Cartels and agency arrangements
In 2013 two decisions of the Federal Court were delivered which both related to agency-type arrangements:
- ACCC v ANZ Ltd
 FCA 1206 (18 November 2013)
 FCAFC 103 (31 July 2015)
- ACCC v Flight Centre Limited (No 2)  FCA 1313 (6 December 2013)
Flight Centre Limited v ACCC  FCAFC 104 (31 July 2015)
Both cases alleged price fixing under the old s 45A price fixing provision; however, the issues involved (particularly those relating to market and whether parties should be considered competitors) would apply equally to the current cartel laws.
The ACCC was successful in the Flight Centre case and unsuccessful in the ANZ case. Both were appealed. On Friday 31 July 2015 the Full Federal Court ruled in both cases; Flight Centre succeeded in their appeal and the ACCC failed in its appeal against the ANZ ruling.
On 28 August the ACCC announced it had applied for special leave to appeal the Full Federal Court's decision in Flight Centre. Special leave was granted on 11 March 2016.
- Australian Competition & Consumer Commission v Flight Centre Travel Group Limited  HCATrans 59 (11 March 2016) (transcript of special leave application)
The Appeal was heard on 27 July 2016 and judgment was delivered on 14 December 2016; the High Court, by 4-1 majoirty held in favour of the ACCC, finding the parties did compete in a relevant market (albeit a different market than that identified by the trial judge) with the result that an attempt to reach agreement on price contravened Act. See High Court case page.
The ANZ case
The ACCC alleged that, in 2004, ANZ had required Mortgage Refunds Pty Ltd to agree to limit the amount of refund it could provide in respect of arranging ANZ home loans and that, as a result, 'ANZ made and gave effect to an agreement where it would only allow Mortgage Refunds to continue to be accredited to offer ANZ mortgage products if it agreed to limit any refund it paid to its customers to $600, which would allow ANZ branches to match the deal if they chose to waive the ANZ loan establishment fee.' This, the ACCC alleged, constituted price fixing under s 45 (with aid of s 45A) of the then Trade Practices Act 1974 (now Competition and Consumer Act 2010), because 'ANZ and Mortgage Refunds were competitors in the market for the provision of loan arrangement services.' (see ACCC press release)
The Federal Court dismissed this claim, finding that ANZ and Mortgage Refunds were not competitors and, as a result, the conduct did not constitute price fixing. The ACCC failed in its appeal against this decision.
The ACCC alleged that Flight Centre attempted to induce three airlines to enter into a contract, arrangement or understanding to fix, control or maintain prices for air travel and that this contravened the law against price fixing.
Justice Logan held that Flight Centre was in competition with airlines for distribution and booking services. Flight Centre had attempted to induce the making of a contract, arrangement or understanding which would remove 'air fare differentiation so as to eliminate or reduce competition by a substitute, an airline, for the retail or distribution margin for distribution and booking services.' [para 197] In so doing, Flight Centre 'sought at least to maintain or control that margin and that was the likely effect of its attempts. Its conduct was an attempt to induce a contravention of s 45 of the TPA, as that section is read with s 45A' [para 197]
Flight Centre succeeded in its appeal against Justice Logan's decision.
The ACCC succeeded in a further appeal to the High Court on 14 December 2016.
Inconsistencies and the agency problem
The divergent outcomes in these cases led to some uncertainty about whether and when an agent may be 'in competition' with its principal for purposes of the cartel laws. There is no 'agency' defence under Australian law. The Federal Court appeal decisions removed some of this uncertainty, although the ANZ decision left open the possibility that agency arrangements may still, in some cases, be found to have occurred between 'competitors'. The success in the High Court appeal has again raised concerns of inconsistencies; however, these may be shortlived if recommendations made by the Harper Panel in relation to exempting vertical supply transactions from the cartel laws (so that prohibition would depend on proof of anticompetitive purpose, effect or likely effect) are implemented (they form part of exposure draft legislation but have not yet been introduced into Parliament).
On the High Court judgment
- Flight Centre loses High Court battle with ACCC over airfare price fixing (ABC, 14 December 2016)
- Esther Han, High Court rules in favour of ACCC appeal against Flight Centre (SMH, 14 December 2016)
- Mitchell Bingemann, 'Flight Centre faces new penalty after High Court price-fix ruling' (The Australian, 14 December 2016)
On the High Court appeal
- AAP, 'Flight Centre dragged back into court' (SBS, 11 March 2016)
- AAP, 'ACCC and Flight Centre set for High Court showdown' (The Australian, 11 March 2016)
- Lisa Allen, 'Flight Centre, ACCC in High Court battle over price-fixing' (The Australian, 12 March 2016)
- John Durie, 'A battle between big and small business' (Business Spectator, 11 March 2016)
- Jamie Freed, 'ACCC's pursuit of Flight Centre goes all the way to the High Court' (SHM, 11 March 2016)
On the Federal Court appeals
- Gilbert+Tobin, 'Federal Court green lights dual distribution models: wins for Flight Centre and ANZ against ACCC price fixing allegations' (31 July 2015)
- Stephen Ridgeway and Simon Cooke, 'Full Federal Court allows Flight Centre’s appeal' (King&Wood Mallesons, 31 July 2015)
- Jamie Freed, 'ACCC loss in Flight Centre, ANZ case clarifies price-fixing rules' (SMH, 3 August 2015) (also published in AFR here)
- John Durie, 'Flight Centre wins price-fixing appeal against ACCC' (The Australian, 31 July 2015)
- John Durie and Eric George, 'ACCC setbacks could set a significant precedent' (Business Spectator, 31 July 2015) (video)
On the decision at first instance
- Andrew Christopher and Thea Fabricius, 'In competition with each other? Implications of the apparently divergent outcomes in Flight Centre and ANZ' (2015) 23(1) Australian Journal of Competition and Consumer Law 6
- Stephen Corones, 'Agents as intermediaries: when to do they compete with their suppliers?' (2014) 42(1) ABLR 50-55
- Jennifer Hambleton and Raymond Roca, 'Price-fixing in distribution relationships: ACCC v Flight Centre Ltd' (2014) 22 Australian Journal of Competition and Consumer Law 146
- Michael Corrigan, Ian Reynolds and Shameela Karunakaran, 'Federal Court extends the notion of competition between principals and agents' (Clayton Utz Insights, 19 December 2014)
- Nick McHugh, Claire Forster and Charlotte Minogue, 'Legitimate price management within a distribution channel, or cartel conduct? An important question posed by the Federal Court’s decision in ACCC v Flight Centre (No 2)' (2014) 30(1) Competition and Consumer Law News 6
- Paul McLachlan, 'Not All Benefits are Services - Case Note; Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) v Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd' (2014) 22(1) AJCCL 61
- Alexandra Merrett, 'The Flight Centre saga continues' (2014) 30(6) Competition and Consumer Law News 73
- Peter Sise, 'Australian Competition Consumer Commission (ACCC) v Flight Centre Ltd (No 2): Implications for setting commissions and allocating geographic areas for selling agents' (2014) 30(7) Competition and Consumer Law News 88
- Alexia Smyth-Kirk and Michael Corrigan, 'Court dismisses ACCC's price fixing case against ANZ' (Clayton Utz Insights, 5 December 2013).
- Luke Woodward, Elizabeth Avery, Simon Snow, Charles Coorey and Genevieve Rahman, 'Dual distribution models at a crossroad: where do the ANZ and Flight Centre cases leave us?' (Glibert + Tobin update, December 2013)
Images copyright: Image courtesy of Stuart Miles (Image ID: 10091676) from FreeDigitalPhotos.net.