50 years of consumer rights – how far have we come?
Jenni Mack – CHOICE Chair– Delivered 15 March 2012
On this day in a speech to the US congress in 1962 President Kennedy set out four consumer rights.
- The right to safety
- The right to be informed
- The right to choose
- The right to be heard
These rights are as relevant today as ever. In fact they have become the organizing principles for our movement – for those of us who work inside and outside Government - and they have underpinned consumer policy globally.
We have come along way since the 60s - but even if we have tackled half of the challenges envisaged at that time, so much has changed since then, so many new challenges have emerged.
The speed of change now outstrips anything in the past but it is already apparent that for example new technology doenst mean the end of old problems –
We have made enormous progress and that provides a strong foundation for the equally large problems ahead of us
But as in life so in advocacy – good things take time to build. Amongst our many substantial achievements some have taken years – 50 years in the case of unit pricing.
Unit pricing was one of Choice’s policy objectives in 1959 and less than two years ago it became a reality.
15 to 20 years of advocacy have been common for big reforms:
- 15 years for nutrition information on food labels,
- 15 years for mandatory product safety standards like baby cots,
- 20 years for national consumer law and national consumer credit laws
But some gains have come in shorter periods – withdrawal of bank penalty fees a recent spectacular example; the Do Not Call Register, the Anti-Spam Act of 2003 – while far from perfect Australia gets a lot less spam as a result even though it may not feel like it.
Before I look through the decades and our achievements I want to acknowledge the role of Consumers International. CI built on President Kennedy’s four rights - expanded the four rights to eight and campaigned for global recognition. This came in 1985 when the United Nations adopted the Guidelines on Consumer Protection.
The additional four rights are the right to:
- satisfaction of basic needs,
- a healthy environment.
These articulated the social justice element that had underpinned consumer advocacy since the earliest times and added the environmental concerns that have underscored our work since the 80s.
Earlier this morning Consumers International have suggested the future may hold demands for new consumer rights – the right to corporate responsibility, the right to privacy among others.
But consumer activism started before CI and President Kennedy’s speech . The earliest laws were focused on fraud and economic deception.
- Weights and measures
- Fraudulent ingredients
And in the 19th Century as John Wood –former Director of the Federal Bureau of Consumer Affairs has called them “dangerous people”
- Hawkers and Peddlers Act 1849 (QLD)
- Pawnbrokers Act 1857 (Tas)
- Money Lenders Act 1912 (WA)
At the beginning of the last century women’s organizations were the driving force of the fledgling consumer movement.
- National Council of Woman,
- Country Women’s Association and
- The Federated Association of Australian Housewives.
They employed the consumer boycotts and protest marches to get their views across but they also used market interventions. They set up co-operatives, bulk buying and discount for cash schemes.
Then the post war boom: economic prosperity, high employment, growth in manufacturing and international trade.
The explosion in white goods and small appliances – quite literally in the case of some defective products – this was the time of exploding toasters and flame throwing heaters.
And so it saw the establishment of consumer testing organisations around the world including in 1959 - Choice.
The following year - the establishment of Consumers International – and so in 1960 the global consumer movement was born.
The first Choice magazine was published in 1960.
During the 60s Australians rushed to become CHOICE members – signing up at the rate of 1000 a week.
1965 Unsafe at Any Speed – Ralph Nader’s pioneering work about the resistance of the US car industry to safety features and pollution control.
Nader became an overnight global figure - propelled in large measure by the extreme personal attacks – harassment and intimidation - from the car industry. The industry was eventually forced to apologise and it was the substantial financial settlement - combined with US philanthropy - that allowed Nader to build his network of consumer advocates - “Nader’s Raiders”.
The 1970s was about landmark consumer legislation - the ground breaking Trade Practices Act. It was also a time of capacity building and activism.
Trade Practices Act of 1974 – was and is world class consumer legislation.
It set out for the first time standards of business conduct including the ground breaking consumer protection provision s52 banning misleading and deceptive conduct.
It drew the link between consumer and competition policies in producing fair and efficient market outcomes.
Also in 1974 – the creation of the Consumers Federation of Australia by the Whitlam Govt – to provide a national voice for the fledgling consumer movement.
the seventies brought a radical edge to the consumer movement with campaigns like MOP UP and BUGA UP – who altered advertising billboards to get their messages across.
And the emblematic global consumer boycott of Nestle – over its inappropriate marketing of infant formula in developing countries- began in the 70s. This changed the way formula companies operated globally and led to one of the most successful multi-agency social marketing exercises undertaken on a global scale - the “breast is best” campaign that continues today.
The 1980s were a time of expansion not only for consumer organizations but also inside government.
The Hawke government increased funding for CFA and established the Federal Bureau of Consumer Affairs.
Prime Minister Hawke established the Ministerial Council on Consumer Affairs and in 1987 gave the inaugural Ruby Hutchison address. By coincidence last night that address was given by Hawke’s first Education and Youth Affairs Minister, now Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan.
