House debates

Tuesday, 16 October 2018


Treasury Laws Amendment (Gift Cards) Bill 2018; Second Reading

6:45 pm

Photo of Madeleine KingMadeleine King (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Consumer Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor will support the Treasury Laws Amendment (Gift Cards) Bill 2018. I am pleased to address the House in support of a bill which seeks to address unfairness for Australian consumers. This bill seeks to enfranchise gift card recipients who have been adversely affected by a previously disjointed state-by-state approach to Australian gift card regulation.

In Australia, 34 million gift cards or gift vouchers are estimated to be sold each year by national retailers and small businesses, with an estimated value of $2.5 billion. The majority of gift cards sold are for large national businesses, with the Australian Retailers Association—Australia's largest industry association, representing a $310 billion retail sector—estimating its members represent approximately 68 per cent of gift cards and vouchers in the Australian market. One of the commonly used terms and conditions of gift cards are expiry dates, and many consumers' gift cards expire before they get the chance to use them, resulting in financial loss and disappointment for gift card recipients. The current disparity in state and territory legislation means there are no uniform requirements for minimum expiry dates on gift cards, creating complexity for consumers and businesses alike.

Currently, the length of an expiry date on a gift card may vary considerably, depending on the preferences of the trader issuing the gift card, meaning there are no reliable rules of thumb for consumers in determining how long their gift cards may be valid for. Some recipients of gift cards may not know the expiry dates for gift cards they are given, and those consumers may expect their gift cards to last for a reasonable time. Nevertheless, losses from Australian gift card expiry are estimated to be $70 million annually. This bill implements a minimum three-year expiry period for Australian gift cards, improving fairness for consumers and ensuring they have an appropriate period of time to redeem the balance of a gift card, leading to a reduction in breakage. There is no prohibition on a retailer providing a longer expiry period.

In addition, this bill includes increased disclosure requirements, including expiry information prominently displayed on the card to ensure the consumer is aware of the expiry date. This is largely consistent with industry practice, with the majority of gift cards fortunately already displaying this information. This bill will also prohibit gift card suppliers from charging certain post-supply fees which can erode the balance on a gift over time and can operate as a de facto expiry date. This includes charges that are deducted automatically without an explicit communication of the request or demand. This bill also voids existing terms and conditions on cards already in supply if they breach any of the above changes.

The proposed three-year minimum expiry period does not change consumers' rights in the event the supplier of the gift card becomes insolvent or bankrupt. They will continue to be treated as unsecured creditors. Concerns have been raised surrounding the rights of recipients of gift cards for businesses that have since the point of purchase experienced insolvency, and this bill does not address that circumstance. I urge the government in future to consider this consumer protection concern at the upcoming consumer affairs forum of state and territory ministers—if that ever occurs, it having already been delayed since late August.

However, at large and generally, the bill seeks to ensure there is a viable gift card market that meets the needs of consumers. Labor is pleased the government has finally brought forward new legislation in the consumer affairs space. This government, with its sixth minister responsible for consumer affairs in five years, has let Australian consumers down by deferring the national consumer affairs forum scheduled for August, due to its leadership troubles. Though Labor is pleased with the introduction of this bill, it is mind-boggling that it had be approved by circular resolution instead of at the cancelled national COAG consumer affairs forum. That is one reason why I am going to move as part of this debate the following second reading amendment that has been circulated in my name. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes the Government's lack of support for, and failure to protect, Australian consumers; and

(2) calls on the Government to reinvigorate the national Consumer Affairs Forum process, to enable the much-needed reform of Australian Consumer Law".

This is a government far more interested in its own party than Australian consumers. Labor understands the importance of safety and protection for Australian consumers and will continue to work on policies that are in the best interests of Australian consumers.

To be frank, the Assistant Treasurer seems quite disinterested, at best, in the portfolio. The Assistant Treasurer, to be fair, is quite new at the portfolio, but nonetheless he has done next to nothing in the consumer affairs realm, continuing the practice of the five ministers responsible for consumer affairs who came before him. Where was the Assistant Treasurer when news of the honey-laundering scandal broke? And it continues. Recent reports of Australian honey being adulterated with unknown substances have gone pretty much ignored. Last month's Fairfax and ABC investigation found worrying and very concerning evidence of adulteration in imported honey blends, and recently Australian Border Force tests have confirmed the worst: Australian honey may be adulterated as well. The integrity of Australian agriculture and food production itself is in question, and Australian consumers are at risk from this food fraud. However, the Assistant Treasurer is nowhere to be seen on this issue.

