Penalties totalling $3.5 million have been imposed by the Federal Court today on one of Australia's major petrol companies, Ampol, for its participation in Victorian price-fixing and resale price maintenance arrangements.

An Ampol employee, Ken McKay, has been penalised a total of $100,000 and costs of $150,000 have been awarded to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which brought the actions.

One matter concerned resale price maintenance at the Ampol Bayswater site in 1992-93, for which Ampol was penalised $1 million and McKay penalised $40,000.

It was alleged that McKay, on behalf of Ampol, attempted to induce the Bayswater proprietors to raise prices for super and unleaded petrol to match competing stations in the area.

The other matter alleged collusion to increase prices for petrol and LPG in the Doveton area. It was alleged that from December 1994 to February 1995, Ampol, through McKay, attempted to induce a Doveton Solo Service Station (supplied by Ampol) to enter into a price fixing arrangement for LPG and petrol. It was alleged Ampol sought to ensure that the Solo site prices would either match or be above prices posted by another company, Best Oil Co. Pty Ltd.

Ampol was penalised $2.5 million for the price-fix and McKay $60,000.

The Federal Court also restrained Ampol and McKay for two years from engaging in the practice of resale price maintenance and price-fixing.

ACCC Chairman, Professor Allan Fels, said today that the Commission regarded the breaches as serious.

"They were not isolated acts but rather reflected a pattern of conduct by an area manager for Ampol," he said. "A significant proportion of the contraventions occurred after the penalties for such conduct were increased tenfold for individuals and fortyfold for corporations. This strong message that such conduct would not be tolerated was clearly ignored by the Ampol employee.

"However, Ampol and McKay have assisted the ACCC by admitting the breaches of the Act, by participating in mediation, and as a result have saved the Court - and taxpayers and petrol users - considerable time and money by not going forward to what would have been a substantial trial."

"Petrol, and to a lesser extent LPG, are basic necessities for most consumers. The ACCC will remain vigilant in its efforts to ensure fair competition exists in the petroleum industry. In this context, Ampol has agreed to reinforce its Trade Practices Act training and compliance program."

Professor Fels said it had been agreed that if the subject petrol station franchisees had been adversely affected by Ampol's conduct, they could seek resolution of their claims against the company through the voluntary petrol code of practice, Oilcode.

"If the Oilcode has no application, mediation in accordance with appropriate rules will be available at no cost to the franchisees ," he said.

He noted that since the offences occurred Ampol has merged with Caltex. "The ACCC expects the new company to be fiercely competitive but to trade within the provisions of the Trade Practices Act," he said.