Woolworths incident evokes the spirit of Robin Hood

31 January 2024

Earlier this week, my children witnessed a man hastily push a trolley loaded with groceries out of Woolworths, skipping payment at self-checkout. 

While no one in my family had seen anything similar before a couple of years ago, it is now a semi-regular occurrence. I’ve been wrestling with how to help my kids interpret this. 

I want my kids to learn not to take things that are not theirs, things that they haven’t earned. But without knowing the man’s circumstances, I’m reluctant to condemn him too harshly. 

Is he one of the thousands of workers who has lost their job because of the remarkable series of interest rate increases designed to tackle inflation? 

This very human collateral damage from macroeconomic policy was entirely predictable, and condemned thousands to suffer greatly while most income support payments remain below the poverty line. 

I also want my kids to learn that having enough food is a basic right and that as a society we should ensure that no one wakes in the night from hunger pains. 

Another, very Australian, view evokes the spirit of Ned Kelly and Robin Hood. Proponents would argue that Woolworths, in exploiting its duopoly position, has not actually earned most of its $1.6 billion profits any more than the man earned that trolley of groceries. 

Recent revelations about squeezing hard-working farmers while ratcheting up consumer prices under the pretext of inflation have not made Woolworths or Coles popular. 

For many, stealing from the rich to give to the poor is forgivable, perhaps even admirable. In this reading, it is noteable that the size of contents of the man’s trolley suggest that the food was for others as well as himself. 

Robin Hood could only exist in a setting of extreme inequality, and it is alarming to watch Australia sliding into this trap. 

The stage three tax cuts, if delivered as originally conceived, will hand $9000 each year to people earning over $200,000, compared with just $125 for those earning $50,000 a year, and $1375 for those earning $100,000. Most of those earning less than $40,000 would see no benefit at all. We should demand a more sensible approach to tax reform. 

While inflation is a risk to the economy, the government’s efforts to combat it using only interest rates lack sophistication and fairness. Interest rate hikes affect renters and recent home buyers hardest, leaving those who own their houses outright unaffected.

Strong action to reign in anti-competitive situations, including the duopoly in grocery stores, would ameliorate the cost of household goods, directly reducing inflation and enabling the Reserve Bank to lower interest rates sooner. 

In Canberra, the housing crisis is a major contributor to the cost-of-living crisis, and policy settings have worsened the situation over decades. 

In the Tax Expenditures and Insights Statement February 2023, Treasury estimates that the aggregate tax reduction for rental properties will be almost $27 billion this financial year. Most of these tax breaks will be enjoyed by the wealthiest Australians. This has driven up the price of housing, putting it out of reach for many. 

Federal and ACT government policy settings have left the market to build plenty of McMansions, while dramatically undersupplying medium-density housing, including significant social housing. This isn’t a bug; it is a feature of the underregulated market and distortionary tax breaks. Government settings should be recalibrated to focus on those who most need assistance. 

I doubt the man my kids saw running out of Woolworths likes being unable to pay for food, and shopping trollies make poor getaway vehicles. 

Are governments willing to enact the policies that would enable Canberra to return to a community where brazen food theft is no longer a regular occurrence? 

Opinion piece originally published in The Canberra Times on January 26th, 2024.
Read the editorial here.
For more information or comment, please contact
Devin Bowles, CEO, ACTCOSS, on 0413 435 080 or 02 6202 7200

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