Where was the Assistant Treasurer last month when a couple from the United States visiting my home state of WA went to watch the best game in the world, the AFL finals series, and they were refused admission at the gate due to dodgy ticket scamming? This happens time and time again in this country, and this government continues to do nothing. This government's own inquiry of November 2017 into ticket scalping confirmed shady practices by resellers claiming to be authorised sellers, as well as evidence of ticket-buying bot software employed by ticket scalpers to infiltrate ticket-selling systems and artificially inflate prices. However, this government has failed to act.

The Assistant Treasurer is not only loath to respond; the Assistant Treasurer postponed the consumer affairs forum, where recommendations on how best to deal with the scourge of ticket scalping were scheduled to take place. States like Victoria and New South Wales are going it alone, introducing major-event legislation to combat rip-off ticket scalpers, and Western Australia is set to follow soon. Because of government inertia, inconsistent legislation is emerging across the country, making it confusing for consumers and for legitimate ticket sellers for major events in this country.

What is the Assistant Treasurer doing to protect vulnerable Australian consumers who have fallen prey to payday loan rip-off and rent-to-buy schemes? Recent data has shown that there are now 800,000 Australian households who have fallen victim to payday loan sharks. This number has more than doubled in the past decade, including 150,000 new households signing up for payday loans in the last 18 months alone. While the Assistant Treasurer promotes his self-led tours of Israel and surfs the web, Australian families continue to be ripped off every day by the loan sharks in this out-of-control industry.

The government have known about this growing crisis for more than two years, but they are so out of touch that they refuse to do anything about it. It has now been 1,166 days since the government themselves started a review into payday loans and rent-to-buy schemes. Despite repeated promises and supporting the 24 recommendations from the review some 686 days ago, the government are yet to show any action to clamp down on these vicious loan sharks. Following the release of their draft legislation, which sought, nobly, to enact the recommendations of the review, the 'parliamentary friends of payday lenders' right wing rolled Minister O'Dwyer and withdrew the legislation. They then refused to support their own legislation when it was introduced, word for word, as a private member's bill by my colleagues the previous member for Perth and the current member for Oxley. This process has been a complete shambles, and they have utterly abandoned vulnerable Australian consumers who are preyed upon by payday lending sharks.

And where is the Assistant Treasurer right now as Aussie manufacturing jobs are put at risk over confusion over 'Australian made' labelling on Australian complementary medicine products? The complementary health sector generated $4.9 billion in revenue last year, including exports, primarily to Asia, of $320 million. Our complementary health export market is at risk if Australian companies are unable to market their products as 'Australian made' in Asian markets.

The Assistant Treasurer has the power and ability to step up and deliver clarity to the ACCC and to the sector, but again he is nowhere to be seen—out to lunch. But, of course, this is the Assistant Treasurer of the same government, albeit with a different figurehead, that fought for more than 600 days against Labor's calls for a banking royal commission, the government that voted against a banking royal commission 26 times. In fact, it took the banks themselves to get this government behind a royal commission, having to write to the Prime Minister themselves to bring it on.

It took this royal commission to bring the Australian Banking Association to adopt a new banking code of practice for the benefit of consumers. We in Labor, of course, welcome the code as a step in the right direction, with the message getting through to the banks that the community demands and deserves better conduct from the financial institutions they put their trust and their life savings in. But we hear story after harrowing story of Australian consumers falling prey to the greedy and downright unethical banking practices and products, and it beggars belief that the government argued against this royal commission for so long and voted against it so consistently.

Again, this is a government far more interested in their own party and their own mates at the big end of town than ordinary, everyday Australian consumers. Although I have mentioned the Assistant Treasurer, he is not solely to blame for the government's failure to protect Australian consumers; there is a conga line. I've said this before, but allow me to say it again: the Assistant Treasurer, the member for Fadden, is the current minister responsible for consumer affairs and the sixth minister in five years of the Liberal-National government.

