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Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Page: 6479


Mr NEUMANN (4:23 PM) —I speak in support of the Trade Practices Amendment (Australian Consumer Law) Bill (No. 2) 2010. The primary purpose of this bill is to make sure that the government carries through its proposal to create a seamless national market with respect to consumer law in this country. We are incorporating the fair trading and consumer protection provisions of the Trade Practices Act 1974 into the Australian Consumer Law. We are creating a national legislative framework for statutory consumer guarantees for the Australian community, a national legislative scheme for consumer product safety and an infringement notice regime with respect to the provisions of the Australian Consumer Law. We are changing the name of the Trade Practices Act to the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. That is the broad scope of this piece of legislation. It had its genesis in August 2008 with the Ministerial Council on Consumer Affairs. It was an agreement that was reached in terms of a formal intergovernmental agreement on national consumer law on 2 July 2009.

We in this government have done a lot to support the nearly two million small businesses. Approximately four million Australians work in small business. In fact, they are the lifeblood and the mainstay of the Blair community in South-East Queensland, which I have the honour and privilege to represent in this place. We have provided the small business tax break; the tax adjustment to provide cash flow in the year 2009-10; the $42 billion through the Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan, which has created tens of thousands of jobs in my electorate; and the BER funding, which creates, on average, about 200 jobs on each project in the Blair electorate. We have been systematic in our cutting of red tape.

We have delivered training places and productivity places and we have built trade training centres. I look forward to the Deputy Prime Minister coming to my electorate of Blair in the next month to open the Ipswich Trade Training Centre. It is a wonderful initiative by St Edmund’s College, with the support of Ipswich Grammar School and Ipswich Girls Grammar School, two of the oldest schools in Queensland. Indeed, Ipswich Grammar School is the oldest high school in Queensland. I look forward to that event.

We have encouraged apprenticeships and we have the wonderful Apprentice Kickstart program. In the Ipswich West Morton community we have seen a reversal in the decline of apprenticeships and we now have a significant increase. The Jobs Expo in Ipswich is, again, a wonderful initiative. Hundreds of jobs have been created in our community.

I also think that the research and development tax credit has been an important part of supporting small business. There has been much other support. We have tremendous proposals for small business, such as the tax break, the instant write-off of assets valued at up to $5,000 and the head start on company tax rate deduction. From 1 July 2012, 720,000 small businesses will receive the reduction of two per cent, two years ahead of schedule. People involved in small business will also benefit through Registering Business Names Made Easy and the superannuation guarantee. That will help not just employees but employers as well.

The genesis of the eradication of the dingo fence in consumer law was a long time ago and this legislation has been a long time coming. In the late 19th century there were a number of decisions in the UK and also in Australia that dealt with issues such as fitness for purpose and quality of merchandise with respect to the sale of goods. In fact, the sale of goods legislation that we have seen operate for decades across the various states and territories of this country was in part legislated in the late 19th century, as well as the early 20th century. We have old legislation which has operated for decades with respect to our economy, consumer law and corporations law.

Under section 51 of the Australian Constitution, the Commonwealth has the power to deal with corporations. In fact, that was the lever by which the Howard government leveraged the Work Choices legislation through the parliament. It was a shame that they did that, that is for sure. It was a shame that the High Court decided five to two in favour of the Howard government in that case. Good on the dissenting judges, as far as I am concerned.

I know that Garfield Barwick had certain views with respect to consumer law, back in the Menzies days. I know there were certain advocates during the 23 long years from 1949 to 1972 that those opposite, with apathy, sat upon consumer law and did nothing,. It took the Whitlam government in 1974 to bring in the trade practices legislation, to bring in the kinds of concepts that we believe are important to help consumers and small businesses across the country. Prior to that, sadly, we had to rely upon judicial activism on concepts such as unconscionability. But it was the Whitlam government and subsequent Labor governments which supported small businesses with respect to trade practices legislation in this country.

These are concepts that we hold dear and believe are important. Take, for example, section 52 of the Trade Practices Act—the broad prohibition on misleading and deceptive conduct, which is being retained in the Australian Consumer Law without any change. That is a particularly important aspect which has been litigated upon and which has provided the benchmark, the aspiration and also the warning sign for many businesses. Many cases have been avoided by correspondence between companies and lawyers to warn people of that. Without that, businesses would have suffered.

We amend this legislation by schedule. The general provisions with respect to deceptive and misleading conduct are in there. The unfair contract provisions are in there. The misleading or deceptive conduct issues are in there. There are criminal sanctions in there. There are prohibitions against unfair conduct. There is a national legislative scheme for statutory consumer guarantees. For a long time we have had to rely upon the myriad and mystery of state government legislation with respect to this particular area. We have brought this thing together to reduce regulation and to bring certainty to consumer law in this country.

A national unfair contracts term law which will apply from business to consumer contracts is a very important initiative. We are pleased that those opposite will support us in this regard. It has been said many times that Australia’s 22 million residents face more internal regulatory obstacles and practices than the more than 500 million residents of Europe. The government is absolutely committed to getting rid of overlapping, inconsistent regulation to bring in a national approach because companies do not just exist within a single state or a single territory, they exist across the states and internationally. Our economy benefits from those small and medium-sized businesses which operate in that way.

The trade practices legislation and the legislation now before this chamber are important ways to equalise the balance between small and big businesses. The legislation allows the lever and the opportunity for small businesses—which are often bullied by the bluster of big businesses—to say the legislation and the Trade Practices Act support small businesses. When this new national consumer law is in place it will also protect small businesses across the economy. The bill enables the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to impose infringement notices for specified contraventions of the Australian consumer law. This is another aspect in helping small business. I think the change in name also modernises the way we think about small business, competition and consumers. It means that we are taking the view that consumers are the first priority in the economy.

This entire area of the law is being brought into a national framework with the cooperation of the states and territories. Sadly, the Australian Constitution at times provides an obstacle and a barrier for constitutional change—in fact it is more than 30 years since we had a successful referendum in this country. But at times we are pleased that we are able to get agreement from the broad Australian community on matters like that. We have seen that in defamation law, corporations law and family law. Here we are seeing it in consumer law. This is a landmark piece of legislation. It is every bit as important as the Trade Practices Act and probably more important. This is the sort of legislation that I wish was in the chamber below because this is very important legislation not just for big business and small business but also for consumers and the Australian community generally. I commend the legislation to the House.