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Tuesday, 14 October 1975
Page: 2073

Mr Clyde Cameron (HINDMARSH, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

As honourable members will know, the provision of effective protection for the consumer is one of the stated aims of the Australian Labor Party. It is a theme which underlies many of the Government's other aims. Its plans in the social, economic, industrial and environmental fields, its plans in research and development and in law reform are all conceived with a clear recognition of the interests of the Australian consumer. Useful moves have already been made to provide measures of consumer protection in Australia, but these have mostly been fragmentary in nature. I do not want to decry in any way the valuable achievements that have been made by consumer bodies and by State governments. On the contrary, I commend them for their splendid efforts. That they have achieved as much, without legislative support from the Australian Government, is a tribute to them. That they will achieve so much more in the future is the assurance that I can give them with the introduction of this legislation.

Let me state clearly at the outset that it is not my intention that the new Authority should take over the functions of the State bureaus. Its role will be to work in close liaison with them. It will complement their work, not compete with it. The Authority, by looking over the whole field on a national basis, will be able to identify and act quickly against malpractice which crosses State boundaries. I invite the States, where they are able, to make a continuing contribution to the work of the Authority. I intend to have regular meetings with State Ministers for Consumer Affairs, and am confident that we will provide a formal link with the Authority at an appropriate level.

The object of the Bill is to establish a statutory authority to give effect on a co-ordinated nationwide basis to the comprehensive policies which we have for the protection of the consumer. This Authority will be the administrative centre for consumer protection. It will be the hub of Australian Government involvement in consumer protection and the point of contact for State consumer affairs bodies. It will be the agency to which the general public and the many splendid voluntary consumer groups can look for the assistance which they so fully deserve in their work to protect the public. It will also be the source for completely new initiatives in the setting of national standards and the testing of consumer products.

Before dealing with the most important features of the Bill, I must refer briefly to the work of the Interim Commission on Consumer Standards which was established by my predecessor in October 1973. It was directed to canvass the opinions of consumers on the need for consumer standards and to suggest how the desired standards might best reflect public need and how their development might be facilitated. The Interim Commission was also asked to examine general issues pertinent to consumer protection, to encourage the formation of a federation of consumer organisations, to investigate consumer education, to arrange liaison between Federal and State consumer officials and, most importantly, to make recommendations about a permanent body that should ultimately take its place. One of the achievements of the Interim Commission was to bring together consumer organisations to form the Australian Federation of Consumer Organisations. This now enables a consumer viewpoint to be expressed with the backing of the Federation. The criticism that the consumer movement only represents small sectional interests can no longer be sustained. (Quorum formed)

The Interim Commission's report which was tabled in this House in July 1974 strongly urged the establishment of a permanent statutory authority with wide powers to undertake all those activities necessary to develop soundly based consumer standards. An essential part of the processes leading to the adoption of mandatory standards was seen by the Interim Commission to be the conduct of public hearings. With that view I am in complete agreement. I would like honourable members to note that many of the recommendations of the Interim Commission have been incorporated in the Bill. Since the work of the Interim Commission was completed, I have give the most searching thought to the needs of setting and enforcing national standards for consumer protection. I am firmly of the view that this very necessary need can only be achieved effectively if all its aspects are brought together under one authority which has the constitutional power to set and enforce these national standards. I am equally sure that this is what the public wants of the Australian Government.

Honourable members will know that the Trade Practices Act includes provisions directed towards consumer protection. For the reasons which I have given, I do not want to have a dichotomy of government responsibility- vested partly in the Trade Practices Commission and partly in a consumer standards commission. The proposal, therefore, which is incorporated in the Bill is one for a single Australian Consumer Protection Authority which will bring together the functions and powers presently exercised by the Trade Practices Commission in relation to the legal aspects of consumer protection, as well as the technical functions and activities needed to establish a sound base for consumers to be given accurate and adequate information about consumer goods. We will not be trying to force everyone to have Rolls Royce models of everything; but we should put them in the position where, especially in the major purchases they make, they can select on the basis of accurate information. At present many of the major purchases such as carpets, refrigerators, stoves and so on, are made without adequate information.

Honourable members will know that my portfolio encompasses science, technology and consumer affairs. The connection linking consumer interests with applied science and technology is, I think, readily apparent. Many products of our technological society have found their way to consumers through slick sales publicity designed to condition the psychological processes that now fashion the kind of society in which we live. In respect of the goods which we seem to value highly nowadays- cars, television sets, refrigerators and so on -the consumer has very little early say in decisions which culminate in the range of services and products on the market. Worse still, he has no knowledge of some of the most undesirable side effects of modern science and technology. Thus the consumer is, at one and the same time, both a beneficiary and a victim of modern technology. It is therefore my aim to achieve better public understanding and more public involvement in the complex interactions between technology and industry on the one hand and consumer protection on the other.