So who are the other stars of the Liberal-National cacophony of consumer affairs ministers? In 2015, our current Treasurer, the member for Kooyong, had custody of the consumer affairs portfolio. As we know, he then went on to do very measured and appropriate things in the environment space—and kudos to him for his commitment to the Great Barrier Reef; I'm a keen snorkeler myself, so I somewhat appreciate his misguided efforts. And, of course, he sculpted the National Energy Guarantee. Though he never did get that off the ground, I do commend the member for Kooyong's efforts. Well, I guess he kind of did get the NEG off the ground, having got it through the party room twice, but that's not quite good enough for the Liberal Party—such a shambles it even cost Prime Minister Turnbull his job, didn't it. How did that happen? It took this government tearing itself apart for the member for Kooyong to receive yet another promotion, to the position of Treasurer, and good luck to him. He can wave consumer affairs goodbye.

Of course, we had the Minister for Jobs, Industrial Relations and Women, the member for Higgins, oversee the consumer affairs portfolio. To her credit, had she not been strongarmed by the right-wing bullies in her own party, perhaps she could have achieved some greater policy wins for Australian consumers. The minister actually released the much-needed report of the government's review into small-amount credit contracts, and she did say at the time:

… the panel found that refinements to the law are needed to improve consumer outcomes and that, the current regulatory framework for consumer leases of household goods is not effective in promoting financial inclusion.

So, had she a little bit more power and some more influence in her party room—and perhaps if there were more reasonable heads there—perhaps the hundreds of thousands of Australians who have since fallen victim to the scourge of payday loan sharks would have had more of a chance to make financial decisions that were actually in their own interests. But, alas, as the tired political melodrama of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government played out, she was moved sideways out of the portfolio before she got the chance.

Then our current Deputy Prime Minister had a crack at consumer affairs. If you believe the media, he won't be our Deputy Prime Minister for much longer, but let's not go into that. Our esteemed Deputy Prime Minister, in his capacity as Minister for Small Business, took over the guardianship of the consumer affairs portfolio and said of the much-needed small-amount credit contract reforms to protect Australian consumers at the time that 'things are moving on this front'. That was 18 months ago, and have things moved? No, there's no reform for small-amount credit contracts. It hasn't moved at all. It's glacial progress at best and backwards downhill fast at worst.

And who could forget the contributions of the member for Deakin? It is understandable if you did, of course! Other than campaigning at anti-marriage-equality rallies and running the numbers for the hard right during the leadership crisis, it's hard to identify what the member for Deakin actually proposed, let alone achieved, in the consumer affairs space. Well, I guess he did achieve something for the payday loan sharks, of course: ensuring that the legislation got absolutely nowhere.

Now, of course, we have our current Assistant Treasurer, who is making waves among the constituency for all the wrong reasons. The Assistant Treasurer just a few days ago was forced to pay back to the taxpayer a whopping $38,000 internet bill. This Assistant Treasurer and his government are all very happy with themselves, but they don't give a damn about protecting vulnerable Australian consumers. While families are struggling to make ends meet and being lured into dodgy repayments, further entrenching them in debt, the Assistant Treasurer seems blindly and blissfully unaware of the reasonable cost of Netflix and chilling.

But it is good that the Liberal-National government has been reminded of the dreadful rollout of the NBN through the Assistant Treasurer's outrageous internet bills. Maybe the good people of the Gold Coast will now get their NBN more quickly than expected. This rabble sometimes feels like an episode of the House of Cards and not the good House of Cardsthe British one or the early part of the American series—but more like the House of Cards from the fifth season, where the quality goes exponentially downhill, the characters get increasingly more shallow and desperate to maintain any semblance of relevance, and the executive eventually fire the headline act. We've seen that before, haven't we, member for Goldstein? This show—some would call it a muppet show; the Prime Minister himself calls it that—to be frank, is more of a Greek tragedy. As entertaining as it may be at times to some, it has nothing less than a detrimental effect on the lives of everyday Australians as this government fails to act in the consumer affairs portfolio and to protect vulnerable Australians.

This insular, entitled soap opera of a government has failed Australian consumers utterly. I am proud to be part of a united Labor team and look forward to the valuable contribution to the protection of Australian consumers that a Shorten Labor government will deliver for Australian consumers. We will protect vulnerable Australian consumers where this government has failed to do anything in their interests.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Schools) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that the amendment be agreed to.

