mount Gambier Hospital director of nursing Paul Bullen stands in the newly finished six-bed purpose-built mental health ward. Picture: SANDRA MORELLOCOUNTRY Health SA will launch a fresh bid to attract a resident psychiatrist to the Mount Gambier Hospital as a new purpose-built mental health unit is just months away from operation.

While the 16-bed acute medical ward was handed over by builders to staff at Mount Gambier Hospital Tuesday, September 23the six-bed mental health unit will remain idle until an array of specialist staff can be appointed.

If the recruitment campaign is successful, it will secure the first resident psychiatrist in the history of the hospital.

While additional staff will be recruited for the mental health unit, health officials will juggle current employees to staff the sprawling new medical ward.

No additional staff have been employed at this stage, despite the additional beds.

The cutting edge new ward – which mirrors state-of-the art technology and aesthetics of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital under construction – is the biggest section of the hospital’s $26.7m redevelopment.

Staff were busy making beds Tuesday, September 23at the new ward, which is expected to see the first patients later this week.

Country Health SA South East regional director Jayne Downs said the new mental health unit – one of just three in country South Australia – was expected to be busy when it became operational.

“The new units at Whyalla and Riverland have been pretty much full from day one,” Ms Downs said.

“It will provide a whole new level of care and a fantastic option for people to stay locally rather than seeking services in Adelaide.”

She said it would take some time before a mental health team could be assembled for the new ward.

“Early next year it should be up and running,” the health chief said.

Asked if the recruitment of a psychiatrist was likely, she said that was “certainly the plan”.

“There has always been a position here and I think it is quite a tough ask to come out to the country on their own,” Ms Downs said.

She said the city had never had a resident psychiatrist attached to the hospital.

“I think there has been one or two who have been out in the community, but we have certainly never had anyone appointed to the hospital,” Ms Downs said.

Asked about the flow of mental health patients to the emergency ward, she said there were steady numbers.

“The staff have always worked really hard not to admit people unless they really need to – they can be cared for and gain extra support in the community,” Ms Downs said.

She said the new ward complemented existing mental health services.

“There is the community team, the intermediate care team, the community rehab team that is out in the houses and there are the acute mental health nurses,” Ms Downs said.

“If we go back a decade, we really just had the community team I think now we have got such a fantastic resource – it is an exceptional array of services for a country location and for our population.”

The new mental health ward will have an electronic wandering alert system to ensure security and safety.

National contest for pony club five

EMU Creek Pony Club (ECPC) will have strong representation at Australian Interschool Equestrian Championships next week.

Five members of the Terang-based club are bound for Werribee Park National Equestrian Centre for the championships, which start next Monday.

The contingent includes Mercy Regional College pair Polly Moloney, 14, and Erika Grant, 14, and Hamilton and Alexandra College’s Rosie Allen, 15.

Lizzy Kelly, 14, and Airlia Munn, 14, will represent Mortlake College. Asha Kelly, 16, also qualified but declined the offer due to an American exchange trip.

The five are among 95 Victorians in the field and 368 overall. They booked their spots at qualifying events at Ballarat and Werribee earlier this year.

“They’ve all been members of the club since they were five years old,” ECPC district commissioner Wendy Kelly said.

“It’s been fantastic to watch them all come along and go up through the grades. They’re all very committed.

“They have a very good attitude to the sport. They’re competitive but they don’t get stressed about it. They enjoy their competition and all work very hard.”

Kelly said the ECPC riders would compete in a variety of sections at the championships. Polly and Amarah Parc Vandal are in show hunter.

Rosie will be aboard Contagous in the 110cm showjumping class, having placed second over 115cm at national championships last Saturday.

Lizzy and Jack The Rippa are in the 100cm showjumping class while Airlia Munn will be aboard Thornton in the preliminary eventing and freestyle dressage.

Erika and Nawarrah Park Union Jack are also in show hunter as well as intro eventing. Erika will ride a second horse, Alluvial, in preliminary eventing.

“If they perform at a good level on the day they’ll be up there, with a little bit of luck. They have the abilities and the skills to be competitive,” Kelly said.

“Victoria is always very competitive. New South Wales is probably the most competitive state but Victoria always has a high standard.

“They’re hard to beat on their good day. It really depends how the riders perform over a few days.”

Terang College student Laura Shaw, 16, will also attempt to make her mark at the championships as Victorian showing team captain.

Laura will ride Daly Downs Trend in three show horse classes — ridden, led and rider.

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Coledale dealer gets 625 hours of community service

A Coledale man has been slapped with a whopping 625 hours of community service – the equivalent of almost four months’ full-time work – after he was caught selling drugs.

Joel Bennett Forbes pleaded guilty to four charges of drug supply and one charge of possessing ammunition in Port Kembla Local Court on Tuesday, earning him the substantial penalty.

The court heard police attached to Strike Force Lorrie secretly recorded Forbes organising to supply quantities of cannabis on at least four occasions between March 27 and March 31 this year.

He was heard offering to supply the drug to an unknown person at 5.50pm on March 27, while the following day,police monitored a mid-morning exchange of 56.8 grams of cannabis between Forbes and a known male.

On March 31, Forbes was recorded twice supplying cannabis to different people in the space of half an hour. Police swooped on his Hyde Lane home on April 1, uncovering almost 1.2 kilograms of cannabis, including plants that Forbes claimed to have found in the bush.

He admitted to cutting leaf from the plants.

Cannabis resin, seeds and leaf was found throughout the house including the main bedroom and kitchen areas.

Police also discovered a bullet in the main bedroom, which Forbes said he’d been given as a present as his nickname was “Bullet”.

In court on Tuesday, the 35-year-old said through his lawyer that he enjoyed working and would commit to performing community service if given such an order as punishment.

Magistrate Mark Richardson agreed to the order, but handed Forbes 150 hours on each of three drug supply charges and 175 hours on the fourth, giving him a total of 625 hours to perform, or just under four months worth of 40-hour working weeks.

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