Car owners getting shafted with dodgy fuel
Drivers left in the dark by Costello's Catch 22
Sydney Morning Herald 12/10/02
by Mike Seccombe
Copyright of John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd
Joseph Heller would no doubt have enjoyed himself immensely, had he been witness to Peter Costello's performance in Question Time yesterday.
Heller's gift to the language was the expression "Catch 22", meaning, according to my dictionary: "a rule or condition which ... may establish a futile, self-perpetuating cycle".
And that pretty much describes Costello's answers to questions yesterday on the Government's inane policy on ethanol, a fuel additive commonly sold at dangerously high concentrations in petrol in NSW.
One near-monopoly producer, the Manildra Group - which happens to be a handsome donor to the federal Liberal Party - continues to market it through independent service stations at concentrations of about 20 per cent.
Yet almost every major car maker in the country has warned that at concentrations of more than 10 per cent, ethanol damages engines. They will not honour warranties for cars run on higher blends.
And it's not just car companies that want a 10 per cent cap. So do consumers, boating and motoring organisations and the Australian Petroleum Institute (API). Not to mention the federal Environment Department.
But the Government has procrastinated on setting a limit, and does not even require retailers to inform their customers what they are buying.
Why? Well, the chief of the API, Brian Nye, claimed it was made "quite clear" to him in August that John Howard was personally determined that no controls should be introduced that might damage Manildra's interests.
Whatever the reason, motorists continue to suffer.
Yesterday, Labor's Daryl Melham produced an example in Question Time: a woman forced to make $2500 repairs to her Mazda Astina "because of damage caused by regular use of petrol containing 17 per cent ethanol".
Melham asked Treasurer Costello for an assurance the Government would protect her and other motorists from similar damage.
In response, he got Costello's Consumer Catch 22, or at least the first half of it.
"People should be very careful of the effect the petrol they use has on the warranties of their cars," he intoned. "If those warranties are contingent upon not allowing ethanol above a certain level in the tank, it is very important people adhere to those warranties."
The next question, from shadow treasurer Bob McMullan, made the obvious point: how could motorists know whether they were voiding their warranties if they were not advised what was in the fuel? And in response, we got the second half of the catch.
The Government had yet to establish what levels of ethanol were safe, so it could set no standards.
Joseph Heller - and Manildra - would have loved it.