Consumer Safety

16 February 2021

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:20): My question is to Senator Birmingham, as the minister representing the Treasurer. Last night the ABC's Australian Story ran a harrowing story about the dangers of button batteries. Last December, after many years of lobbying by advocates, including parents and paediatricians, the government introduced mandatory safety standards for button batteries, but these only come into effect in 18 months time. In the ABC program, the deputy chair of the ACCC said: 'We need a general safety provision that makes it illegal to sell unsafe goods in Australia. At the moment, it is not illegal.' Minister, the government has been looking at the introduction of a general safety provision since 2015. Does the government agree that there must be a general safety provision that makes it illegal to sell unsafe goods in Australia?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaMinister for Finance, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:21): I thank Senator Griff for his question. I know of his advocacy on these issues. I note his moving in November of last year a motion in the Senate related to button batteries and also the call to introduce a general product safety provision in the Australian Consumer Law. The government certainly takes seriously the safety of consumers. On 21 September, as you acknowledge, the government announced new mandatory safety and information standards for button batteries and products that contain them to improve the safety of such products, including their design, packaging and labelling. There have, indeed, been distressing stories in the past in relation to such products, and the government has sought to work through the processes of consumer law, which include engagement with the states and territories, to be able to bring about this ban and to provide heightened levels of protection.

In relation to general product safety provisions, the government is certainly of the strong view that all actions ought to be taken to protect consumers from unsafe products wherever necessary. Obviously, there are legal remedies and expectations available in the common law at present that place expectations upon businesses in relation to the safety of products that are offered on the market. However, in terms of specific consideration around a general product safety provision, I will revert to the relevant ministers and provide any further information that I can to the chamber.

Senator GRIFF : Minister, you haven't clearly stated whether you intend to legislate. You referenced that you will defer to the appropriate minister, so should I take it that at this point the government does not agree that Australia needs to urgently legislate a general safety provision? It's five years down the track now and there are a number of very significant issues. It does appear that the government does not see this as an urgent matter.

Senator BIRMINGHAM : Certainly, product safety overall is very important. A general product safety provision, I imagine, would come with a number of different complexities in relevance to its drafting and interpretation. Clearly, as I indicated before, there are processes in relation to consumer law matters over which the states and territories often have primacy and which are usually developed in consultation and through consensus and agreement across the relevant ministerial councils. I am not briefed today, in terms of the detail and status of those particular discussions. That's why I undertook in the primary question to consult with relevant ministers, and I will do that and bring whatever further information there is in relation to that more sweeping provision back to the chamber for you.

Senator GRIFF : Minister, I appreciate that you will bring that information back to the chamber but, when you do that, do you personally see this as a priority and a priority that needs to be dealt with before parliament is prorogued for the next election?

Senator BIRMINGHAM : Well, I certainly see the safety of Australian consumers and particularly young consumers—children—as a very stark priority and an important one. It is important in the work of this parliament that we make sure that the legislation we bring forward, when we bring it forward, is also effective in meeting the objectives. There is little point in generic provisions, bringing them forward, if they will simply create a confusion but not effectively provide for the outcome; in this case, the outcome of safety. That is why working through, particularly with states and territories, in such consumer law protections is the appropriate thing. It is also the necessary thing under our constitutional structures. I would hope that, if such provisions can be provided for that do give a significant enhancement to consumer safety, they would be brought forward as quickly as possible, Senator Griff. But without having those briefings and advice, I can't commit to a time line today.

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