The Authority will be of positive value to Australian industry. The potential benefits are obvious. With national standards set in co-operation with the States, manufacturers will no longer have to worry about having to meet different requirements in different States. It will protect local manufacturers as well as consumers against imported goods which do not meet Australian standards. These standards will be set in close consultation with local industry. Such consultation will be designed to ensure that no standards are set without a full understanding of what the cost effects will be. For these reasons, reputable Australian manufacturers will have nothing to fear. They will, in fact, benefit from the knowledge that the Authority will restrict the activities of unscrupulous firms which give industry a bad name. I have studied developments in the field of consumer protection in many overseas countries. It is evident to me that, whilst much good work has been done in this country in the field of consumer protection, we lag far behind what is being done overseas. I emphasise, however, that this Bill is not a carbon copy of anything from overseas. It incorporates the best features of overseas practice, selected to suit Australian conditions, and includes some innovations of its own.

I now turn to the Bill itself and I will confine my remarks to broad concepts rather than going into details. The first part of the Bill comprises mainly of definitions only and needs no further comment. Part II of the Bill describes the powers and functions of the Authority. It will be seen that they derive from the recommendations of the Interim Standards Commission and from the functions transferred from the Trade Practices Commission. In summary, the functions of the Authority will cover the whole gamut of consumer affairs. It will liaise with, and support, consumer groups and prepare and distribute educational information. The Authority will also work together with persons engaged in advertising, trade or commerce, and keep such persons informed of its activities. There will be a wide spectrum of public interest in consumer affairs which will be represented directly on the Advisory Council. It will enforce consumers' rights by examining unsatisfactory trade practices and taking legal action when necessary. Its other main function will be to study the quality of goods and services, by the testing of consumer goods and by developing and enforcing, where necessary, consumer standards, the Authority will, however, seek to persuade rather than penalise. I do not visualise the Authority engaging in a long range of confrontations with industry. We believe that the greatest good can be done by educating the consumers on the one hand and by educating the manufacturers on the other hand. Moreover, we want to protect the good manufacturers from the unscrupulous rival who seeks to use snide methods and inferior quality to capture a market against a reasonable competitor.

In the performance of its function, the Authority will be obliged to avail itself of resources and facilities of other bodies or authorities engaged in the formulation of such standards and will play a co-ordinating role to this effect. I have already spoken of my desire for the Authority to work in harmony with State agencies. Honourable members will notice that Part III of the Bill is identical to Part V of the Trade Practices Act. The only changes in this Part are to clauses 20 and 21, and these changes are of a machinery nature only. Otherwise the whole part of Part III of the Bill is identical with the whole of Part V of the Trade Practices Act. The intention then is clear To give the proposed Authority the consumer protection functions now exercised by the Trade Practices Commission. After this legislation comes into force, the corresponding sections will be deleted from the Trade Practices Act, Officers of the Trade Practices Commission who are currently devoted to the administration of Part V of the Trade Practices Act are to be transferred to my ministry. I can therefore give an assurance that there is no intention to duplicate activities or to build up a large bureaucracy. In fact, the Authority will comprise a small core of permanent staff supported, where necessary, by specialists drawn from States, industry and universities, on a seconded or contract basis. Specialists task forces will also be established for specific short-term duties.

Part IV of the Bill deals with the Authority's role in respect of consumer product standards and in particular with the public actions which it must take before recommending to the Minister that a standard be adopted or revoked. The duties of the Minister in relation to this process and to Parliament are clearly laid down in the Bill itself. Part V provides for the notification to the Authority by manufacturers, distributors and retailers of substantial product hazards. The related powers of the Industrial Court and the Authority are clearly defined. This Part was taken from legislation passed by the United States Congress. It has worked extremely well in the United States to the satisfaction of both the manufacturers there and the consumer groups. Part VI of the Bill makes provision for wide public debate on consumer protection matters and particularly the development of mandatory standards.

The Authority will be concerned with standards for consumer goods, and many of those standards will enjoy the force of law. It is therefore important that, before such standards are introduced, all the consequences of their introduction are assessed and appreciatedespecially by the general public whose interests are at stake. It would be easy to write standards which appear to be desirable from the consumer viewpoint, but which would later be found to entail serious disadvantages to manufacturers. It is therefore important to set standards which are feasible, economical viable, and technologically and socially desirable- standards giving the consumer the best practical results, without making unreasonable and unrealistic demands on industry.

The powers of the Authority in regard to public hearings have therefore been spelt out in some detail. These clauses follow very closely those applicable to the Industries Assistance Commission in regard to its public hearings. Honourable members will notice that witnesses may be compelled to give evidence but at the same time they are protected from intimidatory practices. Where matters of evidence are genuinely confidential, they will be protected and they will be kept confidential. Part VII of the Bill deals with enforcement and remedies. This Part contains, unaltered, the enforcement provisions of Part VI of the Trade Practices Act. Part VIII describes the structure of the proposed Authority. It will be headed by a Commissoner and up to 5 associate commissioners. The Commissioner will be a statutory officer having the powers of a Permanent Head.

