Does the ad for a “Director Legal Services” at the new Consumer Action Law Centre (CALC) in The AFR last week signal some movement from the ashes of the Australian consumer movement? Let’s hope so because the movement has never recovered from the 1997 decision of the Howard government to defund its peak body, the Consumers Federation of Australia.

The CFA has slowly declined and the credibility struggle has not been helped by the conflicts created by the successful seduction of most of the honorary executive leadership to paid directorships among industry ombudsman schemes. So much for being able to critique industry without fear of favour.

Left to carry the fight to industry were a few funded centres such as the Australian Consumers Association, the Consumer Law Centre Victoria (CLCV) and a group of single issue centres such as Melbourne’s Consumer Credit Legal Service (CCLS). While the ACA under the leadership of former ASIC senior manager Peter Kell has withdrawn to concentrate on its circulation challenges at Choice magazine, the other groups have been ever slowly running out of money with their leadership eventually jumping ship.

In Victoria over the last 12 months two government agencies (Victoria Legal Aid and Consumer Affairs Victoria) have been negotiating a rescue package for CLCV and CCLS. They have required them to merge and become the newly named Consumer Action Law Centre. In addition to the problem of two government departments struggling for ultimate control there are also issues of Board and staff rationalisation and the need to find a CEO with great management and diplomatic skills.

The most likely candidate was Catherine Wolthuizen (former ACA policy officer and Natasha Stott Despoja adviser) but she recently resigned the considerable challenge posed by the task to take a management role in a boutique human rights group in London.

At that time she departed her roles as CFA chair and a consumer director on the Insurance Ombudsman board. The next candidate (a former ACA policy officer) also declined the position and it is now job shared part time by Caroline Bond (financial counsellor, former CFA chair and Banking Ombudsman board member) and Catriona Lowe (former CLCV and ACCC policy worker). The “Director Legal Services” is presumably to provide the full-time legal practice experience that can give the new centre its “street cred”.

It’s a tall order but here’s hoping!

Peter Fray

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