14 March 2019

Address to the ACCC Consumer Congress


Good morning everyone. It is a pleasure to be here at the 2019 National Consumer Congress.

I acknowledge the the amount of work and effort that has gone into organising this event and I thank the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for once again hosting this important event.

I also acknowledge Rod Sims and congratulate him on the extension of his term as ACCC Chairman until 2022.1

The ACCC is held in high regard and we're confident Mr Sims' reappointment — along with the experienced Commission team — will ensure continued stability and strong leadership of Australia's consumer watchdog.

The Morrison Government's plan for a stronger economy includes lower taxes – so Australians keep more of what they earn. We're backing small businesses so they can reach their potential and create even more jobs, in addition to the over 1.2 million created since we were elected.

Our plan also includes effective consumer protections, ensuring all Australians get a fairer go.

In a rapidly changing world, consumer law is not something that is front of mind for most Australians. They simply accept their protections as a given.

This is because we have a robust consumer protection framework which is supported by the efforts of the ACCC and each of the state and territory Australian Consumer Law regulators.

A framework in which it's clear to retailers, manufacturers and suppliers that to mislead consumers or to act unconscionably is to breach the law and which provides a consumer with a right to a refund or replacement if a good isn't of acceptable quality.

This is no mean feat – particularly at a time when technology and markets are moving at break-neck speed.

It feels like yesterday that we were adjusting to the entrance of Airbnb, Airtasker and online shopping giants.

In the blink of an eye, we're now discussing the effects of AI, machine learning, block chain and home automation.

Today, the Congress meets to discuss some of these developments, and many more issues.

This is terrific to see. As the sector moves forward, the Government recognises that consumer laws must keep-up with the pace of change.

But this cannot happen unless all of us here today – whether policy makers, regulators, advocates or community groups – work together.

ACL Reforms

Since the Congress met last year, the Government has passed a range of reforms to clarify and strengthen the Consumer Law and its ability to respond to new and emerging issues.

In fact, the government has implemented the majority of the recommendations arising from the 2017 ACL review, and continues to work or consult on the remaining legislative proposals.

The package of reforms represents a significant body of work that will help empower consumers, lower the incidence of consumer disputes and help to ensure that the consumer law adapts to evolving markets.

In August last year, the Government passed important legislation to increase the maximum financial penalties under the Australian Consumer Law, ensuring that companies will face more serious financial consequences for breaching consumer law.

This is a profound change in terms of deterrence and should result in businesses improving their behavior and taking much greater care when dealing with consumers.

I agree with the ACCC's Chairman that penalties should be set at an appropriate level to ensure that businesses don't see penalties as merely a cost of doing business.

In October last year we also passed legislation to broaden the ACCC's regulatory powers, improve price transparency and extend the unconscionable conduct provisions.

While substantial work has already been undertaken, we recognise there's further work ahead.

As the number and range of consumer products entering the Australian market increases, it is important we continually assess our product safety system to ensure it is fit for purpose.

Consumer Affairs Australia and New Zealand is currently drafting a consultation regulatory impact statement that will consider options to improve the current product safety system, including a general safety provision in the Australian Consumer Law.

Royal Commission

The Government is taking action on all 76 recommendations of the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry and, in a number of important areas, is going further.

It's safe to say that this was a very sobering report, which followed months of very concerning hearings. It shook to the core the community's trust in our financial institutions.

This Government is focused on restoring this trust in our financial system, and to delivering better consumer outcomes.

So, what are we doing?

We're strengthening and expanding the protections for consumers, small businesses and those in rural and remote communities.

This includes measures that range from supporting changes to how banks deal with distressed agricultural loans or charging of default interest, to banning hawking for superannuation and insurance and introducing a best interests duty for mortgage brokers.

The Government is committed to ensuring that all consumers, and particularly vulnerable consumers, are treated fairly.

We're also commtted to raising accountability and governance standards in the sector. Our Banking Executive Accounting Regime holds senior executives within banking institutions personally responsible for conduct that occurs on their watch. We have now committed to extending this regime to all prudentially regulated firms including superannuation and insurance and introducing a similar regime for non-prudentially regulated financial firms focused on conduct.

Additionally, a new disciplinary system — new standards — for financial advisors will also be put in place.

We're enhancing the effectiveness of regulators. We have already provided significant funding for ASIC and APRA, and are establishing a new oversight body that will enhance accountability of the regulators.

In addition, we're improving consumer and small business access to redress by going beyond the Royal Commission's recommendations.

We've extended the Australian Financial Complaints Authority's (AFCA) remit to consider financial complaints dating back to 1 January 2008, providing expanded access to redress for consumers and small businesses harmed by financial misconduct.

The Government will also pay compensation owed to almost 300 consumers and small businesses for unpaid determinations from external dispute resolution schemes. 

Financial counselling is an area where the Government is going further than recommended as thousands of Australians use these crucial services every year.

We've commissioned an immediate review of financial counselling services, led by Louise Sylvan AM, focusing on coordination and funding. We welcome your views and we look forward to providing greater stability and predictability in funding for financial counselling services across Australia.

Data and technology

I know you will also hear a lot about personal information and technology today.

Well, can I say, this is just one of the many areas where this government recognises the need to plan for tomorrow's customers.

In fact, Australia is set to become a world-leader in implementing an economy-wide right for consumers to access and use data that businesses hold about them.

Last month saw the ACCC releasing a discussion paper to broaden the consumer data right to the energy sector.2

A data sharing system and the opportunities for greater customer information and choice are overwhelmingly supported. However, ensuring the security and privacy of consumers' data is paramount and I acknowledge that many of you have made some very valuable contributions to the process.

Concluding remarks

I thank you for this opportunity to speak with you.

We have seen many changes in the consumer sector over the years and there are no signs of slowing down – which is great news, for both consumers and businesses.

It means there is tremendous opportunity out there for consumer choice, which is great news for our economy, too.

But it does mean the people in this room need to work closely to make sure that our consumer protection system stays strong and effective.

As I stated at the start of my remarks, the Morrison Government's plan includes strengthening protections for consumers. We're determined to do our part and we have a made a start by strengthening the penalty framework under the Consumer Law and corporate law to address corporate and financial serctor misconduct. We also recognise that we need strong well-resourced regulators and on a range of fronts we have broadened regulatory powers and provided them with additional funding.  

Thank you all once again, both for welcoming me here today, and for your tireless work in advocating for Australia's consumers.

I want to urge you all to participate enthusiastically today, and to share your great ideas.

And I look forward to taking some questions later this morning and to working with you.

Thank you.

1 - Media Release Government extends term of the ACCC Chair http://jaf.ministers.treasury.gov.au/media-release/037-2018/

2 - https://www.accc.gov.au/focus-areas/consumer-data-right-cdr/energy-cdr/consultation-on-energy-data-access-models