Fair Trading Amendment (Information About Complaints) Bill 2015

Dr HUGH McDERMOTT (Prospect) [7.21 p.m.]: I speak in debate on the Fair Trading Amendment (Information About Complaints) Bill 2015. The Opposition does not oppose this bill. Australians believe in fairness. In the same way that politicians should be held to account, consumers should not be deceived by businesses that circumvent community expectations and the law. If passed, the bill will amend the Fair Trading Act 1987 to enable the Commissioner for Fair Trading to publish the details of complaints against a business or person. The identities of complainants will be kept confidential, as they should be. The number of complaints is an indication that more consumer protection needs to be implemented. Each year, NSW Fair Trading receives approximately 45,000 complaints and one million inquiries.

We are all consumers. In assessing where to spend their money, consumers should have the right to know which businesses are doing a good job of providing goods and services. There should be an incentive for businesses to strive to offer the best product or service available via a model similar to the mechanics of market demand. There should be a disincentive for businesses that do not do a good job and leave consumers out of pocket or economically damaged by providing an unsatisfactory product or service. This reform reflects a trend towards greater consumer awareness in Australia. Organisations such as CHOICE and the Consumer Action Law Centre have long called for reform, and I commend them for their work.

NSW Fair Trading is undertaking public consultation on how to publish its complaints data. Matters for discussion include the number of businesses to be listed and how to implement protections against vexatious complaints. Reasonable provisions to address vexatious complaints should be included in the final regulation; otherwise the publication of complaints to NSW Fair Trading could resemble Google or TripAdvisor reviews. The public expects a body administered by the Government be fair, accountable and reputable. In 2010 Labor led the way in the Federal Parliament by introducing the Australian Consumer Law, which now holds business, particularly retailers, to the standard expected by the community.

Under the reforms that Labor has long supported, issues such as warranties and expectations of service are tied to what is deemed reasonable, rather than whatever a retailer or service provider feels like doing. Whilst the majority of businesses had already realised the importance of catering to the needs of their customers, some took advantage of the previously weak laws to swindle whomever they could. I am glad that the New South Wales Government has followed Labor's lead in the Federal Parliament. It is ironic that the Government is willing to pursue reforms in the private sector yet will not apply the same standards to its own practices.

Only a few months ago, the Opposition introduced the Non-profit Bodies (Freedom to Advocate) Bill 2015, which, if passed, will prohibit State agreements that prevent non-profit bodies from publishing criticism of the Baird Government. The Premier has announced that 321 State targets have been scrapped. Hundreds of State targets have been replaced by 30 priority areas—none of which refer to regional New South Wales. Where is the accountability? Will the communities, particularly regional communities that depend on small business, that are now out of the Baird Government's focus be able to hold the Baird Government to the same standard that is expected of them?

The New South Wales community expects better than this double standard. The Baird Government must be willing to apply to itself the same standards of integrity and transparency that it imposes on businesses. The Minister must be asked about the accountability that will apply to him or a future Baird Government Minister when given the power to decide which complaints are published—which could fall under the phrase "any other legislation administered by the Minister" in this bill. What transparency provisions will hold the Minister accountable? What reasons will the Minister be required to give when deciding whether to publish a complaint? Will there be any monitoring of potential conflicts of interest that arise? For this bill to be as effective as it should be, those questions need to be answered.

The range of areas that the Minister administers includes biofuels, boarding houses, residential parks, retirement villages and agricultural tenancies. That is a wide scope and requires customised policies to ensure a fair and balanced procedure for the publication of complaints. I call on the Baird Government to consider its true motive for strengthening consumer protection. The attitude it takes towards consumer protection must be applied to New South Wales politics as well. I do not oppose the bill.

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