15 March 2017

Keynote address, Consumer Congress, Federation Square, Melbourne


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Hello, everyone, it’s great to be here in Melbourne this morning — and to see so many enthusiastic faces!

I am excited to join you for the first Consumer Congress since my appointment as Small Business Minister – and Minister responsible for consumer affairs – last year.

I understand the important role consumer law plays in protecting the lives and livelihoods of Australians. From product safety to clearer labelling, the reach of consumer law touches every Australian. And although it’s not always front of mind, the Australian consumer is only protected and empowered because of the work you all do in supporting consumers.

As the Minister, I am determined to listen to you.

Today we meet to talk about the effectiveness of the national consumer policy framework and emerging consumer issues. We meet to think of a future for safer and better protected consumers.

To plan for empowered people with information at their fingertips and a vibrant consumer industry that allows retailers, manufacturers and consumers to simply do what they do best.

And all of this amidst a changing world.

A changing world

That’s the theme for this Congress, as you know. It’s a good one. And it got me thinking.

Like most people of my age around this room, I have seen significant changes over the last few decades.

They’ve been changes at a speed well beyond the imagination of anything we had at school — or even our early adult years.

And they’ve been prompted, in most part, by technology.

Today, we can hop on our tablets and order dinner at the same time as chatting to someone on the other side of the country — or world, as the case may be. And we can have groceries or new clothes on our doorstep in a matter of hours.

It’s a ‘tap-of-a-button’ culture that has all of us — young and old — simply hooked.

What’s more, it’s seen the emergence of a sharing economy.

You’ve got the stock-standard examples we all know: Airbnb and Uber, for instance. But that’s just the start.

These days, you can share your parking spot with Parkhound; share your time with Airtasker; or share your car with Drive My Car.

Empowered consumers

That’s the world today. The economy — the way we shop, the way we transact, the way we do business — is changing.

And it’ll keep changing. That is something we know for certain. So for those of us in Government, it’s important we keep up — important we make sure the laws for consumers, and for our businesses, suit the times.

Because, as you know, consumers are more savvy than ever. They know what their rights are; they know where to get help. In short, they’re empowered.

For instance, last year’s Australian Consumer Survey[1] told us that 90 per cent of consumers are aware that consumer protection laws exist.

It also revealed that 82 per cent of consumers have taken action to resolve their problems, which is up seven per cent since 2011.

Now, this is a good thing — a great thing. It’s as it should be. And the last thing I want, as the minister responsible for consumer affairs, is to see us go backwards.

Australian Consumer Law review

And it’s why the Australian Consumer Law review is so important.

Now, I know — better than most, I’d say — that Governments don’t have all the answers. Far from it, in fact.

I am committed to listening — to consumers; to businesses. It is something I am focused on as your Minister.

And it’s good to see this same thinking behind the ACL review.

As you’d all know, the ACL is a new approach to consumer law, relatively speaking. It started in 2011 and is based on an innovative ‘multiple–regulator’ model, where the Commonwealth, States and Territories work together.

So with five years now under its belt, it’s time to have a good look at how things are going, and to ask a few choice questions.

For instance, is the law flexible enough to deal with new and emerging consumer issues?

Can we reduce risks for consumers while also protecting business from energy-sapping red tape?

And are any fundamental changes, or even tweaks, needed to make sure the law is operating in the best way it can?

Of course, the State and Territory consumer affairs ministers and I are going to find out in just a few weeks, when we receive the final review report.

I’m very much looking forward to it. It has, after all, been a year-long process — and the review’s reached far and wide.

I know there’s been extensive stakeholder engagement by officials, with face-to-face meetings and roundtables taking place across the country. Several stakeholders have also made time to see me — and they’ve been frank about what matters most to them.

What’s more, there was the consumer survey I’ve already mentioned, as well as a study of consumer policy frameworks in a number of comparable countries — including the US and Canada.

I’m feeling optimistic. There’s been a lot of input from a lot of people. The review team’s been listening. And this all means the final report should be a good read.

I’ll get together with my fellow consumer affairs ministers later this year to consider the findings, and what needs to be done to make the ACL better. And from there, no doubt, it will be an exciting year for consumer policy in Australia.

Product safety

Now, before I finish, I wanted to quickly mention some of the work that’s being done around product safety.

Right now, the ACCC is reviewing a range of mandatory product safety standards — from children’s nightwear, to floaties, to moveable soccer goals.

In fact, since October 2016 the ACCC has released 20 consultation papers reviewing 26 safety standards.

This is important work; like consumer laws, safety standards need to keep up with the times.

One of the challenges the ACCC faces is new technology. You might remember hoverboards – otherwise called self-balancing scooters. They were the ‘must-have’ Christmas gift in 2015.

These devices were prone to bursting into flames while being recharged and in January 2016 there were several house fires. The ACCC’s thorough investigation allowed the Government to act – first by banning the unsafe hoverboards and then establishing a mandatory safety standard so suppliers could avoid potentially unsafe models.

These interventions are not taken lightly - bans are imposed when there is a real risk of serious injury or death.

The ACCC has told me that most suppliers are responsible and recall unsafe or non-compliant products. All of us will be familiar with the problems involving the Samsung Galaxy Note7 smartphone. But that is just one high-profile case. In the last 12 months the ACCC published over 630 recalls. Information on all these recalls is on their Product Safety Australia website and, regrettably, more are added every day.

Concluding remarks

So on that note, let me wrap up.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years.

When I was young, product safety standards at home on the farm weren’t quite what they are now and we only ever thought of shopping as a half-hour trip from the farm into town.

But for my kids, and anyone of their generation, it’s a different story. Technology means that the old way of doing things — of shopping; of transacting; of doing business — is just that. It’s old.

So in this ever-changing world, it’s important all of us here today — whether we’re policy-makers, regulators, advocates or community groups — work together to help make sure our consumer laws are up to scratch.

And that’s important not just for consumers, but also for our businesses — big and small.

That’s why events like this are so encouraging, and I want to thank the ACCC for putting it on, and for welcoming me today.

I also want to urge you all to participate enthusiastically and to share your great ideas. I’m very much looking forward to working with many of you during the big year ahead.

Thank you.