ABC SYDNEY DRIVE WITH JAMES VALENTINE
MONDAY, 26 JUNE 2023
SUBJECTS: Simon Crean; Unfair trading practices
JAMES VALENTINE (HOST): We were talking on Friday about the problems of unsubscribing. And so it's one thing where you might voluntarily subscribe to a streaming service or some kind of delivery service or whatever it might be, and it's going to charge you $10 a month and you decide to unsubscribe. And it's messy, it's awkward, it's all over the place. It's hard to do. It's a whole other thing, and this is what's happening in the US, where Amazon is being sued by the Federal Trade Commission, who are saying, you're signing up people to Prime who haven't even said that they want it. You go and buy something on Amazon and you suddenly find you're subscribed to Prime - subscribed to Prime, their television streaming service. We found people here who'd had this situation, they were subscribed to the US service, which is like $24 a month, and they can't even access it, let alone they didn't want it to start with. So, what can be done about this? And one of the things we discovered was that our laws are not particularly helpful here. Dr Andrew Leigh is Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury and joins us this morning to explore this. Andrew Leigh, good morning.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT, CHARITIES, COMPETITION AND TREASURY ANDREW LEIGH: Good morning, James. Great to be with you.
VALENTINE: Great to have you. Look, just before we begin, your memories of Simon Crean. He was still in Parliament when you were elected, right?
LEIGH: He was, yes. I was fortunate to overlap with Simon for those three years. Just an extraordinary Labor figure, lover of the arts, a passionate trade union man, somebody who took a bold and powerful stance on Iraq, which was unpopular at the time, but proven right by history, and somebody who was just always good at seeing the very best in everything. He came too from an extraordinary Labor family. I remember when he left Parliament, he said there's been a Crean in public life since the 1940s, so he really was that connection to Labor's extraordinary history, at least for me.
VALENTINE: Yeah. Well, a sad and sudden death over the weekend, but being remembered through our news and through AM as well. I'm sure there'll be plenty more during the day.
What do we need? Why are we a bit slack in this area of unfair trading laws, Andrew Leigh?
LEIGH: Well, many other countries have a ban on unfair trading practices. The Americans have had one since 1938. The European Union, Britain, Singapore, all ban unfair trading practices and that allows the competition watchdog to go after behaviors such as making it hard to unsubscribe from a digital service. So, this has been described as the Hotel California situation. You can check out but you can never leave, and when you try to unsubscribe, you hit confusing menus and skewed wording. Some sites try and use a red button for yes and a green button for no. Others don't answer their phone or their email. So, a ban on unfair trading practices would allow the competition watchdog to go after this and also after other bad behavior, such as making false representations, going after people in disadvantaged communities and the like.
VALENTINE: Yeah. I'm often intrigued that our current laws don't cover this kind of thing. To me, it sounds a little bit like it's like if I walked into a physical shop, into a bricks and mortar and they said, oh, we can't leave unless you give us $10, that would be unfair. Why isn't this just unfair and prosecutable anyway?
LEIGH: Well, we need to keep on updating the competition laws when new forms of malfeasance come along. One of the things we did when we won office was to ban unfair contract terms. So, unfair contract terms under the previous government weren't enforceable, but firms would just put them in their contracts anyway. We said, no, it's an offence to actually put them in the contract and that helps stamp out that bad behavior. So, in this case, my colleague Stephen Jones is about to release a consultation paper on unfair trading practices, recognising the harms that they've done and recognising that we need to keep on updating the laws and so they're right to tackle the problems that come at us.
VALENTINE: Yeah. And so that's going to happen. How soon might we see legislation?
LEIGH: Well, the consultation paper will be out next month. Our approach is always to consult. Competition law is a compact between states and territories, so we'll be engaging with states and territories on that. But we do want to make sure that consumers aren't left vulnerable. And we know the competition watchdog is losing cases in the court, which it believes it might win if it had an unfair trading practices prohibition. So, for example, when it went after a VET HELP diploma provider that was going into disadvantaged communities offering free laptops and free courses, the court said, that doesn't breach current law, but it might well have breached an unfair trading practices term.
VALENTINE: Yeah, but it's going to happen. It's happening all over the place. We're all suffering under it. Dr Andrew Leigh. Thanks so much.
LEIGH: Thanks so much, James.