It's easy to be an armchair activist – in the age of online petitions, you only need to click a button to support a cause. And while petition signatures help boost a campaign, they're just the beginning: change requires hours of often invisible work, including endless research, negotiating with decision-makers and battling lobbyists with deep pockets.
That's where some of Australia's nonprofit consumer groups come in.
Often under-resourced and over-stretched, these consumer organisations lobby decision-makers to create all kinds of change. They undertake detailed research and investigations, harness grassroots advocacy to create campaigns, and lobby policymakers on product safety, consumer protections and fair contract terms.
This article looks at:
Consumers' Association of Western Australia – CAWA
A non-political, nonprofit, voluntary organisation, CAWA gets involved with proposed legislative changes that stand to affect consumers in Western Australia. Its members meet with industry and government, write submissions, and represent consumers on boards, committees and tribunals. CAWA also helps individuals resolve consumer complaints.
- Unsafe children's umbrellas banned from sale
- REVS (Register of Encumbered Vehicles) established in 1988. (Doing a REVS check helps you find out if the used car you're buying has any money owing on it.) The state-based REVS system is now the national Personal Property Securities Register.
- CAWA won the 2014 Dick Fletcher Award at the WA Consumer Protection Awards.
- Former CAWA members Verity Cripps, Anne Hawkins and Sandra Brown won Rona Okely Awards for contributions to consumer protection during their time with the CAWA.
"We have over the last few years, sadly lost several committed long-term CAWA stalwarts. Thus we now have an unsustainably small membership base that we are desperately trying to increase," says CAWA president Genette Keating.
"We need a campaign to update CAWA, attract new members and become more visible in social media. The alternative is that after 43 years, our organisation faces imminent collapse."
CHOICE's WA Forums attract hundreds of attendees, so there's clearly a strong interest in consumer affairs in the state. CAWA would love to engage these concerned consumers.
Phone: (08) 9387 4108
Consumers' Association of South Australia (CSA)
CSA represents consumers' interests, encourages the distribution of information on issues affecting consumers, provides a forum for discussion of those issues and lobbies for consumers at all levels of government.
What CSA does for consumers
CSA members are active in national and international groups, including:
- ISO committees on nanotechnology and fine bubble technology
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ)
- Consumer Policy (COPOLCO)
- National committees in irradiation, organic products and unit pricing
CSA members serve on:
- SA Energy Consumer's Council (ECC)
- SA Water's Residential Customers Advisory Group (RCAG)
- SA's Consumer Law Consultative Forum
- SA's Essential Services Commission Community Consultative Committee (ESCOSA)
- Electranet Consumer Advisory Panel (CAP
- Australian Gas Networks (AGN)
"CSA committee members manage to cover many areas of concern to consumers, without any direct government financial assistance," says CSA president Ian Butterworth.
"Even though we are a small dedicated team of volunteers, we are asked many times to find representatives to attend a number of consumer consultative groups – both inside and outside government – which we manage to do."
Consumer associations play a strong role in developing robust and fair policies, says Butterworth, so it's vital to have consumer representation in policy development.
Phone: (08) 8227 1648
Consumer Action Law Centre
Consumer Action provides free legal advice and financial counselling to Victorians, with priority for those facing challenges such as low income, family violence, disability, homelessness and marginalisation. Its vision is a just marketplace where people have power and business plays fair.
- 2011: Early exit fees for mortgages banned (CHOICE and Consumer Action worked together to achieve this outcome)
- 2012: Nationally consistent legislation to regulate payday loans introduced
- 2016: demandarefund.com launched – a self-help tool that's helped consumers lodge claims for more than $1 million in refunds for add-on insurance and warranties
- 2017: Parliamentary inquiry into retirement homes recommends an Ombudsman
- 2017: Getting 'debt vultures' (debt management firms that prey on vulnerable Australians) on the national policy agenda
- 2018: Supporting three of our clients to tell their stories to the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry
"The need is always greater than our capacity, so we're always having to make decisions about what we will and won't do," says Denise Boyd, Consumer Action's director of policy and campaigns.
"That's tough, because we know that people are being done over all the time."
And change doesn't happen overnight – another challenge Consumer Action faces.
"It can take a long time, sometimes years, for the change to happen. Meanwhile people continue to be ripped off, or fall through the cracks because there just aren't enough financial counsellors and lawyers to provide free advice to the people who need it."
Current priorities and campaigns
2018 will be another fast-moving year, Boyd says, so Consumer Action has reframed some of its campaign work. The focus will be on responsible lending, unfair contract terms in insurance and energy retail prices.
CHOICE (Australian Consumers' Association)
For more than 50 years, CHOICE has been fighting for fair, safe and just markets. We were involved in developing the Trade Practices Act in the 1970s as well as its current iteration, the Australian Consumer Law.
In recent years, CHOICE has been instrumental in a number of consumer wins, including:
- Mandatory Takata airbag recall – February 2018
- Online credit card cancellations and fairer assessments of credit – February 2018
- Ticketing resale reforms – October 2017
- Three-year expiry for gift cards in NSW – October 2017
- Excessive credit card surcharges made illegal – September 2016
- Airline complaints resource complane.com.au launched – August 2016
- Country of origin labelling on food – July 2016
- Free-range egg finder app CluckAR launched – April 2016
When we go head-to-head with industries and corporations, it's a David-and-Goliath situation: a nonprofit member association funded by consumers, up against large, for-profit business with significant lobbying power. But it's a challenge we're winning one fight at a time with the help of our members and campaign supporters.
To get involved, check out our current campaigns: choice.com.au/consumer-advocacy.
Phone: 1800 069 552 (free call within Australia)