7:01 pm

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was going to leave the speech of the member for Brand alone but how could I not with that enticing invitation at its end, the idea that a Shorten Labor government would somehow be interested in the consumers of Australia? What a beautiful piece of sophistry, of eloquence, from the member for Brand, the wannabe minister who has created a falsehood right at the heart of everything that they stand for. Because there's one thing you know when you get a Labor government: it's that the consumer and the Australian taxpayer come not first, not second, not third, not fourth—in fact, I'm trying to think which is the pecking order of the many unions, the trade union interests, the various vested interests, where they like to bring together a corporatist, unionist, big government agenda—but the people of Australia fit somewhere down kind of the bottom of the pile. The bottom.

Just take the agenda of those opposite on energy, where they, frankly, couldn't give two hoots about the price of electricity bills that actually hit Australian households. In fact, they dismiss the idea that this is even an important part of the discussion and the agenda. The shadow consumer affairs minister not being worried about the prices of household bills is one of the most incredible statements you will ever hear in this place. But these are the difficult realities that we must confront, that the Australian people must confront in the coming months and weeks and, scarily, if they get their chance, years.

What we know always with Labor governments is their interest is to talk to the top end of town and sort out cushy deals and sign the deals away. The same is true with the trade union movement. We see this no clearer than in the great state of Victoria, where nothing is impossible, so long as you take the tax dollars of average Victorians and chuck them on the table to the benefit of unions and their members. You could achieve anything, just don't ask who's going to pay. And, of course, who's going to pay? It's going to be the Australian people. We know this from the NBN, where they're just going to build things without any costings whatsoever and lumber future generations. By the time the technology is completed under their plan, people will be paying thousands of dollars for their bill to get basic access to internet services—thousands for what will probably, by then, be outdated and redundant technology. It doesn't seem to matter what the Labor Party touches. They have an anti-Midas touch, which you've almost got to admire for its capacity to kill and destroy the aspirations and hopes of Australian consumers and households.

What we've got today, in front of this parliament, is a very simple bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Gift Cards) Bill 2018. It's a bill that understands the aspiration of many Australian consumers, which is that gift cards will be able to be redeemed when they seek to use them. I'm not going to try and pretend I don't have some philosophical conflicts about whether government should be involving itself in the gift card market. But the intention of this bill is that, when somebody goes off and buys their loved one a gift card as a Christmas present—as a reflection of sentiment without determination of the gift, because they don't know what their loved one wants—and the loved one goes, in 12 months time, to the Christmas sales, which might have just fallen past the 12 months, the gift card can still be redeemed.

We've all been there. We've all been given gift cards for Bunnings. We've all gone on to redeem them, and sometimes—

Ms Madeleine King interjecting

You're mocking me, member for Brand! I go to Bunnings and I do gardening too. It's the satisfaction of watching plants grow and seeing the beauty of our natural organic environment. It's about going to Bunnings, putting the gift card on the table and having confidence that it's going to be redeemed when you seek to do so.

Many Australians have had the experience of going to JB Hi-Fi, having got their gift card and waited for the latest technology, only to realise that the gift card expired months ago. What this bill does is create a standardised system across the whole of the nation so that, if you buy a gift card, it will be honoured for a minimum of three years. Gift cards already stipulate the contract terms, but what we're doing is making sure that even those who have purchased them before will be able to go and have them redeemed in the future.

Yes, there's an issue around competitive federalism, which I have some issues with as well. I'm a great believer in federalism. I'm a great believer that the source of power of this country isn't in this room, or, as Menzies said, with the 'chattering classes', but around the kitchen tables of the nation—individuals who come together to form families as a foundation for community and statehood and country. That's how we should govern our nation. We need competition and different laws, because there is nothing more offensive in this country than the monopoly of big government centralised in Canberra. But all we are seeking to do is reflect the sentiment of what has already been enacted in state law so that consumers can have confidence that, in the future, they will be able to redeem the gift cards of so many national businesses today that cross state boundaries.

Having this consistency and time frame are two of the most important issues confronting the consumers of the nation. I hear this from people and consumers who are frustrated. I hear it from the opposition. That's why this government is making passing this legislation today a priority.

7:08 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to follow Labor's shadow minister for consumer affairs in speaking on this legislation, from this side of the House, and I want to acknowledge the work she's done in advocating for better protections for Australian consumers—something which, unfortunately, this government has continually proven not to be trusted with time after time. However, on the matter we are debating today, I'm happy to see the government come forward with a bill which seeks to address unfairness for Australian consumers.

