On Monday 12 April, Consumers’ Federation Australia (CFA) and the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) co-hosted the Consumer Advocacy Showcase & Award, in the final online session for the 2021 ACCC National Consumer Congress. The Showcase celebrates effective and good practice within consumer advocacy. The joint-winners were Fiona Guthrie, with Who’s Making Australians Bankrupt?; and Matthias Oldham, with Junk Insurance in Super.
Fiona has been involved with the consumer movement for over 30 years, is the Chief Executive of Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) and also a former executive of the Consumers’ Federation Australia. Her presentation, Who’s Making Australians Bankrupt?, featured a report into forced bankruptcy jointly undertaken by FCA, Financial Rights Legal Centre and Consumer Action Law Centre. In the preparation of this report the organisations collected evidence, collated data and presented their findings in a report, which was then showcased on ABCs 7:30, where it was featured as Bankruptcy Hunters. This work resulted in a range of positive outcomes including one large debt collector, Lion Finance, significantly reducing its use of forced bankruptcy, the introduction of a new guideline by the Australian Banking Association and an increase in the forced bankruptcy threshold from $5,000 to $10,000. The most significant outcome is that potentially hundreds of Australians have not been forced into bankruptcy.
Matthias Oldham works on Research and Data at Super Consumers Australia (SCA). His presentation, Junk Insurance in Super, talked about SCA’s campaign to remove worthless and misleading insurance policies from the superannuation industry. He explained that junk policies can be difficult for the consumer to spot as disclosure provided by funds is often hidden online in lengthy ‘insurance guides’ which are made difficult for members to find and comprehend. He highlighted how restrictive definitions for unemployment or limited hours used in Total Permanent Disability (TPD) insurance policies bar many to access their super. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Financial Services Council admitted that many of the insurance policies were inappropriate and agree not to apply these restrictive definitions until January 2021. SCA continue to advocate that funds remove or reduce these definitions. 921,000 people are no longer at risk of junk insurance as a result of their actions.
The finalists were:
Dr Ruth Barker, with her presentation on the dangers of button batteries. Ruth is an emergency paediatrician and Director of the Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit. Informed by her experience working with patient emergency department presentations and emergency injury data, she advocates for injury prevention through design, standards and legislative change. In her presentation, Ruth illustrated the damage caused to a child’s oesophagus through consumption of a button battery and how this can lead to death. She provided data comparing the sales of and deaths from button batteries since the 1980s, together with stories from families who have lost their young children to accidental consumption of this product. In December 2020, mandatory regulation to try to reduce access to button batteries by small children was passed in Australia, after a 10 year collaborative effort between government and health departments, consumer advocacy groups, families and others.
Dean Price is the Senior campaigns and policy adviser at CHOICE, with an interest and background working in advocacy for health access issues. In his presentation on hand sanitiser, Dean spoke of how CHOICE began to monitor marketplace behaviour, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, in March 2020. CHOICE discovered that many businesses were selling hand sanitiser without enough alcohol content to protect against COVID-19. He highlighted retail fashion business Mosaic Brands as a standout offender. CHOICE analysed the sanitiser sold by Mosaic Brands and discovered that it contained only 23% alcohol. They then tested 56 hand sanitiser products, uncovering several with misleading or false labelling. Almost 20,000 supporters signed a petition calling on the government to introduce a new hand sanitiser labelling standard, which was then announced in November 2020. This new policy gives the ACCC the power to enforce new minimum standards, rather than leaving it to individual consumers to understand what they’ve purchased.
Katherine Temple, who spoke about the Keep Connected campaign. Katherine is the Director of Policy & Campaigns at Consumer Action Law Centre (Consumer Action). In 2020, as many Australians became financially insecure because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Consumer Action called on essential services companies to commit to relief measures for consumers. These relief measures included stopping disconnections, pausing debt collection and waiving penalty and late fees for consumers. Over 60 community organisations came together to call on companies and the government to commit to their recommendations. Following this campaign, energy retailers, banks and the telco industry implemented a variety of hardship principals. Despite this success, as Australian businesses are returning to business as usual, many of these financial supports have ended. The next step in the Keep Connected campaign is looking toward the future and long-term recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.