Wednesday 24 June – Committee B  (Singh)
Legislative Council
Output group 8
Consumer services

8.1  Fair,  safe and equitable marketplace –

Mr FINCH - With this national uniformity in a number of policy areas, credit regulations, are they one of them?

Ms SINGH - Basically, yes, that is consumer credit.

Mr FINCH - Yes.

Ms SINGH - When we talk about consumer credit, we are talking about registration and licensing requirements that will be introduced.  They will be administered, actually by ASIC, so ASIC will actually be set up down here in Tasmania, and they will comprehensively address problems in the fringe credit market in Tasmania.  Mr Batt may wish to comment about the role ASIC will play and how that will move forward.

Mr BATT - It is probably useful to say that the consumer credit law is already uniform, but there are a couple of areas like interest rate caps and licensing that are outside of that uniformity arrangement.  What COAG decided in order to achieve true uniformity is to move it from the States and Territories to ASIC under Commonwealth law so that will be a completely and totally uniform scheme.

Mr FINCH - Have we been behind other States in Tasmania in respect to these regulations?

Mr BATT - No, certainly not behind.  We have been different, in the sense that we do not, egg, regulate interest rate caps and we do not currently have a licensing regime, but the large body of consumer law is part of a template scheme, which is enacted through the Queensland Parliament, and we have participated fully in that.  The law in Tasmania is exactly the same as the law in all other jurisdictions.

Mr FINCH - Are we going to see more of a reliance, minister, on Federal consumer protection services? From what you say with these developments with ASIC coming here, do we need to concern ourselves at a State level?

Ms SINGH - This is a COAG initiative, the national seamless economy, and we play a very important role in that.  I would say that there is a lot of work.  Even when you are handing over parts of services to the Federal Government, there is a lot of work that goes into that handing over process as well.

Mr FINCH - Yes.

Ms SINGH - But, I think it has a lot of merit in the way that we do live in one country, and having some of these different regulations and laws when it comes to business names and product safety and fringe market lending and the like, there should be more uniformity, I believe, in that.  Consumer affairs and fair trading still have a very large role to play in that.

Mr FINCH - Thank you.  One role of output group 8 is to enforce product safety standards.  Could I get some idea of how effective this is in Tasmania? What has been the level of product recalls here and have there been any prosecutions?

Ms SINGH - As I said to you earlier, Mr Finch, we have our audits, and one of those audits, for example, is in the area of toy safety.  That audit, for example, leading up to Christmas, we had 1400 toys inspected, mostly from small toy retailers.  You can imagine with toys, a lot of them come from China and other places and are made in different ways and with different rules to our own country.  Large retailers and department stores generally do carry the same product lines nationwide, and they are tested by other jurisdictions.  But CAFT works with other consumer affairs officers to ensure that product safety is nationally consistent and all toys that were inspected were all compliant.  So that is just with toys, as an example.

Mr FINCH - On that subject, though, minister, it is interesting that they are not actually monitored coming into the country, or is that not possible?

Ms SINGH - I might ask Mr Batt to respond to that.

Mr BATT - Not all toys that are imported are tested, but, certainly, there is a close association between the ACCC, the Federal counterpart, and our jurisdiction with customs.  Certainly customs have cooperated on a number of occasions in stopping toys where there is clearly a safety issue.  But, clearly, the task of scrutinising every single product that comes into the country is not possible.

Mr FINCH - Was there something else, minister?

Ms SINGH - Yes.  Mr Finch, prosecution, obviously, is an option when it comes to that.  Obviously, it is seen as very much a last resort.  We try as much as possible for issues to be resolved for consumers through advice and conciliation.  Obviously, the cost when you go to prosecution is a lot higher as well.  Advice and conciliation is the way that CAFT try to ensure disputes are resolved.

Mr FINCH - So during the last 12 months, no prosecutions?

Ms SINGH - No.
Mr FINCH - This is probably more of concern to Tasmanians, and that is the price of petrol from one place to another.  I am just wondering if you could update us on the monitoring that might take place by your office or other agencies like the RACT to keep an eye on petrol prices and to inform the community what is actually occurring.

Ms SINGH - It will be very interesting to see the results of the monitoring of petrol pricing.  However, that is being undertaken by Treasury.  CAFT does not have carriage of the monitoring of petrol prices.  That is something that Treasury are monitoring.  It has been an initiative announced by the Treasurer.  While I still have very much an interest in it being the minister for consumer protection, I will need to be provided with that information from The Treasurer in relation to the outcome of the monitoring.
Mr FINCH - So that probably brings me to another point about if there is somebody in the community concerned about consumer affairs, do you have a hotline?  Do you have a direct contact? How do people come to consumer affairs and say, 'I have got an issue here.  I am worried about petrol prices.  I'm worried about supermarket prices.  What's your take on this? How do I complain to you? Am I being registered as a complaint now?'

Ms SINGH - We do, Mr Finch.  We do have a hotline, a consumer affairs and fair trading telephone advisory service.  As I said earlier, it assists approximately 12,000 callers a year.

Mr FINCH - Did I miss that?

Ms SINGH - Yes.  That is quite a lot of callers that are seeking assistance from that advisory line that is set up.  The advisory line sponsors an average of 63 consumer calls a day.  The office responds to more than 20,000 calls a year, including inquiries about business names and incorporated association.  It is very important for consumers to be able to pick up the phone and talk to someone about their problem.  That is clearly what our advisory hotline is doing.  It is a really good initiative that CAFT runs.  In many cases, though, it is really quite simple advice that is enough.  But the advice can give great comfort, particularly to people in the community who are vulnerable and have no-one else to turn to, for example.  I can tell you about the calls taken by advisory staff each year: 30 per cent relate to purchase, condition or warranty on general household goods such as washing machines, refrigerators and other appliances; 13 per cent relate to repairs, maintenance and performance of goods and services; 20 per cent relate to tenancy and real estate matters; 5 per cent to motor vehicles and; and 4 per cent relate to building matters.  So the remaining 28 per cent relates to scams, communication issues, food and clothing, travel and other matters.  I think that scams component is interesting.  I think we really need to make all consumers out there aware of the scams, especially email scams.  We all receive them.  They go on all over the place.  We have got a really good scams booklet.  I am always out there talking about people to beware of scams.


Mr FINCH - Yes, there is a really tricky one that I have alert the taxation office to that came through in respect of very official looking statement about the fact that you are going to receive $271.10 in a refund on your latest tax application, contact this number.  It was so believable.  We are used to the banks and we delete those, but this taxation office one was really quite professionally done and very skilled.  I would imagine a lot of people would fall into the trap of that.

Ms SINGH - Well, I always ask people who come into contact with things like that to contact CAFT, to contact our consumer advisory number, so that we can do any follow-up that is required with some of those scams, because they really are just a really shocking cancer in our community the way they just get out, especially these days through email and so on.  Some of those cases, though, that people ring up do require further follow-up, either by personal interview or a visit.  So some of them do require further investigation just to determine whether or not there has been a breach of the legislation administered by CAFT.  So some of them do require further work as well.

Mr FINCH - I must say, I contacted the taxation office, and they had issued a release on the mainland but not the Tasmania.  So I noticed there was a press release this week alerting people to the fact that this scam is on.

Ms SINGH - That particular tax one.  Yes, there has been a Commonwealth Bank one that I have received, saying your user name and ID has changed or something, use this now.