The 80s was a time that wherever industry groups were at the table consumers were entitled to be present as well.
It was a time when Choice and CFA combined to capacity build in the movement.
- Consumers Telcommunications Network - although initially a child of Telstra – with the assistance of Minister Conroy it has grown into the hard hitting independent advocacy organization we love today – the Australian Commmunications Consumer Action Network.
The 80s was also a time of financial deregulation. The combined effects of over lending and high interest rates caused a financial crisis for may people –this in turn led to government funding of financial counselling and consumer credit legal centres as well as generalist legal centres - Redfern legal Centre and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
This saw an influx of activist lawyers into the movement with the capacity to enforce consumer rights.
The 1990s saw large litigation penalities directed to consumer advocacy. Consumer Champion Denis Nelthorpe negotiated for the $2.5million compensation payment awarded against Household Financial Services to fund the establishment of the Consumer Law Centre of Victoria. In NSW $8million in penalties in cases run by the Consumer Credit Legal Centre against the State Bank and AGC went into a trust that still funds financial counseling, consumer education and research.
The 90s was also the start of consumer groups working directly with industry. We found friends in industry – and developed some strong working relationships with consumer affairs professionals in business
Direct dialogue with industry focused on alternate dispute resolution and codes of practice. Success was mixed and by no means uniform across the economy.
The greatest successes were in the financial services sector - by the mid 90s five industry based financial services complaint schemes had been established including the Banking Industry Ombudsman.
It is important to remember that these were industry initiatives, they were then as they are today funded by industry but it didn’t take long for the schemes to meet agreed standards of independence – both in administration and governance.
Today’s Financial Ombudsman – a merger of six previous schemes - is an outstanding success story of consumers and business working. Australia has undoubtedly been a world leader in this regard.
But the deregulatory agenda of 80s required a policy shift in the 90s. New advocates with expertise in competition policy like Liza Carver, and advocates with academic credentials like Professor John Braithwaite and then Choice CEO Louise Sylvan focused on the role of consumers in markets – arguing that consumers must be the drivers in a market. The notion of the demanding demand side emerged.
Around this time the Trade Practices Commission was renamed the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission giving recognition to the Commission’s role as both a consumer and competition regulator.
The consumer affairs portfolio shifted into the Treasury department – raising tensions between those who believed consumer policy belonged in a rights/social justice portfolio and those felt consumer policy would progress faster at the heart of government inside an economic portfolio where competition policy sat.
Since that time Treasury has provided the analysis and support for a raft of very significant consumer reforms - in financial services and general consumer law. From the Wallis reforms to the flagship Australian Consumer Law.
The ACL and National Consumer Credit Protection Act, Unfair Contract terms - these were the key achievements of the first 10 years of this century.
With the unprecedented growth in global consuming and it was not only the general consumer law the needed modernization and so a program of review of specialist consumer law began – in financial services; communications, in food and chemical regulation among others.
Since 2000 wherever policy makers sit, consumer rights and economic considerations work together. Increasingly policy tools are derived from behavioural economics- the integration of insights from psychology and classical economic theory.
Tools like choice architecture (such as placing healthy foods at eye level), or default settings (everyone goes into a compliant My Super product unless they opt-out) and even the recognition that information or disclosure just doesn’t work for some problems.
One of the best examples is contained in the Future of Financial Advice legislation. I mention these because today they are before the Federal Parliament today. The reforms are ground breaking in their use of regulatory tools derived from an understanding of consumer behaviour
Research exposed the limitation of disclosure of conflicts of interests in financial services – when advisors told consumers they were getting otherwise hidden kickbacks for their advice, perversely consumer trust increased because “only an honest person could tell me something like that!”
So commissions had to be banned.
And the so called opt-in reform – where consumers must positively consent to ongoing fees – it’s designed to end the problem of consumers paying for nothing –but it is a lovely piece of reform because it works on both consumer and adviser behaviour – it encourages engagement and effort – by both consumers and advisers. But the industry hates it – as one adviser said to me recently “why would we want to work for money we are now getting for nothing”
And what of the decade that has just begun.
This may well be the decade that spawns a new wave of consumer activism, where technology provides the capability for consumers to act independently – where consumers will no longer need to wait for others to negotiate solutions for them.
Things like the FoodSwitch app – we have been arguing for traffic lights on food to assist consumers make healthy choices. The government has commenced a process but has ruled out traffic lights despite research showing it the easiest to understand - but the food Switch app not only shows traffic lights on food - it shows alternate healthier products –traffic lights on a package couldn’t do that.
Over the next decade advocacy groups won’t have a monopoly on campaigning and active and savvy consumers will use their skills to fight back. Take US country singer Dave Carroll. Carroll wanted $1200 reimbursement when baggage handlers on United Airlines broke his guitar, when United repeatedly refused he said he was going to write a song about it and post it on utube –“go right ahead” said customer relations at United. His song “United Breaks Guitars” has been viewed 12 million times. Carroll became a minor celebrity and United struggled to comprehend what hit them.
