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Wednesday, 14 August 1974
Page: 951

Senator GREENWOOD (Victoria) - The Opposition wants to make it abundantly clear that it favours the strongest and most effective consumer protection provisions that will benefit consumers which this nation can provide. If one takes the proposals in this Bill as Senator Murphy has outlined them they are unexceptionable if taken in isolation. I do not want to suggest otherwise. There may be here and there ways in which the language of the protection provisions might be improved but overall they could be regarded as unexceptionable. But the real problem we have to face and this is at the heart of the Opposition's concern is that we have at present throughout Australia 8 separate sets of consumer protection laws. There are consumer protection laws in each of the 6 States and they differ from State to State. There are consumer protection laws in the Australian Capital Territory and consumer protection laws in the Northern Territory. What this Bill does is add a ninth set of laws. The problem is that if the Government adds another set of laws which is purporting to operate right around Australia it is not helping the very person who is designed to be benefited. The consumer will be left in a state of abject confusion. That is the first point. We are adding to laws; we are not reducing the number of laws

The second point is that these provisions which Senator Murphy has outlined and eulogised apply only with respect to corporations. We could have the curious situation where in my State of Victoria a chemist, who cannot be incorporated because of his profession, is selling the many wares which chemists today sell. He would be subject not to this Commonwealth law but to the law of the State of Victoria. But alongside him there could be a supermarket which is conducted by a company or a bookstore which is conducted by a company and that company would be controlled and regulated either by these laws or conceivably by the State laws. I leave that question as to which law operates somewhat open because I think that there are some constitutional problems which one day a company which is challenged will take to the court and the court will have make its decision. But this difference of laws depending on whether the proprietor of a store which sells goods or provides services is a company or an individual trader is a problem which creates difficulties for the consumer. That is a second point which I feel cannot be overlooked.

There is a third point. Senator Murphy has included in this Bill a provision which I know has caused the lawyers some doubts. I do not for one moment doubt that Senator Murphy himself must have some cause to wonder what the High Court would do with it. It is a clause which says that if there is any conflict between State laws and the Commonwealth provisions contained in this Bill, the Commonwealth provisions are to apply. I am not sure whether that provision will stand up because the question of whether it can stand the test of challenge depends on the Constitution and not on what the Act says. Therefore we may find that the consumer is not helped by this legislation even though ultimately, some years hence, if these questions are resolved, that test of irresistibility which the Attorney-General raised might then seem to be well founded. But I do not believe that the test of irresistibility is to be measured in terms of the indefinite future. What we want to do at the moment is to benefit the consumer by the best provisions that we have. I would certainly think that there is everything to commend the establishing of some central body, a consumer affairs bureau, if one wants to give it the somewhat hackneyed title which these bodies have; but one set up by the Commonwealth on which are represented the States and consumer bodies. That bureau would have a two-fold purpose. One is to ensure that all the problems of administering this legislation are aired amongst the various State instrumentalities and, secondly, that the consumer bodies which are having day to day experience of the various efforts which are made by those who want to impose upon the consumers have a place to which they can go and where they can have their complaints sifted and out of which consideration a better system can be provided. If we had a body like that, we would, I think, really be helping the consumer. But I look at this provision. Senator Murphy asks: Why should we be opposed to it? I have said that in terms of the individual provisions no objection is voiced. But we look at what exists in the States. He talks about clause 53 and all the many benefits it contains. I look at each of the States to see what is to be found in regard to false advertising. In New South Wales there is the Consumer Protection Act 1969. Section 23 prohibits false trade descriptions of goods; section 27 prohibits false representations as to Royal Warrant and so on; and section 32 prohibits false and misleading advertisements to promote the sale of goods and services. There is also a Motor Dealers Act 1974 which prohibits certain misrepresentations and misdescriptions in relation to the sale or promotion of sale of secondhand motor vehicles. The Auctioneers and Business Agents Act 1941 is another Act which bears in this same area. There is provision in the State. What Senator Murphy has not said and what the Government has not said- and one would be happy to have it said- is what is the improvement which the Commonwealth Act provides. I look at my own State of Victoria and I find that we have a Consumer Protection Act, originally of 1970. In due course I will read provisions of that Act. It was amended considerably in 1973 by a Consumer Affairs Act and by the establishment of a Consumer Affairs Tribunal. These are the existing State provisions which do provide some protection to the consumer. I ask: How are we helping the consumer by creating a further set of laws? Surely that only adds to confusion. When we develop a Commonwealth code, we can, as Senator Missen said, risk the whole pattern of small claims courts which the States are establishing and which the Commonwealth cannot establish. We are throwing the whole system into jeopardy.

Consideration interrupted.

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