The Treasury Laws Amendment (Gift Cards) Bill 2018 seeks to enfranchise gift card recipients who have been adversely affected by a previously disjointed state-by-state approach to Australian gift card regulation. As we've heard, we know that in Australia a million gift cards, with an estimated value of $2.5 billion, are estimated to be sold each year by national retailers and small businesses. One of the commonly used terms and conditions of gift cards is the expiry date. If you're anything like me or the thousands of Australians who receive gift cards every year, whether they be from Bunnings or the retailer of your choice, you'll know it's quite easy to be caught out by an expiry date, with the value of that gift diverting straight back to the retailer without any goods being purchased. Losses from Australian gift card expiry are estimated to be around $70 million annually. Whether it be Christmas, a birthday, Mother's Day or Father's Day, it's easy for anyone to fall into the trap of it happening, much to the disappointment of both the giver and the receiver of the gift card.

Research by CHOICE found in a survey of 1,000 Australian that 88 per cent have given or received a gift card in the last 12 months. On average, Australians received and gave two gift cards in the last year. Their report on gift cards stated that, while gift cards might seem like a convenient option, selecting the wrong one can see your loved one wrapped in tricky terms and conditions and stuck with nothing more than a piece of plastic by next Christmas. The current disparity in state and territory legislation means there are no uniform requirements for minimum expiry dates on gift cards, creating complexity for consumers and businesses. This bill implements a minimum three-year expiry period for Australian gift cards, improving fairness for consumers and ensuring they have an appropriate period of time to redeem the balance of a gift card, leading to a reduction in breakage. Basically, you've got a longer period to redeem your gift card.

My sister sends an email out around October each year and says all of her Christmas shopping is done—one of the few Australians I know. Like most of us, I leave my Christmas shopping until perhaps the day or two days before and dramatically run around the stores.

Photo of Scott BuchholzScott Buchholz (Wright, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Roads and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, the member for Wright might get a Christmas card this year or even a gift card, but he'll have three years to redeem it. That is what this bill is doing tonight, while the added bonus is that there are no restrictions on retailers providing a longer expiry period. It will also enforce rules to make expiry dates more visible and easier to understand for consumers so there are no unexpected surprises.

However, there are some shortcomings in this bill. Concerns have been raised surrounding the rights of recipients of gift cards from businesses that have, since the point of purchase, experienced insolvency, which this bill unfortunately does not address. I ask the government tonight to consider the consumer protection concerns at the consumer affairs forum of territory and state ministers, whenever that may occur. The government, with its now sixth minister responsible for consumer affairs in five years, has let Australian consumers down by deferring the national consumer affairs forum, which was scheduled in August, but something like a leadership coup overtook events, which meant that, unfortunately, those discussions did not take place.

On the matter before the House today, on this side of the House we are pleased the government has finally brought forward new legislation in the consumer affairs space. I'll get to it in a moment. It can be a long time coming with other matters of importance. This bill will provide greater clarity, protections and conditions for consumers when it comes to gift cards. It's a move that will be warmly welcomed, I'm sure, by anyone fortunate enough to receive a gift card as a present.

However, when it comes to consumer affairs, I'm afraid that this is where the good news ends for the government. I note the shadow minister's second reading amendment. I want to spend some time in tonight's debate outlining for the House the government's lack of support for and failure to protect Australian consumers and the calls on the government to reinvigorate the national consumer affairs forum process to enable the much-needed reform of Australian consumer laws. All we've seen from the government so far when it comes to consumer laws is let-downs and broken promises. On the other hand, Labor understands the importance of safety and protection for consumers, which is why we, unlike the government, have dedicated a shadow minister for consumer affairs, who continues to, in my opinion, do the job the government should be doing and is leading the way in reform and ideas to support consumers while the government lets them down.

I want to spend some time speaking tonight about an area of consumer reform that I have been following closely and tens of thousands of Australians have been following closely, and that's the issue of small-amount credit contracts or, as they're better known, payday lending or the loan sharks rip-off. It's now 1,165 days since the government announced a review into the out-of-control payday loans sector, and basically that's how long this government has known there's been a problem with loan sharks. Yet the Morrison or Turnbull or Abbott government just have simply refused to shut the door on this issue. Let's be very clear: the reckless behaviour of payday lenders has gone on long enough.

