“Have you got a car? You’ll need one, mate. Canberra’s a car city.”
It was almost a year ago, at the end of a job interview with The Canberra Times, that the all-important question was asked.
It had been a few years since I had got behind the wheel for the daily commute to the office. I was living in Manchester, making use of trams, trains and the busiest bus route in Europe. Before that, my feet were my vehicle in Wellington. If it rained, there was a reliable bus at the ready.
Canberra’s a different kettle of fish. Few people have access to an efficient public transport route to work, so most of us have no choice but to jump behind the wheel.
And boy, aren’t we paying for it.
On Tuesday this week, the average price of unleaded petrol in Hobart dropped below the price in Canberra, making the national capital the most expensive capital city in Australia to fill up.
We were paying an average of 144.1¢ per litre that morning; a whopping 32.2¢ per litre more than drivers in Adelaide, a city full of independent service stations.
Perth, at the peak of its weekly price cycle, was still 8.4¢ per litre cheaper. A day earlier, at the low point of the cycle, drivers there were paying 29.9¢ per litre less than Canberrans.
Western Australia’s petrol prices are exactly what Canberra’s are not: predictable and transparent.
Prices reach their low point every Monday before rising sharply the next day. Everyone knows this. It’s been this way since 2015. Before that, the cycle was the same. The price hike simply happened on a different day.
The certainty around prices in the west is no accident. According to an Australian Consumer and Competition Commission report released last month, “the consistency of price cycles in Perth has likely been influenced by the WA FuelWatch scheme”.
The same report reveals that by buying at the low point of the weekly cycle rather than the peak, Perth drivers can save up to $520 a year.
FuelWatch is the system the ACT government should be looking at to address Canberra’s stubbornly high petrol prices.
While price cycles are the product of competitive markets and the level of competition needed in Canberra to create one may never exist, the transparency and certainty that FuelWatch provides in Western Australia is achievable here.
By requiring fuel retailers to set their prices for the next day at 2pm each afternoon, without knowing what their competitors are charging, service station owners immediately have an incentive to set the lowest possible price.
If they don’t, they risk pricing themselves out of the market for a day, with FuelWatch requiring that prices come into effect at 6am and remain the same for 24 hours. Everyone knows the prices; they’re publicly available online.
As FuelWatch co-ordinator Kyle Huynh told me, “they learn very quickly that if they’re not competitive, they’ll have no sales”.
That’s not just true of petrol sales, but also the food, drinks and other convenience store items drivers snap up while paying for their fuel.
In the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to drivers who are sick of avoiding paying for petrol in the ACT, holding out for cheaper fuel across the border in NSW.
I’ve heard from the National Roads and Motorists’ Association, which wants the ACT to introduce real-time price monitoring like NSW and Queensland. That idea is worthy of consideration, but the benefits of Western Australia’s FuelWatch are too good to ignore without at least investigating the cost to set up and run such a scheme.
In 2001, when FuelWatch was introduced in the west, the ACT government failed to act on an Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission inquiry that recommended the introduction of a public information system to track petrol price movements.
Nearly 18 years on, the time has come to do this and end our pain at the pump.
Extracted from The Canberra Times