ACL Review

UPDATE: Making our consumer laws stronger

Did you know that in Australia, there is no law that expressly requires businesses to make sure the goods they sell are safe before they hit the stores?

This could be about to change: after years of community pressure and dozens of dodgy and dangerous products, State and Federal Consumer Affairs Ministers agreed to support making the consumer law work better for people everywhere.

If Consumer Affairs Ministers follow through on their commitments, here’s what this decision will mean:

  • We could see laws that help people get refunds more easily when they buy a lemon car;
  • We could be able to get unsafe products, like Samsung washing machines that catch fire, off the market quicker;
  • And companies like Nurofen that mislead people with dodgy marketing claims will finally be hit with higher fines!

But this campaign isn’t over yet: now we need to pressure our leaders to turn words into action as soon as possible.

Can you help keep up the pressure? Add your name to this petition now.

Deadly airbags: the Takata recall shambles

2.3 million cars across Australia have a potentially deadly fault. The Takata brand airbags installed in the cars carry a risk of catastrophic injury or death, with a fault causing them to send shrapnel flying with force at drivers and passengers when the airbags deploy.

As of 23 July 2017, more than 180 people have sustained injuries as severe as blinding, paralysis and severed vocal chords. The death count to date stands at 18, including one Australian.

The recall started back in 2009, and it is a shambles. It’s why CHOICE is calling for changes to the consumer law to force companies to do better.

  1. Head to the Product Safety website and check if your car is on the recall list.
  2.  If it isn’t, you can subscribe to receive recall updates in case your car is added to the list later.
  3. If it is on the list, contact your local dealership to arrange to have the airbags replaced.
  4. If they can’t do this within a reasonable period of time, lodge a complaint with your local consumer agency.

Exploding Thermomixes, flaming Samsung washing machines, and Takata airbags that kill – we expect the products we buy to be safe, but clearly something is going wrong. The number of product safety recalls initiated in Australia is growing at a rapid rate. In 2015, product safety recalls increased by 20% on the previous year. In 2016, there was almost a 30% increase on the previous year, with 671 product safety recall notices received by the ACCC.

In comparison, the UK has experienced roughly half the number of product recalls that Australia did in 2013-14 and 2014-15, despite having a much larger population and economy. So, what is the UK doing differently to us? The answer is complex, but one piece of the puzzle is in the law. The UK has a law called the General Product Safety Regulations, sometimes referred to as a ‘general safety provision’. This law states, simply, that businesses cannot supply a product unless it is safe. The law prevents retailers from selling any products that they know, or should know, are unsafe.

Remarkably, Australia has no such law. While our consumer protection law is extensive, there is no explicit obligation placed on businesses to make sure they sell safe products. Instead, if a product in Australia hurts someone, that consumer can seek a remedy. If multiple people are injured, the business can choose to run a recall. This is a reactive system, and it is failing us.

The introduction of a general safety provision will help change this. This legal change should shift business attitudes. While product safety risks and subsequent recalls may be viewed as the cost of doing business now, a general safety provision coupled with strong penalties will encourage businesses to instead view the safety of their products as a priority.

This new obligation should be easy to meet for businesses that are already doing the right thing. The businesses who aren’t thinking about safety will have to do better. A general safety provision will hopefully capture instances where unsafe cots are being brought in by importers, phones are exploding in people’s pockets, or dangerous button batteries are not properly secured to prevent children removing and swallowing them.

The UK introduced their General Product Safety Regulations in 2005, and it has been seen as a success. A review of how similar laws operate across Europe found that a general safety provision is a ‘powerful tool’ that helps protect consumers, and that its introduction in Europe has helped ‘track down and eliminate a vast number of unsafe products’.

CHOICE has been calling for the introduction of a general safety provision for the last decade, but until recently there has not been much support for this reform. However, in February a review of Australia’s consumer protection law recommended that we finally modernise our product safety law and introduce a general safety obligation for businesses. Consumer Affairs Ministers are meeting in late August to decide whether or not to support this change, and many other recommended changes that will strengthen our consumer protection framework. If you want safer products, show your support for a general safety provision and join the campaign.