I want to bring to the attention of the House tonight new data released by the Consumer Action Law Centre, which shows the number of households with a payday loan has continued to skyrocket and now sits at around 800,000. This number has more than doubled in the past decade, including 150,000 new households signing up for payday loans in the last 18 months. Why is that a critical figure? Why does that 150,000 in 18 months mean something? Because it's been a year and a half since we've been promised action and reform to crackdown on payday lenders. If the government had honoured its word, if the ministers of the day had actually followed through with the legislation, we would have seen that number reduced; instead, we've seen the number explode by 150,000.

Whilst the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government sits by and does nothing, these Australian families continue to be ripped off every day by loan sharks in this out-of-control industry. Examples of people being exploited are endless. This includes heartbreaking stories like that of the Queensland mum who was approached by a payday lender and signed up to rent a fridge on the spot. After her electronic signature was captured, she was only told how much she would pay a fortnight, $81.44. Just two weeks later the full story was revealed, with the fridge costing an astronomical $6,352 over three years. Think about it: she was promised one thing, that the goods were going to cost a couple of hundred dollars, but she was then left to pay $6,000. Families, young people and pensioners are being ripped off by loan sharks who are exploiting an industry which preys upon vulnerable people.

Payday loans are exclusively used by people who are on low or very low incomes to try and keep their heads above water, often falling into a debt cycle. This is due to the outrageous fees and interest rates of almost 900 per cent. Further recent research has shown that, over a five-year period, around 15 per cent of payday borrowers will get into a debt spiral which leads to events such as bankruptcy. On that basis, an additional 249,000 households have been allowed to enter a debt path which leads to this unfortunate end—in the last three years alone. These households are part of the three million additional loans written, worth an estimated $1.85 billion since 2016.

Parliament's now been sitting for two days. We're coming to the second day of the sitting. I have spoken on this matter already three times in the parliament this week, and so far I've spoken probably more than a dozen times about this. I would yield my time, I would sit down on the spot, if the minister would just once come in here and speak about this and update the House. In fact, I'm now at the point where I'm pleading with the minister. I've written to them; I've written to the Prime Minister. And, look, I get it. In the multitude of issues that this chaotic and dysfunctional government is dealing with—whether it be supporting white supremacy motions by administrative error, whether it be tying themselves up in knots about ripping up the two-state solution which has had bipartisan support for 70 years, whether it be as simple as working out who's responsible for what portfolio in this government—I would simply ask that this government take this issue seriously.

I don't know if I'm out of line here, but I don't think this minister has taken one question or spoken in the parliament since he's become a minister. I do know, however, that he has charged the taxpayer $38,000 to download and binge on internet services. This is the person responsible for $38,000 billed to the taxpayer. Time and time again, we're seeing this minister involved with what I could say are scandals from time to time. I understand that he's got his hands full managing his internet bills, but, when it comes to consumer protection, I'd like him to worry a little less about what his internet bill is and more about the consumers and customers that are being ripped off. As I said, in my opinion, he's nowhere to be seen when we're protecting Australian consumers from loan sharks.

I'll give this: the previous ministers responsible in this portfolio did have some interest in standing up for consumers. About three or four ministers back, Minister O'Dwyer—I lose track of the number; it's like, what do you call a gaggle of consumer ministers? What is the collective noun for that? There are so many of them. I was going to make that point, but we're seeing ministers who have said, 'We will take action to protect consumers.' We saw the draft explanatory memorandum for consumer protection around payday lending exposed, but then that was withdrawn. We've seen ministers say that legislation will become enacted, and that's been withdrawn. There has been broken promise after broken promise.

Fast forward to 2018, this year. I was really proud to introduce the government's own piece of legislation. It was, word for word, sentence for sentence, the government's exposure draft legislation in a show of bipartisanship. Not a single member of the government chose to speak on the matter, and I may be corrected, but not one member of the government since then has ever spoken about payday lending. I get it. It's not an issue that's a priority for the government. I wish it would be, because the hundreds of thousands of Australians who are being preyed upon by the loan sharks deserve this parliament's attention and action to ensure that they are protected. The cost of living has risen drastically under this government; 1.8 million households are now financially distressed and, as I mentioned earlier, 800,000 families have turned to payday loans just to get by. It's time the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government drew a line in the sand and stood up for these vulnerable Australians.

