Consumer Action is a not-for-profit, independent community organisation, focused on advancing the interests of consumers. We advocate for more equitable outcomes for consumers, particularly those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable.
Consumer Action provides free legal advice and representation to vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers across Victoria, and is the largest specialist consumer legal practice in Australia. We operate MoneyHelp, a not-for-profit financial counselling service that provides free, confidential and independent financial advice to Victorians experiencing financial difficulty. Consumer Action is also a nationally-recognised and influential policy and research body, pursuing a law reform agenda across a range of important consumer issues at a governmental level, in the media, and in the community directly.
Consumer Action’s Policy and Campaigns Practice
In line with Consumer Action’s strategic plan for 2011-14, our policy and campaign work is well integrated with our casework. Our policy and campaign work achieves broader benefits through identifying issues (from casework and other sources) that contribute to consumer problems and responding to those issues.
The policy and campaign practice works in these areas in a number of ways, including:
- Ensuring the consumer interest is recognised and represented in policy debates that impact on the consumer interest;
- Representing an effective and credible voice for consumers, particularly disadvantaged and vulnerable consumers, in media and other forums;
- Bringing about change in laws, regulation, and industry practices, in the consumer interest;
- Contributing to the body of knowledge of consumer issues and laws;
- Developing strategic partnerships, including alliances beyond “traditional” stakeholders; and
- Building capacity within the consumer movement.
Prioritising Policy Issues and Campaigns
Consumer Action recognises that there is a vast range of issues that impact consumers, and that we must prioritise the issues on which we work to ensure that our resources are used strategically, efficiently and effectively for the benefit of consumers. Our prioritisation considers the following questions:
- Does the issue have a significant impact on disadvantaged and vulnerable consumers?
- Does the issue impact on consumers as a whole, for example market failures or lack of competition?
- Has the issue arisen out of our casework practice?
- Is there a current opportunity that impacts our ability to effect change? (e.g. a government inquiry, significant public attention)
- Do we have the skills and strengths to effect change?
- Are there other organisations working on the issue? (consider opportunities for effective collaboration and, conversely, avoiding duplication)
During 2012-13, Consumer Action will:
- focus on five campaign areas. By campaign, we mean “a coherent and planned series of actions, designed to achieve an overall aim and objectives”;
- regularly identify other problem traders or issues from our casework and undertake specific activities to address issues;
- focus our other policy activities around specific priority areas.
1) “Do Not Knock” – unsolicited door-to-door marketing
Our campaign has resonated with consumers during 2011-12, with tens of thousands of Do Not Knock stickers distributed, the facilitation of complaints to regulators, legal action initiated by the ACCC, and parliamentary consideration of a Do Not Knock register. We will continue to campaign to ensure consumers have a simple and effective way of protecting themselves from door-to-door marketing.
2) Regulator watch
The Australian Consumer Law and significant amendments to national consumer credit laws have been enacted in recent years. We will publish research that examines the enforcement activities of consumer regulators and campaign to improve regulator accountability for compliance with and enforcement of consumer laws. This is intended to be ongoing work so we will plan the schedule of release of future research.
3) Low-income debtor rights
Low-income debtors often get the worst deal when it comes to dealing with debt—inaccessible or weak hardship assistance, particularly for those in long-term hardship; misleading or severe debt collection practices; default judgments and harsh debt enforcement; inappropriate bankruptcy or debt agreements. Through a number of specific actions, drawing particularly on calls to our financial counsellors, we will seek a better deal for low-income debtors.
4) Exploitative credit—payday loans and consumer leases
Financial inclusion is not only about access to financial services, but protection from exploitative products that are inappropriate to consumers’ needs. Over the last three years, we have campaigned for effective regulation of harmful payday lending—we will continue our advocacy with new legislation passing through parliament in the latter half of 2012. Some forms of consumer leases are also used to target high cost credit at consumers excluded from mainstream finance—we’ll campaign for reforms in this area, including in relation to the use of Centrepay, disclosure of costs, marketing and unfair contractual terms.
5) An energy market for consumers
The cost of energy continues to skyrocket. Building on our long history of advocacy on national energy reforms, we will campaign for fairer consumer outcomes particularly in distribution pricing, including appeals mechanisms, as well as for fair and effective retail market outcomes. We will publish research on the overall energy market design, drawing on Australia’s experience with current mass-market design as well as international experiences.
Emerging issues (mini-campaigns on problem market practices)
We regularly identify emerging issues from our casework (legal practice and financial counselling) services. From these issues, we will undertake targeted interventions aimed at addressing consumer or market problems arising from these emerging issues. Activities might include:
- issuing warnings to consumers through the media and our website;
- providing public information about trader conduct; and
- making complaints to consumer regulators.
Current emerging issues include retirement villages as well as a real estate issue, which involves intermediaries setting up vendor terms agreements between consumers and financially desperate sellers. Problem market practices include credit cards, particularly marketing which can contribute to the problem of significant large debts resulting from credit card lending.
While we will ensure we remain responsive to consumer policy issues and debates as they arise, we will particularly focus on the following priority areas during 2012/13:
1) Consumer protection and competition
- Unfair or exploitative trading models, including high pressures sales or unsolicited marketing
- Effectiveness of consumer guarantees, particularly refund policies and in the motor vehicle industry
- Implementation of general fair trading laws, such as unfair contract terms
- Creation of Standards in areas relevant to consumer protection
- Effective operation of competition, particularly on the demand side of markets
2) Consumer credit and financial services
- Consumer credit reforms, including point of sale finance
- Avoidance of consumer credit and financial service protections
- Credit reporting reforms
- Insurance, particularly unfair terms and problematic policies (consumer credit insurance, funeral insurance)
- Effective competition, including choice and consumer engagement, in retail energy
- Time of use or “flexible” pricing
- Services to facilitate demand management
- Access to concessions
- Water—household prices and services
4) Financial inclusion and difficulty
- Access to appropriate and affordable products and services
- Implementation of hardship initiatives, particularly in banking and telecommunications
- Debt agreements, credit repair and bankruptcy
- Debt collection, particularly in relation to low-income debtors
- Promotion and support of, and access to, financial counselling
5) Effective consumer dispute resolution
- Access to and effectiveness of industry internal dispute-resolution processes
- Access to and effectiveness of industry external dispute resolution (EDR) schemes
- Expanding industry EDR schemes to new market sectors
- Ensuring consumers are not disadvantaged by mediation and ADR procedures
- Appropriate court and tribunal forums where there are EDR gaps or to facilitate test cases
 Rich N, Reclaiming Community Legal Centres: Maximising our potential so we can help our clients realise theirs, April 2009, available at: http://consumeraction.org.au/downloads/VLFCLCFellowship07-08reportWebFinal.pdf.