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Wednesday, 17 November 1993
Page: 2998

Senator KERNOT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (12.08 p.m.) —I move:

3.Clause 16, page 7, at end of clause, add the following subclauses:

"(2) Reasonable steps to help the complainant include supplying the complainant with written information about, and method of contacting, any organisation that is:

    (a)engaged in providing consumers with advice or assistance or both on (but not necessarily exclusively on) superannuation, including the making of complaints and the resolution of disputes; and

    (b)independent of the Tribunal and any fund; and

    (c)supported, in whole or part, by funds appropriated for that purpose; and

    (d)prescribed by regulations as an independent superannuation advisory service for the purposes of this section; and

    (e)reasonably accessible to the complainant.".

"(3) If regulations referred to in paragraph (2)(d):

      (a)are not in force immediately after the commencement of this Act; or

      (b)have been disallowed;

  the Minister must table in each House of the Parliament, not later than 5 sitting days of that House after:

(c)commencement of this Act; or

      (d)such disallowance;

a statement explaining why the intention of the Parliament expressed in that paragraph:

      (e)has not been complied with; or

      (f)has been complied with inadequately.

"(4) Subsection (2) and (3) are repealed 3 years after the day of commencement of this Act.

I draw the attention of the committee to the revised copy which has been circulated. This amendment requires the tribunal to advise claimants of their rights to access specialist superannuation legal centres. It establishes a requirement for the minister to establish such centres by regulation or to provide reasons to each house as to why they are not to be set up.

  I have basically summarised the effect of the clause. It is important that we have independent legal services for superannuation consumers. We know it is the burgeoning industry in the financial sector. It is important that the minister is required to proclaim regulations or to tell us why he or she would not.

  What I have added to the amendment since yesterday's version is a sunset clause of three years. Senator Watson was keen to consider this inclusion and it does accommodate the Senate committee's recommendation which will allow government and industry to work together to discuss and finalise funding arrangements, but in the meantime it gets the principle established and it gets the centres working. Overall the clause seeks to encapsulate the recommendations from the Senate select committee but without the Senate imposing on the House an appropriation requirement.

  The very complexity of the SIS bills that we have been debating demonstrates that consumers will need assistance with their complaints. While we should acknowledge that the government intends to resource the tribunal and to have a reasonably substantial secretariat, we should not lose sight of the fact that independent legal advice is a very important principle.

  If we were to compare the access of consumers in other areas, we would find that in the last six months of 1992 the two main consumer legal centres in Sydney and Melbourne finalised four major litigation cases, took on 205 smaller cases, made 130 court appearances, gave 2000 telephone advices, negotiated credit policy changes during four licence renewals, distributed 967 how to manuals and produced dozens of media articles and stories. Cases currently being finalised by the centres will deliver consumers more than $5 million in damages.

  Even with the best will in the world, I do not believe the secretariat can match that sort of outcome. That is why I think it is important to resource the tribunal, in the first instance, independently and to move towards the Senate committee's recommendation of a government and industry cooperative model.

  I think that the centres will fill the void that exists at the moment of representing consumer interests in the superannuation industry. The funds are well represented by ASFA and the government is well represented by the Insurance and Superannuation Commission. It is not true that consumers are adequately and proportionately well funded as well. I do not think it is fair to leave it to fall on individuals or overworked trade unions through the industry funds. I think it is important that the advice be independent and that it be consumer orientated. Honourable senators would not be surprised to know that the proposal is strongly supported by AFCO and the Australian Consumers Association.

  The important point to make is that the amendment does not compel the government to set up the centres, but it will show that the Senate strongly supports the Senate select committee's recommendation if this amendment is passed. If the government refuses to issue the regulations then, under this amendment, reasons must be provided to both houses of parliament.

  The consumer movement estimates that the cost of setting up two specialist legal centres is about $400,000. The cost of linking these centres through liaison officers in the four other states, in already established legal services, would add another $260,000, making a total of $660,000. I think that is a reasonably small investment in the short term, because the sunset clause is in there, to ensure that the rights the parliament is setting up with the SIS bills today are truly enforced.