Can a genuinely powerful consumer movement be created in Australia?

Sealed Section March 17

Crikey participated on a panel at the National Consumer Congress in
Melbourne yesterday which featured all manner of bureaucrats,
regulators and lawyers with not a lot of consumers or consumer

The fact that Crikey was invited says it all – where are Australia’s
consumer activists? Crikey is a shareholder activist but there is a sad
dearth of consumer activists in Australia and certainly no culture of
consumer activism.

Is anyone out there prepared to try and create or position a genuine
consumer movement just like we have a broad and powerful green movement?

We have loads of consumer regulators and enforcement quangos which
suffer from the lack of Federal interest in consumer issues but this is
completely separate from the idea of having a consumer movement which
generates issues for the various regulators and politicians to act on.

Empowering consumers requires far greater action than just education as some at the conference appeared to think.

The consumer movement in Australia has no political force or identity,
because it is enmeshed in these quangos. The personnel from these
organisations also sit on the boards of the ‘movement organisations’
such as the Consumers Federation of Australia – they are very often the
same people. ACCC deputy chairman and former Australian Consumers
Association CEO Louise Sylvan can move from movement to regulator,
Peter Kell can move the other way, as easily as a fish swims from one
turn in a river to another. Without movement independence, and an
independent identity, there is no movement.

There are three big questions which need to be addressed on this important national issue:

1. How can consumer activists in all sectors (utilities, financial
services, human services, retail) cohere into a movement with political
force in Australia, given that the Australian political tradition and
political debate is structured around firms and their workforces
(Liberal and Labor) and not consumers?

2. What is a public policy agenda to empower consumers? (especially in
curtailing the market power of dominant suppliers in market-based
settings, and introducing market-based competition in areas such as
education and human services where consumer choice in restricted)

3. What is a market empowerment strategy for consumers, utilising
aggregation and brokerage strategies, in fields as diverse as
utilities, health care, insurance, real estate, etc?

Anyone got an idea on how a genuine consumer movement could be created in Australia? Suggestions to [email protected].

The deputy chairman of the Consumer’s Federation of Australia was quick to respond…

Where is Australia’s consumer movement? Some of us were in your
audience in Melbourne on Tuesday. We are here, we are as active
as we can be, and we make an impact.

Sure this impact could be stronger. But you should not measure
the success of the consumer movement in terms of the number of
newspaper headlines achieved or whether knows a lot about
us. A lot of our work simply doesn’t make the news. And you
should at least make some allowance for resources.

The Consumers’ Federation of Australia, of which I am the Deputy Chair,
is the peak body for consumer groups. We have 95 member groups.
But we have no funding – our income last financial year was $7.71. The
Executive of CFA are all volunteers. CFA was formed in 1974 and
received funding to operate as a peak body for over 20 years from
Federal governments of both persuasions. We were de-funded by the
Howard government in 1997. That we still exist is a testamony to
a lot of passion and hard work.

The CFA’s focus is on assisting low income and disadvantaged consumers.
Our member groups range from community legal centres, to tenancy bodies
to privacy groups, to health groups, to those working with older people
and so on.

The other consumer organisation – the well-known one – is the
Australian Consumers’ Association (ACA). ACA publish Choice
magazine. Louise Sylvan, as you point out in your bulletin, was
the former CEO of this organisation and is now the Deputy Chair of the
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. ACA have funding
– subscriptions to their magazine and sales of other products. ACA in
my view, have a strong media presence and their policy work frequently
makes a difference. I could give you numerous examples. CFA and ACA
often work together.

The CFA, for a peak body without resourcing, does pretty well. Let me
give you some examples. Late on Saturady night I emailed CFA’s
submission on unfair contracts legislaltion to the Queensland Office of
Fair Trading. The submission was in response to a discussion paper
released by all the states. Unfair contracts legislation if
introduced, would be one of the most positive steps for consumers in a
decade. It would address the manifest rip-offs in car hire contracts,
the one-sided clauses that are endemic in telco mobile contracts, make
loans contracts more balanced …. The submission was pulled together
by around 10 of our member groups, but coordinated mainly by just one
outstanding person. We’ll lobby hard for this now with the politicians.
I tried to get some media interest, but to no avail.

Some of our member groups have been invovled in trying to fix up the
disaster that are tenancy databases and have helped write the first
ever representative complaint to the Privacy Commissioner about them
(the determination is due any day – its been a long, drawn out
process). We’ve been working to try and improve debt collection
practices, credit reporting, home building, dispute resolution and
supermarket unit pricing to name a few. From time to time we pick up
placards and demonstrate – the last Australia-wide effort was in in
relation to pay day lending. This campaign in 2002 was at least
partly responsible for these credit providers being subject to
legislation that curtailed some of their outrageous practices
(but still does not go far enough).

We have a website (paid for by one of our executive, and the donation of time from a graphic designer). The address is:

I agree wholeheartedly that we need a strong consumer movement in
Australia with “political force”. One model may be that of the
National Consumer Council in the United Kingdom, which by all accounts,
is a strong policy and advocacy body. Although located within a
government departement, the Council seems to act completely
independently. The other key step would be to change the way in which
public policy is developed in this country and put consumers and fair,
competitive markets at the centre of it. At the moment, the
consumer voice, if taken into account at all, is usually as an after
thought. It should be the other way round, with consumer demand and
needs the driver for change.

I would love to be stronger. There are a thousand things I want to fix
up (but four in particular: unfair contracts, property regulation,
making finance companies join an independent dispute resolution scheme,
and tenancy databases). CFA will keep working on them. Perhaps we
should email you a bit more with some updates.

Fiona Guthrie