Christian Kerr’s criticisms of my call for renewed public funding of the Australian consumer movement ignore the basic citizen apathy at the heart of the problem.

Every economy needs a healthy consumer movement through a combination of market forces, individual effort and government intervention.

Sadly, we have a classic case of market failure in Australia where the movement is now splintered, underfunded, conflicted and dysfunctional. The contrast with Britain’s powerhouse National Consumer Council is stark indeed.

While America has thrown up the likes of Ralph Nader, Australia doesn’t have a single high profile consumer activist to speak of. I’ve been the token rabble rouser at the odd consumer conference in Australia – because in the absence of a consumer activist they instead invite along a shareholder activist.

Part of Crikey’s mission over the years has been to “create a culture of shareholder pressure in Australia” – that’s because of the complete lack of such a culture over the years. The same applies with consumers.

While big business, green groups and unions are over-represented in the Australian political process, I challenge Christian or anyone else to name a single politician or party with a proven track record on consumer issues.

Australian consumers are completely unrepresented politically, have no self-starting movement to agitate for change and are now saddled with a Federal Government which is openly hostile and has actively promoted an unprecedented concentration of corporate power in Australia. We’ve even now an ACCC chairman in Graeme Samuel who has hugely downgraded consumer issues in terms of his priorities.

It’s all very well for Christian to argue against consumer welfare – but by extension he would have to argue against many other forms of welfare and hand-outs. For instance, why do Federal political parties get almost $2 per vote from the public purse? The answer is that critics believe a well-funded political system is in the national interest.

The same argument applies to our consumer movement – its health is a matter of public importance and Australia’s apathetic “she’ll be right mate” culture means that state support is required to make it effective.

Peter Fray

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