We are becoming a nation of Bundys.
We are becoming a nation of Bundys.

As we enter election season, here's a tip for any politician
seeking office. Your platform should be this: ''I'll stop the gouging.''

You would get my vote and, I suspect, those of thousands of
other Australians who increasingly feel powerless as consumers. Hell, I
would probably campaign on your behalf.

The rapaciousness of both public and private enterprise has
reached new appalling levels as governments and companies bleed people

It all makes me yearn for the days of the Prices
Justification Tribunal, a Whitlam creation, which, during the 1970s and
beyond, scrutinised proposed price hikes and modified them if they
didn't add up.


We have long since left such matters pretty much to the
market and, boy, aren't we paying for it. We are getting fleeced as
never before.

The latest piece of profiteering has come from - surprise,
surprise - Melbourne Airport, which last week quietly lifted parking
rates by more than 30 per cent.

Three weeks ago I parked there for just over an hour on a
Saturday morning and had to fork out more than $20 for the privilege. I
have flown for less than that.

The latest price hike prompted the chief executive of the
Consumer Law Action Centre, Gerard Brody, to observe: ''There is a real
question whether these car park fees are price gouging.'' (Actually,
there is no doubt about it, Mr Brody - it is gouging.)

The airport effectively has the power to charge its own fees,
which, as he noted, is a questionable practice, considering it is
pretty much running a monopoly.

Said Brody: ''Economic theory tells us if there is a
monopoly, there should be some oversight or restriction on prices that
can be charged.''

Yet even when there is oversight, it doesn't seem to help all that much.

The previous week the Essential Services Commission announced that water bills would rise by up to $220 this financial year.

Once we would have stormed the offices of our local MPs if
this sort of increase had been publicly mooted, much less approved. Now
we accept it with a kind of sad resignation.

I am increasingly reminded of that opening scene in the hit TV series Married with Children, in which the put-upon dad, defeat etched on his face, dispensed dollars to all family members, dog included.

We are becoming a nation of Bundys.

The water increase could have been worse, though, according
to the commission's chairman, Dr Ron Ben-David, who said of the 20 per
cent-plus price rise: ''This represents a significant reduction from the
increases originally proposed by the businesses of between $269 and

So the only good news is that the bad news could have been
worse. That says a lot about the lack of empathy those businesses have
for their customers. The imposts do not end there, though: private
health insurance goes up and up, so do the costs of running cars and, of
course, municipal rates outstrip the CPI again and again.

The latest round saw them rise an average 4.8 per cent across
Victoria, only slightly down on last year's 5 per cent. These and other
cost increases were ''sending people to the wall'', said Ratepayers
Victoria spokesman Peter Olney. Of course they are.

When bodies such as the Prices Justification Tribunal were
abandoned in favour of deregulation we were assured competition in the
marketplace would help keep prices down. Regulation would be necessary
only in monopoly situations.

So while there is price regulation on energy distributors in
Victoria because they have monopoly rights to supply certain regions,
there is no price regulation on energy retail markets because retailers
are supposedly competing for our business. That's supposed to keep
prices down. So why are our energy bills through the roof?

The same theory says credit cards and telcos do not need
regulation either. There wouldn't be a consumer in Australia who buys
that one. In fact, they're gold-medal gougers, forever inventing new
ways to extract our dollars. I suspect they have full-time teams working
on ways of making us pay for things we used to get free.

During the week I challenged a credit card operator to
explain why my most recent bill had line after line of something called a
''currency conversion fee''.

''That's what we charge you for having to convert American
dollars to Australian dollars when you travel overseas,'' she said
politely. ''But you're already making money on the exchange rate,'' I
said. ''And then you charge me extra for calculating it?''

''That's correct, sir.'' No doubt someone got a bonus for coming up with that one.

Where is the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in all this? Isn't it time it threw its weight around?

At the very least it should be given market-study powers so
it can investigate and expose the inner workings of appallingly greedy

In the meantime, who will stand up for consumers? The buck can't continue to stop with us. We have fewer and fewer of them left.

Bruce Guthrie is a former editor of The Age and The Sunday Age.