Part IX of the Bill deals with 'finance'. I shall not go into the details on this matter except to say that it follows the normal recognised and accepted provisions in Australian statutes in regard to Auditor-General and Treasury requirements and the normal safeguards that are written into all pieces of legislation involving the expenditure of public money. Part X makes provision to establish an Advisory Council consisting of not more than 20 persons, chosen primarily because of their active interest in the field of consumer affairs. Whilst they will not be representative of particular organisations, nevertheless they will be chosen so as to cover the interests of all cross sections of the community. I want to see manufacturers represented. I want to see retailers represented. I want to see the people who have helped to set the standards represented. I want to see those Australian Government departments that are essential to the satisfactory operation of the Act represented on this Advisory Council. For instance, if we are going to set standards that have to be observed by Australian manufacturers it is important that we do not allow those manufacturers to be subjected to unfair competition from inferior goods produced overseas. Consequently it is important that on the Advisory Council a representative of the Department of Customs should sit in order that where it becomes necessary to put an embargo upon inferior goods which would constitute unfair competition with the Australian manufacturers who were observing the standards set by the Authority the need for prohibition will be understood and the Customs Department will be able to act quickly to protect the Australian manufacturer from that sort of unfair competition.

The Bill also contains a number of necessary machinery clauses, as for example the need to present annual reports to Parliament. I forsee such reports as being most useful documents and powerful forces for good through the exposure of malpractice and the lauding of good practice. Honourable members will also note that any reports to the Minister by the Authority must be listed in the report. We do not wish to see a situation in which the Minister can have power to suppress a report if he does not like it. The report given to the Parliament by the Authority will indicate to the Parliament the nature of every report given to the Minister. The Minister will have absolutely no power to prohibit the Authority from doing something. He would have the power to request the Authority to do something. He would not have any power and neither should he have the power to veto the decision to test something that the Authority thought it necessary to test for consumer protection. Provision is made to protect manufacturers and to provide them with access to the Authority before the disclosure of information, as well as in the investigation of substantial product hazards. It is not contemplated that the Authority would ever set standards or would ever deliberate or make a decision upon what constituted a substantial product hazard until the manufacturers concerned were first given an opportunity of putting their case, discussing with the Authority the kind of things needed to be done to ensure that the manufacturer is able to meet the standards without prohibitive costs. That kind of thing is what the Authority would deem itself to be obliged to look for.

There is also provision for the adoption of international conventions and internationally adopted standards. Before concluding, I want to indicate an important aspect of the way in which the Authority will operate. Consumer products cover a very wide range, and there are already many agencies working in this field. For example, the Therapeutic Goods Act already makes provision for the Minister for Health to determine standards for therapeutic goods and for their packaging and labelling, and to prevent their distribution if they do not comply with those requirements. The Therapeutic Goods Standards Committee, the Therapeutic Goods Advisory Committee, and the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee, have been established to advise the Minister in his administration of that Act. Samples of therapeutic goods subject to the Therapeutic Goods Act are examined, tested and analysed by the National Biological Standards Laboratory, a division of the Department of Health. In addition, the National Biological Standards Laboratory researches and prepares draft standards for consideration by the Therapeutic Goods Standards Committee and the Therapeutic Goods Advisory Committee.

It is intended that the Commission, in exercising its functions, will not disturb either the existing procedure for the determination and application of standards for therapeutic goods by the Minister for Health, or the functions of the bodies established under the Therapeutic Goods Regulations. The Food Standards Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council, which includes representatives of State governments, consumer interests and the food industry, has for many years carried out the function of formulating food standards. It has been aided by its specialist advisory committees on food additives, food microbiology, food analysis and food science and technology.

Transport is another area in which the Consumer Protection Authority will be able to make a strong consumer input in co-operation with the existing agencies for the formulation and determination of standards. In the case of aircraft, the Air Navigation Act and Regulations provide a basis for the establishment and enforcement of proper standards. In the important case of motor vehicles, ACPA will become a major new force in the formulation and implementation of standards in consultation with the Australian Transport Advisory Council. The Authority will be able to place the onus and sanctions where they belong- with the manufacturers, importers and distribution networks. Moreover, the Authority will be able to look critically at the way in which vehicles and associated services are being merchandised and to protect the individual motorist when difficulties arise. I can say at this point that the Australian Consumers Association has told me that something like 80 per cent of all the complaints received by the ACA relate to motor vehicles.

Section 7 (2) of the Bill will enable the Consumer Protection Authority to take advantage of the expertise and experience, in the health field, of the Food Standards Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council; and in transport, the Road Safety and Standards Authority and the specialist advisory committees of the Australian Transport Advisory Council. Complementary arrangements will also be made to enable the latter bodies to take advantage of the expertise and experience of the Consumer Protection Authority. There is no intention that the Authority should take over that activity. Its role will rather be to work through existing organisations and to co-ordinate their work, to comment on their work, and to indicate to them areas requiring attention.

In conclusion, let me say that every member of Parliament is in some way or other a consumer. All of us have been dissatisfied from time to time with the quality of goods that we have bought; with the lack of information about products; with the service we have received; or with the fine print in the contract that we have signed. This Bill provides the greatest step forward so far taken in protecting the rights to which we as consumers and as members of the Australian public are entitled. It gives me great pleasure indeed to commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Howard) adjourned.

ELECTORAL BILL (No. 5) 1975 Second Reading

Debate resumed from 28 August, on motion by Mr Daly:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

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