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Wednesday, 18 March 2015
Page: 2708


Mr BILLSON (DunkleyMinister for Small Business) (09:45): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Autumn Repeal Day further illustrates the Government's commitment to cutting red tape. Cutting red tape improves our nation's competitiveness, helps to create more jobs and lowers household costs. It is a critical step towards improving Australia's productivity.

Reducing red tape gives time back to time-poor business people, in particular small-business people. This enables them to put more time and energy into working for the benefit of their business, rather than conforming to unnecessary compliance processes and bureaucratic requirements.

It goes without saying that reducing red tape across the economy will provide a significant boost to Australia's productivity and competitiveness.

This bill forms part of a whole-of-government commitment, ably led and championed by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, who I congratulate for his excellent work, to repeal counterproductive, unnecessary and redundant legislation. It implements a number of important amendments to the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), as well as some aspects of the broader Competition and Consumer Act 2010,to streamline the operation of these requirements and address some known drafting errors to improve the effectiveness of these laws.

It is four years since the ACL came into force on 1 January 2011. This is a timely opportunity to iron out some of the known issues with the operation of the ACL, to ensure it continues to provide strong protections for consumers without imposing unnecessary compliance costs on industry.

One of the key red-tape reduction reforms in this bill, in part 1 of the schedule, is to remove the reporting requirement for food businesses under the ACL's product safety law.

Currently, state and territory public health laws require hospitals and medical practitioners to report food related illness, injuries or deaths, including serious illnesses or instances where there are multiple cases. For example, in New South Wales this is provided for under the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW). Under this law, hospitals in NSW are required to notify authorities when a patient presents with particular illnesses.

The types of illnesses required to be reported under these laws are set by state and territory regulators and target particular food related illnesses, which are of importance from a food safety perspective. Health and medical practitioners are the first-to-know network that activate the extensive state and territory public health laws and protocols that respond to food related illnesses, injuries or deaths.

In addition to these requirements, the ACL requires all participants in the supply chain for a product (including manufacturers and retailers) to report to the ACCC any incident associated with a death, serious injury or illness to the commission within two days of becoming aware of the incident. Since this requirement was introduced there have been some 4,018 reports, but only two have required follow-up by food regulators. For example, in the case involving Subway in the Northern Territory, enforcement action was already underway at the time of the ACL report.

Both the ACCC and Australian food safety regulators consider these reports to be of limited value in regulating the safety of food products. The reports received under the ACL have not led to improved food safety outcomes for consumers. On the other hand, food safety regulators consider that administering the reports received under the ACL takes up a significant amount of time and resources for regulators, which could be better spent in ensuring better outcomes for consumers. Food related reports make up nearly half of all reports to the ACCC under the ACL.

Over the years, the food industry has informed the government that this requirement places a disproportionate cost on industry.

In removing the food reporting requirement, we will be able to remove unnecessary and unproductive regulation while preserving the overall objective of ensuring the safety of foods. The food safety system is well placed to target the types of food reports that are necessary to ensure that regulators continue to receive the information they need to regulate the safety of foods in Australia. In addition, this proposal will not affect the tools available to the government under the ACL to deal with products, including foods, which are considered to be unsafe. For example, in addition to state and territory food acts, under the ACL the Commonwealth minister may issue a recall notice for consumer goods of a particular kind, including food products, where, for example, it appears to the minister that such goods will or may cause injury to any person.

Another key reform is set out in part 2 of the schedule. This amendment removes the requirement for litigants to seek my agreement to bring an action for a breach of the Competition and Consumer Act2010 that takes place overseas. This requirement was inserted into the act in 1986 due to concerns that the extraterritorial application of the act may impinge on the laws or policies of the country where the breach took place. This is not such a concern today.

Similar requirements to the Competition and Consumer Act 2010now exist in most countries. These have a significant degree of uniformity in the general types of conduct they prohibit, with even further convergence likely in the future. Reflecting this, the government is not aware of any request for ministerial consent having ever been refused.

