THURSDAY, 31 JANUARY 2019
SUBJECT: Labor's plans to empower consumer and small business advocacy groups.
LEON BYNER: It just so happens that the Federal Opposition - who according to the polls are going to win government, you can never be sure, but that's what the polls say – have said that when we get into office, we’re going to make these laws much tougher. And so much so that what they are saying is that if a business is dealing with - a big business caught putting unfair terms into contracts with suppliers, they could face fines of up to $10 million. And this plan, Labor says, will help smaller businesses break into concentrated markets. Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. Andrew, is this going to be properly enforced? Because so often we have laws which are there but we don’t use them.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Absolutely, Leon. We’ve said that we’ll increase the budget of the litigation department of the competition watchdog, so it’s able to go after more anti-competitive and anti-consumer conduct. Competition is terrific for consumers, but it’s got to work well and as you said, there have been too many instances recently where that hasn’t happened. We’ve had Nurofen selling different kinds of pain medications which only differ in the colour of the box. We had Dulux sell us cooling paint that doesn’t cool, Uncle Toby’s sold us protein oats that didn’t have any protein in them. The list of companies which have been reprimanded by the ACCC for anti-consumer conduct reads like a who’s who of the top end of town. So we need to get that balance right. That’s why we’re saying a Shorten Labor Government would ban unfair contract terms. We’d also create a supercomplaints power, so that consumer organisations and bodies like CHOICE could bring forward systematically concerns over consumers being ripped off.
BYNER: I want to ask you, as the assistant shadow treasurer, the very obvious question. We have this law for unfair contracts and we’ve seen so many examples where the contracts are unfair, why hasn’t it applied? Is it that we’ve been waiting for someone to complain or they need to have the resources to go to court or some other jurisdiction? Why hasn't that worked?
LEIGH: It's a great question, Leon, and I think that the main problem is that the competition watchdog’s identified is that while an unfair contract term isn’t enforceable, it's not illegal to put one in. You have big firms dealing with tiddlywink firms that basically throw a term in the contract, something like ‘we can change any part of this contract any time we like’ and that's not enforceable but the poor firm ends up abiding by it because they can't afford lawyers to go to court. So we’re saying that under a Shorten Labor Government, unfair contract terms would be illegal and punishable by fines of up to $10 million.
BYNER: So really, you’d really have to point out that they’ve offer you that. What if, what if people offer you a contract say ‘you report abuse, you won't get any help for us – we won’t put your products on the shelf’? Because these things go on.
LEIGH: They certainly do and it’s important that people report them to do the right thing in order to not only look after themselves, but also look after the next person coming along.
BYNER: Can I ask you this, too – we bring into Australia a lot of inferior quality products, right? Now I’ll give a really obvious example that everybody will recognize -you can buy a cheap phone charger at a shop, but we also know that you do that and you, say, use it in your vehicle in and you’ll end up with a fire. Ultimately, who is responsible for that?
LEIGH: Well, the person who sells you the product. All products have to comply with Australian standards, so there is no excuse going ‘this thing’s imported’. When it comes to things like phone chargers, we’re not making them in Australia - we're importing all of these devices and there's no reason why anyone should look to undercut their competitors by selling an unsafe product. We've also got to make sure that big retailers are looking after their customers-
BYNER: So you want the retailer – it’s not unreasonable to say ‘well, you sell this, your customers imply that though that sale this is safe’ but there are some of these businesses have not got testing departments for these things, have they?
LEIGH: That’s right. They need to make sure that they’ve got their supply chains right and it’s a real concern for me, Leon, when you see big firms selling products which don’t stand up to normal handling. Now, one recent example was Woolworths selling deep fryers with handles that came off and sometimes ended up burning customers. Most firms want to do the right thing by their customers - they want repeat businesses - but unfortunately you see occasional cases where the consumer watchdog has to take them to court.
BYNER: Should it be illegal to ban imports like this that are not safe?
LEIGH: Illegal to ban them?
BYNER: Illegal to bring them in. Should we ban – if it’s an unsafe good, like you’ve just talked about, why’s it getting in the first place?
LEIGH: It’s people trying to flout the law. You shouldn't be allowed to sell things which don’t comply with Australian standards. We also think we need to beef up enforcement. So, a doubling of the litigation budget I talked about before, that’s really important in making sure the consumer watchdog can go after more and more of these scams. I was just going to say, there’s been more than 100,000 scams a year reported to the consumer watchdog and they're only able to go after a small fraction of those. Labor wants to stand on the side of consumers. We want to make sure that consumers get a good deal. You shouldn't have to be product testing something like a mobile phone charger. You should just be able to buy it and know it's going to be safe.
BYNER: Alright. Andrew Leigh, thank you for joining us. That’s the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. Andrew Leigh.
Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.