Outline

The CLEN Director, Professor Caron Beaton-Wells, is leading a four-year research project entitled "Regulating Australia's retail grocery sector - goals, actors and techniques", funded by the Australian Research Council.

Australia's major supermarket chains (MSCs) have a substantial economic and social impact on consumers, businesses and communities and are crucial to our economic growth and productivity. Given their size and reach, regulation of the chains poses significant challenges. This interdisciplinary, empirical and theoretically driven project interrogates the goals and processes of competition law as it applies in the retail grocery sector. In the first Australian research of its kind, it aims to explain how the chains' strategies and industry relationships influence regulatory action. The research will produce recommendations on instruments and techniques to ensure that regulation of the sector is legally and practically efficient and effective, while remaining sensitive to social concerns.

Undertaken by a senior interdisciplinary team (representing competition law, business history/management, regulation, sociology and public health), the project highlights the limitations of the current focus on a public interest economics-oriented approach in the debate regarding the regulation of MSC power. Drawing on regulatory and sociological scholarship including specific theories underpinning competition law, the project explores the extent to which political, social and economic theories of public interest regulation justify regulatory action and the range of goals that such regulation may seek to achieve. It draws on private interest theories to examine how the interaction between various actors and interest groups affects the form and effectiveness of grocery sector regulation and on institutionalist theories to explain how Australia's political, economic and legal systems shape the regulatory approach.

The project fills the gap in the regulatory debate relating to an understanding of why and how the MSCs have developed as they have, the strategies that have contributed to their growth, the impact of changes over time in the industry (including shifts in consumer needs and interests), and the various regulatory schemes that affect it. Drawing on insights from business management and strategy scholarship, the project provides a fresh perspective on the regulatory debate by looking at the issues through the lens of the MSCs, as the key regulatory actors, and examining their influence on the regulatory dynamics as regulation takers and regulation makers.

Using MSC site strategies and MSC-supplier relations as case studies, the project examines the extent to which MSC power has been and, to a greater extent, could be regulated using regulatory techniques and strategies that are more diverse than under the prevailing model. Based on the case study findings the project will make recommendations concerning the policy, legal and practical implications of a sophisticated multi-faceted approach to the regulation of Australia's retail grocery sector.

The project method includes documentary research into a wide range of primary and secondary sources and structured interviews with a substantial number of stakeholders in the grocery industry, the legal profession and government. The research dissemination and communication strategy includes engaging with academic audiences through publication in journal articles and conference papers in Australia and overseas, and ultimately through a substantial monograph. The researchers are engaging with non-academic audiences through the project website, the mainstream press, and a major public symposium.

Other academic members of the research team are: Emeritus Professor David Merrett (University of Melbourne, Faculty of Business & Economics); Adjunct Professor Chris Arup (Monash University, Faculty of Business & Economics and Centre for Regulatory Studies); and Honorary Professor Jane Dixon (Australian National University, National Centre for Population Health and Epidemiology). Any queries relating to the project should be directed to the project Research Fellow, Jo Paul-Taylor (joanne.paul@unimelb.edu.au) in the first instance.