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Preventative measures

It shouldn't take a tragedy for change to happen

April 2019

A few weeks ago, I attended the Western Australian Consumer Protection Awards. CHOICE has a special connection to the west – one of our founders, Ruby Hutchison, was a legendary WA parliamentarian who took up the cause of consumer rights.

In 1959, Ruby travelled to Sydney on a crusade to set up an organisation to represent and assist consumers. Her efforts ended in a meeting at Sydney Town Hall that established the Australian Consumers' Association. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In reflecting upon Ruby's achievements, I was prompted to think about our progress in advancing consumer rights in the past 60 years.

Improvements in some areas have been strong – our laws that ban misleading advertising and give us the right to repairs and refunds for faulty goods are pretty good. But in other areas, our progress is disappointing. One of the awards was presented by Kidsafe WA, for a person or organisation that has made a significant contribution to reducing injuries to children. This award went to the 'Bolt it Back for Reef' campaign, named after toddler Reef Kite, a toddler who lost his life when a chest of drawers toppled upon him in his family home. His mother, Skye Quartermaine, had asked her landlord for permission to anchor the drawers to the wall but her request was denied.

This case highlights two issues that were priorities for Ruby Hutchison. The first was the rights of renters. In most states, tenants have very few rights to make minor modifications to homes, even for safety reasons. In response to Skye's campaign, Western Australia is in the process of changing the law to make it easier for tenants to anchor furniture to the wall, as long as any damage is repaired. This mirrors similar reforms in Victoria that other states would be wise to follow.

But this case also highlights failures in our product safety laws. Why should it be acceptable to sell household furniture, like drawers and bookshelves, that can easily topple over, when the risks to children are so obvious? The problem is that there's nothing in our law that says it's illegal to sell unsafe products. If this was fixed, with penalties attached, retailers and manufacturers would think more carefully before releasing products onto the market. This reform was recommended by the review of the Australian Consumer Law over two years ago but action to implement it has been painfully slow.

I am always amazed by people who can turn a terrible personal tragedy into a campaign to help others, but this should not be necessary. We need to be better at preventing tragedies from occurring in the first place.

Alan Kirkland, CHOICE CEO
Twitter: @AlanKirkland