World Consumer Day marks 50 years of progress

Rod Sims ACCC Chair

The chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, told the ACCC World Consumer Rights Day Forum that “the new Australian Consumer Law marks the highpoint of 50 years’ of effort by regulators, advocacy organisations, and legislators, in protecting consumer interests in Australia.”

Mr Sims was speaking at the Australian World Consumers’ Day event in Melbourne today. This year’s World Consumers’ Day marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s presidential address in which he set out four fundamental consumer rights that he said should be recognised in American law.

The speech by President Kennedy, in March 1962, is recognised as a landmark statement on consumer rights, and it laid the foundation for increasing consumer action and law in the United States.

Mr Sims said that Australia had enjoyed the efforts of two trailblazers in consumer advocacy in the 1950s and 1960s, namely Ruby Hutchison, a West Australian parliamentarian, and Dr Roland Thorp, a pharmacology professor at the University of Sydney. They were the founders of the organisation now known as Choice, and they began the practice of published, independent tests of consumer products.

Mr Sims said other landmarks included the Trade Practices Act 1974, the establishment of state and territory fair trading agencies acting on behalf of consumers and providing advice, and the establishment of small claims tribunals providing low-cost resolution of consumers’ concerns.

Mr Sims said the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), which took effect from January 2011, ushered in a new era in statute. He said the ACL shifted Australia to a ‘single law, multiple regulators’ model, under which the ACL is enforced jointly by the ACCC and state and territory regulators.

The ACL also provides: new powers for regulators to expedite investigations; a new civil pecuniary penalties regime; infringement notices as a means to deal with minor breaches of the law; consumer guarantees that have status in statute; a statutory test for unfair contracts terms; and a harmonised product safety regime replacing the previous patchwork approach.

Mr Sims said Australia had cherry-picked the best examples of consumer law from around the world – including from Wales, England, New Zealand, and North America – in order to develop the ACL.

In addition to praising the ACL, Mr Sims launched a guide to the new carbon pricing regime for consumers.

“From the initial rights advocated by JFK to the current responsibilities of the ACCC, consumer protection efforts have gradually evolved over the past fifty years. The latest issue that has become a priority is the soon to be introduced carbon price.

“The ACCC’s role – as part of its consumer mandate – is to ensure that businesses do not make misleading claims if they attribute price increases to carbon pricing.”

Read the full speech

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