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Thursday, 13 September 1973
Page: 969

Mr MORRISON (St George) (Minister for Science and Minister for External Territories) - by leave - I wish to inform the House of the Government's decision to establish an Interim Commission on Consumer Standards. The Interim Commission will be responsible for co-ordination of Australian Government action in the development of uniform consumer standards and for promoting research and development work necessary for the formulation of product standards, codes of practice for testing and evaluating consumer products. In the statement to the House on 9 May I pointed out that a consumer standard is an agreed statement of quality and/ or performance that a product should have. We believe that consumer knowledge of the properties and quality of products will protect the consumer and further that the assessment of the quality and effectiveness and hence the value for money will make a useful contribution in our multi-pronged attack on inflation.

The Government's decision flows from the promise contained in the policy speech given by the Leader of the ALP that under Labor the national government - itself the largest consumer - will move directly and solidly into the field of consumer protection. The Government is mindful of the acceleration of technical progress, the growth of mass production, the increase of purchasing power and the widening and growing complexity of markets. These developments have brought benefit to the consumer - and we are all consumers - but in the process we have been confronted with a bewildering range of goods, more complex and designed to meet a greater variety of specific Uses, produced in anticipation of demand rather than in response to it, promoted by more vigorous and sophisticated selling techniques and bringing into play a more elaborate range of services.

Some foreign governments have recognised the extent and importance of these difficulties in both social and economic contexts, and have accepted the need for action to reinforce the consumer's position. Generally speaking, the objectives of such action are accepted to be:

(i)   Protection against hazards to safety and health;

(ii)   protection against deceptive and other unfair practices;

(iii)   provision of adequate rights and means of redress;

(iv)   provision of information and education to facilitate sound choice and the proper exercise of consumers' rights;

(v)   involvement of consumer representatives in the formulation of regulations or Other elements of economic policies which concern them.

We have all noted the emergence of organisations representing consumer interests. The Government believes that it is not only desirable but also necessary to develop links and means of consultation between the Government authorities and these organisations. For the first time in our country's history representatives of consumer groups were invited this year to participate in the pre-Budget consultations. Views put forward during these discussions are reflected in the Government's decision.

The Interim Commission will be charged with the task of arranging consultations and developing liaison with representative consumer organisations.

Because we are embarking on a new area of activity for the Australian Government, we intend that the Interim Commission shall survey the available resources, identify areas of further activity and bring forward recommendations for the establishment at a later stage of a permanent commission. We believe that flexibility at this stage will contribute greatly to the final success of the venture. The terms of reference of the Interim Commission will be:

(i)   To canvass opinions from consumer organisations and consumer affairs bureaux, particularly in order to draw up priorities for actions on development of consumer standards;

(ii)   to co-operate with the Standards Associa tion of Australia in giving more consideration to consumer interests in the drawing up of SAA standards;

(iii)   to identify areas of need, and encourage appropriate laboratories to undertake research and development work necessary for the formulation of improved consumer standards;

(iv)   to encourage, and where necessary to contract with, appropriate laboratories to test consumer products and to publish the results;

(v)   Principal responsibility for coordination of Australian Government action in the development of uniform standards for consumer products, including advisory and policy functions in relation to Codex Alimentarius and Commonwealth food standards, but not including standards based on health criteria on drugs and foods, that would remain the responsibility of the Department of Health;

(vi)   To provide representation of consumer interests to Commonwealth departments, such as the Department of

Health (drugs, and therapeutic materials) and the Department of Transport (motor vehicles);

(vii)   To provide support (chiefly through clerical assistance) to encourage the formation of an Australian federation of consumer organisations;

(viii)   To explore the needs for consumer education and take appropriate action, such as developing school curricula in consumer education;

(ix)   To arrange for meetings of Commonwealth and State officials to discuss consumer matters, and to provide a secretariat for appropriate meetings that may be arranged of Commonwealth and State Ministers on standards for consumer products and related matters;

(x)   To make recommendations to the Government on the permanent statutory body to succeed it.

The work of the Interim Commission will be greatly assisted by the not often recognised fact that the Australian Government is itself a consumer - the largest in the land - and is already involved in the drawing up of standards and in the testing of consumer products intended for Government use. By building on the established expertise, the Government can make an immediate major contribution to the formulation of soundly based and realistic standards for consumer goods. Government laboratories are well placed to test a wide range of consumer goods against appropriate standards and to publish the results for the guidance of the public. The Government and the housewife have similar interests in 'good buys'. I fully expect that the standards resulting from the work of the Commission will influence future purchases by the Government.

Until now, many standards for consumer goods have concentrated on safety alone. Domestic electrical goods must meet the safety standards laid down by the Standards Association of Australia. But compliance with these standards does not tell us anything about performance. A petrol lawn mower for instance can meet the currently established safety standards but be unable to cut grass. A consumer standard as we see it involves performance and quality as well as safety.

We propose that the Commission should encourage implementing a marking scheme so that products which meet the standard can be easily identified by the purchaser. The Standards Association of Australia already has a marking scheme in limited operation. Honourable members may have seen their 'AS' mark, for example, on some brands of car seats for children and on life jackets. One of the virtues of a marking scheme is that it saves deluging the consumer with information about the product which he might not want or fully understand for that mater. All he or she really needs to know whether the product meets the best contemporary standards of quality and performance. A mark backed by an adequate standard will tell him this. The Government has made available a sum of $200,000 to fund the work of the Interim Commission in this financial year. The membership of the Interim Commission will be announced shortly. I present the following paper:

Interim Commission on Consumer Standards - Ministerial Statement, 13 September 1973.

Motion (by Mr Lionel Bowen) proposed:

That the House take note of the paper.

Suggest corrections