On the other hand, this requirement imposes a significant barrier on parties seeking private action to enforce their rights under the law. For example, the government has received feedback that this requirement could delay the course of proceedings, as the requirement for ministerial consent may not marry with the time frames of courts for filing statements of claim or defence.

The current procedure also requires applicants to provide advice on the laws of the country in which the alleged conduct took place to assist the government to assess their application. We have received advice that this may cost around $30,000 on average, and some applicants have also been required to obtain such advice from several jurisdictions, further exacerbating these costs.

This bill also includes a number of additional measures to amend the Competition and Consumer Act 2010and the ACL in order to improve their administration.

Part 4 of the schedule removes a redundant requirement for the ACCC to maintain a register of certain records when they hold conferences for product safety bans. These provisions were repealed when the ACL was introduced and have been superseded by division 3 of part XI of the act, which modernises the record keeping requirements of the ACCC. This proposal will not affect any information on a register of notifications previously required to be kept by the ACCC.

Part 5 improves the ACCC's ability to disclose information to certain agencies where suppliers report products or services sold in Australia that were associated with a death, serious injury or illness under the product safety regulations. This provides the ACCC with the ability to work with other government agencies and regulators, both in Australia and overseas, to respond promptly to such incidents to safeguard consumers. Before sharing this information, the ACCC must satisfy itself that it is reasonably necessary to protect public safety. There are also a number of other safeguards in place to ensure such information is not shared inappropriately, including our privacy laws.

Part 9 permits the ACCC to seek a court order directing a person to comply with a notice given under section 155 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. Thisfurther strengthens its ability to obtain the necessary evidence to properly investigate allegations of a breach of the law.

These measures improve the administration of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010and reduce red tape for consumers, business and government.

Also, as this is one of the first opportunities to amend the ACL since its inception, a number of minor errors in the drafting of the ACL are also being addressed.

For example, part 3 of the schedule extends the jurisdiction to hear pyramid selling and unsafe goods liability cases to state and territory courts, as they were mistakenly excluded when the ACL was passed in 2010. This amendment expands access to justice for consumers in relation to these important provisions of the ACL by providing them with access to state and territory courts and low-cost tribunals, rather than only through the Federal Court.

Part 6 corrects a previous drafting error so that the offence of conspiracy under the Criminal Code, which is set out in the Criminal Code Act 1995,is carved out where the Competition and Consumer Act 2010applies, to ensurethere is no duplication between these two laws.

Part 7 clarifies the rights and responsibilities relating to cooling-off periods for unsolicited consumer agreements for consumers and businesses to ensure greater certainty.

Finally, part 8 corrects a drafting error regarding the application of section 33 of the ACL as a law of the Commonwealth. Section 33 prohibits conduct that is liable to mislead the public as to the nature, manufacturing process, characteristics, suitability for purpose, or quantity of goods. Previously, the Trade Practices Act 1974had applied this provision to any person; however, when it was inserted into the ACL it was only applied to corporations.

As section 33 implements Australia's obligations under the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, it is appropriate that it applies to all persons as a law of the Commonwealth. However, this amendment does not change the substantive obligations of Australian traders—section 33 of the ACL already applies to the conduct of all persons as a law of the states and territories.

These amendments ensure that the law, contained in the ACL and the Competition and Consumer Act 2010, can continue to operate as effectively as possible to protect Australian consumers.

In conclusion, this bill makes an important contribution to the government's agenda to increase Australia's competitiveness, boost productivity and create jobs by reducing regulatory burden and red tape. Removing unnecessary requirements in the ACL will mean our businesses can focus on growing, and our regulators can more effectively prioritise their resources to secure better outcomes for consumers.

In closing, I would like to thank and acknowledge the Treasury officials and my own staff for the work that has gone into this bill. This is an area of co-regulation, requiring a great deal of collaboration with state and territory authorities. That is dextrous and collaborative work that requires great diligence, and I thank them for applying that diligence with this bill.

Debate adjourned.