And our own Consumer Champion Adam Brimo - built theVodafail website while sitting on hold to Vodaphone. Over 300,000 people logged on and expressed their frustration at Vodaphone’s failed service promises – the CEO apologized and ploughed significant sums into lifting service quality.
And recently using Change.org: What began as one person’s petition against the Bank of America’s proposed $5 monthly debit card fee ended with more than 300,000 signatures, strong public condemnation, and the bank’s reversal of the fee.
Over the next ten years there will be massive change in what and how we consume, but the consumer rights agenda will continue to underpin our work.
Safety, information, choice, redress –all will remain relevant.
This week Optus’ was fined $3.6million for misleading broadband plans. New technology doesn’t mean old problems will go away.
As a movement we have done much to assist the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. With growing disparity between the richest and poorest in our society that need is only going to continue.
Debates around access to basic services will remain a priority – be it financial services, utilities or communications.
Sustainable consumption – be it in energy efficiency, collaborative consumption or hazardous chemical reduction– these campaigns are going to continue
In food and health the focus will be on the burgeoning public health costs of obesity and diet related disease – just as the last three decades have focused the burden of tobacco related disease
As we move into the era of mass retirement of baby boomers - superannuation will become a bigger consumer issue - if the first time you have had to manage investments is when you retire in your late 50s or 60s you are by definition a vulnerable consumer in this highly complex market.
Telcos and the confusopoly bring special problems - but what the telco space highlights is the need to be nimble - technological change has outstripped the pace of regulatory reform, with the result that rate of consumer complaints in that sector significantly outstrip every other industry – so it is no surprise that consumer initiated advocacy has occurred in that space.
The need for advocacy will remain – but we will need to be agile and innovative and consumers will need new tools.
there will be particular challenges for market based groups like Choice – consumers pay directly for our services and they only pay if we deliver what they need.
Over the next decade consumers are likely to want more from us than information and our challenge is to provide what they want on terms that maintain our independence.
The first consumer groups offered bulk buying schemes – last year Choice launched the Big Bank Switch. It demonstrated our willingness to be a bold as we were 50 years ago. It attracted enormous consumer support – it also reflected industry unease that we are prepared to take them head on. What Choice shares with industry is that we stand on the strength of our offering and that forces us to stay relevant to consumers.
Across the movement we will need to find new ways to fund advocacy – Advocacy suffers from the free rider effect – you get the benefit whether you pay or not.
Government funding is going to become even harder to get. We live in a country that doesn’t yet have a tradition of philanthropy. In the past we have used ligation penalties to fund consumer assistance and advocacy. Some groups that began with industry funding are now fiercely independent– ACCAN for example. New groups like GetUp have developed a self funding campaign model.
There are two stark gaps in the advocacy landscape I want to mention. Advocacy for superannuation consumers – which is pretty much the entire workforce as a result of nearly 20 years of compulsory super –as superannuation is complex, confusing and compulsory - there is a moral imperative for government to give consumers a voice.
The other glaring gap is for a funded peak body. The Consumers Federation of Australia was set up by the Whitlam Government in 1974, but defunded in 1996 along with a range of other community organizations.
It has operated on a voluntary basis – for 15 years. In the current bitterly contested public policy environment it is needed more than ever to coordinate the work of small groups, rural and urban groups spread around the country working across a range of issues – to give voice to Australian consumers – particularly disadvantaged and vulnerable consumers who otherwise find it hard to be heard.
So while the new wave of consumer issues are complex and challenging for consumers - toasters may no longer explode, but the wrong decisions around your retirement income can have devastating and longer lasting impacts.
Consumers want to do the right thing for the environment, but who do they believe, and how can they navigate decisions across multiple products.
What about markets that have systemic problems like retirement villages, real estate agency, legal services, even supermarkets, where consumers are still relatively powerless.
Do we have the right competition laws in place?
How do we give consumers the power that their economic might should demand?
How do safeguards keep pace with the rapid rate of change?
These are challenges for all of us.
It has been a very productive 50 years - but there is no greater certainty about the future because of them.
President Kennedy’s speech and the consumer rights agenda is as relevant today as ever
But as movement – across government and non government we must become more agile and innovative in our campaigning – in regulatory response and our policy responses.
We must be with consumers – whenever and wherever they need us.
We are ready to respond quicker and we are more determined than ever to put consumers centre stage.
 For more on government involvement in consumer affairs see the chapter by John Wood, Government Involvement in Consumer Affairs in In the Consumer Interest ed Simon Smith 2000
 For more on the history of the Australian consumer movement up to 1996 see Brown, Jane, A History of the Australian Consumer Movement published by the Consumers Federation of Australian ed Fiona Marsden