A CARTEL that fixed petrol prices in Ballarat region has earned Federal Court fines totalling more than $23 million.
Former Warracknabeal man Justin Bentley, now of Ballarat, was among the eight companies and eight people found guilty last week of contravening the Trade Practices Act by fixing fuel prices between June 1999 and December 2000.
Mr Bentley received a $200,000 fine. A Melbourne newspaper reported that his company, Justco Pty Ltd, received a $3 million fine.
The eight companies run BP, Shell, Ampol/Caltex, Swift, Apco and Mobil outlets in the Ballarat area.
Buangor service station proprietor Trevor Oliver sparked action against the companies after he refused to accept a directive, before Easter several years ago, to raise fuel prices by four cents a litre to capitalise on increased traffic flow.
Mr Oliver said the fines sent a `good, clear message' against price fixing.
"The decision is a victory for all independent petrol station owners," he said. "We're a dying breed being swallowed by the oil giants."
He also called for governments and motoring bodies to work together on a price everyone could work from.
Last week nine respondents, including Justco, Leahy Petroleum, Leahy Retail, J Chisholm and five individuals admitted the case against them by the Australian Competion and Consumer Commission.
Justice Alan Goldberg imposed fines totalling $9.5 million against the companies which admitted their guilt.
Individual respondents - Mr Bentley, Balgee general manager John Robert Gourley; Balgee employee Robert Andrew Levick; Leahy senior manager Robin Herbert Palmer and Balgee sales operations manager Peter Robert Muller received fines totalling $405,000.
The court found one of the companies varied the price of petrol by up to 12 cents a litre.
The highest company fine was $5 million for Mobil service station operator Cavallo Volante, formerly Balgee Oil.
The ACCC told the court the participants had a long-standing arrangement to fix retail petrol prices.
This took place through phone calls and meetings between operators and sometimes involved secret codewords.
Triton 2001, Apco Service Stations, Brumar, Cavallo Volante, three senior managers - Triton Ballarat area manager Anthony Rosenow, Apco Service Stations director Peter Anderson and Brumar retail area manager Garry Dalton - denied the ACCC claims.
However, all were found guilty in the Federal Court last December.
Justice Goldberg described the conduct as `regular, repetitive, covert and clandestine and engaged in without regard to its unlawfulness'.
"I consider it is appropriate in 2005 that the community, both commercial and general, be made aware and recognise that the courts and indeed the legal system, views horizontal price-fixing and cartel behaviour of the type under consideration, most seriously," he said.
ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel also expressed pleasure at the outcome.
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