Whilst it is good to see the government taking some minor action when it comes to consumer protection and gift cards, we have an opportunity with this second reading amendment that the shadow minister has moved in the parliament to send a really clear message to the consumers of Australia that they deserve better and that this government has let them down. For those great financial counsellors out there that are helping—and I've met with many of them in my electorate and across Australia who are guiding and helping people deal with the fallout of the debt spiral that comes from dealing with loan sharks—I've launched a national campaign around this, including a web site: I've issued a series of videos surrounding this, highlighting church leaders, the victims of payday lenders, some of the community organisations that have dealt with the fallout and, more importantly, the financial counsellors, who all say the same thing: unless we take action to deal with this, the problem is only going to get worse. So, whilst this small step tonight will receive bipartisan support, the bigger picture for consumer action across Australia deserves our respect and support.

7:23 pm

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Medicare) Share this | | Hansard source

I speak in support of the amendment moved by the member for Brand in respect of this legislation, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Gift Cards) Bill 2018. Having said that, I welcome the legislation and I note that it is indeed long overdue. In fact, the issue of gift cards, as far as I'm aware, has been a matter of public concern for several years, and I suspect it's been getting worse in recent years. Ultimately, that's brought this House to the point where it needs to deal with legislation, as the states of New South Wales and South Australia have done. In fact, the South Australian legislation went through its parliament about an hour ago, so it's quite timely that we are now dealing with the matter here in the federal parliament, particularly given that both the New South Wales and the South Australian legislation is limited, effectively, to those states. What is required is national legislation.

Even then, my concern is that this legislation doesn't commence until 1 November 2019—that is, over a year away. Given the government has already been tardy in bringing the legislation to parliament, to then say that it won't apply for another year or more is also of some concern. I would have thought that, having reached the point now where we have legislation before the House, we could have dealt with it quickly so that it would be there to protect consumers in readiness for Christmas, which is when most of the gift cards around the country are likely to be bought.

I believe that most retailers do the right thing. There are millions of small businesses out there. I would expect that a great many issue gift cards in one form or another and I believe most of them do the right thing. Regrettably, too many don't, and the numbers are probably increasing. There are always going to be unethical businesses out there that look for any opportunity to fleece consumers. They do so by sometimes using the fine print in contracts and at other times in any other way they possibly can. Even worse, however, is that in recent years, in my view, the exploitation is being perpetrated by businesses that, in the past, one considered to be in reputable industry sectors. I refer to insurance companies that today use the fine print, whether it's in household insurance or even health insurance, to avoid paying out or protecting the people who have taken out policies with them. We see that banks are now the subject of a royal commission because they too have been ripping off their customers and because of their unethical conduct.

We have airlines ripping off consumers when they can. One of the worst examples I've seen was only a couple of weeks ago, when the AFL grand final was being played in Melbourne and the cost of tickets to get to Melbourne, particularly from Western Australia, skyrocketed. They didn't just go up by what you might call a reasonable amount within the fluctuation of prices one expects; they skyrocketed. It was pure gouging of those football fans who wanted to get to Melbourne to watch the grand final. That kind of behaviour ought to be stopped. It's as bad as ticket scalping, which some states have introduced legislation to try to prevent. I think the same ought to happen with respect to gouging by the airline companies.

Then we have, right here and now, oil companies each and every day causing prices to fluctuate, which can in no way be justified on the basis of fluctuations in the price of crude oil around the world or their refinery or transport costs. Their prices go up and down on a weekly and monthly cycle, which tells me that it is purely an opportunity for companies to make the most profit they can, to exploit their customers by putting up their prices. It's not surprising that they pretty much all do it together. Regardless of which company it is, the prices go up almost in a synchronised way. That kind of behaviour has to stop.

As the member for Brand referred to, with the honey adulteration concerns, it also occurs with respect to food products, internet providers and substandard building products that are coming into this country, because those who sell them know they're in effect going to rip off their consumers. The list of examples of consumer exploitation happening around the country today is endless.

And so we come again to gift cards. I've seen some of the most unethical operators also using gift cards as a way to exploit their consumers. According to, in a report they released only a couple of months ago—in August this year—some $2.5 billion is spent on gift cards each year. Fourteen per cent, or one in seven, of those gift cards are never used. They are never redeemed; they are allowed to expire. With an average value of $77 per card, that equates to around $74 million in gift card value being lost to around 1.9 million Australians each and every year. There are many reasons why those gift cards are never redeemed: there may not be an appropriate product in-store, the card has unintentionally been allowed to elapse, or perhaps the full value of the card is not redeemed.