Greg Barila

Journalist. Editor. Social Media specialist.

The price is wrong

Supersize me... On second thoughts, don't. Photo: News Corp. Australia

Hi, my name is Greg. This is my first meeting and I've got a confession to make.
“Hi, Greg!”
Recently, I spent a year living in the US and now I can’t stop complaining about the price of sandwiches and washing powder, bus tickets and cups of coffee.
All day long I moan about the cost of avocados and dry cleaning and quite frankly I’m driving my friends and family spare.
The cost of living in Australia is out of control – and it took me living in another country to come to the conclusion.
But not just any country, mind you. We’re talking about a country where the cost of things, food especially, is inversely proportional to the size of the portion; where eating is considered a National Sport and the People are prepared to bear arms to protect their God-given right to drink giant sodas.
Americans are big on value for money – you kind of get that sneaking suspicion the first time you order a waffle and discover it is an inch thick, is bigger than your head, comes with two scoops of ice cream you can’t eat and didn’t ask for and, at just $4, is basically free.
No-one pays for bread or corn chips in US restaurants (I think it’s enshrined in the Constitution, or something).
And if you don’t feel like you may be having a heart attack at least once during a meal, well, you’re not really trying are you? Or you’re having a snack.
One time, in Chicago, at a family-run Mexican restaurant, I had one of the best and biggest breakfasts I’ve ever had and between the two of us the cheque was all of $13.
Everything was so cheap we spent the first 10 minutes uploading photos to social media to send back to our friends on Planet Earth.
A man could get used to a life like that.
That’s why my first trip to an Australian supermarket after returning home was not just a rude shock, it was an Outrage! A bloody disgrace! A cause for a violent uprising!
But even adjusting for cultural inflation, I’m not the only one who thinks the cost of living in this Australia has reached a tipping point.
Earlier this year, when the Federal Election was called, adelaidenow ran a survey asking voters in South Australia’s 11 electorates to nominate the issues of most concern to them. Health, jobs, education, roads; respondents named a number of topics.
But in all 11 seats, the cost-of-living was number one across the board.
Our leaders know this. That’s why, in March - a year before the 2014 State Election and a few months before the Federal poll - Premier Jay Weatherill invited us to help his government ease the squeeze by submitting feedback to a cost-of-living discussion paper.
“I know many South Australians are struggling with cost-of-living pressures,” the Premier said.
“I want to ensure South Australia remains an affordable and attractive place to live, work, do business and raise a family.”
The recent fortunes of iconic brands like Holden, Spring Gully and Trims, and the exodus of smart young people across the border to more expensive (but more dynamic cities) shows just how big a job the Premier has.
Exactly why Australians struggle to make ends meet depends on a matrix of complex issues. Maybe your water charges are high because your state invested a motza in a desalination plant it only plans to use one non-rainy day. Or maybe you’re just a terrible manager of your money.
But a few things are universally true. Like that prices are higher in Australia because our wages and conditions are good, and a high quality of life comes at a cost.
That our system of “free trade” isn’t really free, nor fair – because our farmers and manufacturers are forced to pass their rising costs of production on to us, while our markets get flooded by cheaply made imports.
And that the supermarket duopoly in some cities and towns is not only bad for consumers but bad for processors and suppliers – all of them, employers.
The arrival of Costco and Aldi should go some way to easing the stranglehold on choice and price. But we need to know where the line is.
Ask 50 million Americans if they’d rather easy access to cheap hamburgers and running shoes or a decent minimum wage and affordable health care.
Sometimes you have to ask yourself who really pays the biggest price.

This column was first published in The City Messenger and on