Small Business Minister Bruce Billson addresses National Consumer Congress: Four take-outs from the speech

The Australian Consumer Law is set to undergo an implementation review in 2016, as Small Business Minister Bruce Billson says consumer protections must keep up with the changing business landscape.

Speaking at the National Consumer Congress today, Small Business Minister Bruce Billson discussed opportunities for business in the changing environment and the implications for the legal system, as well as addressing the Coalition’s deregulation agenda and consumer policies.

The address comes as late last week Billson also addressed a roundtable of small business owners and groups, discussing workplace relations, the Fair Work law and red tape.

Billson has also recently announced a possible Small Business Ministerial Advisory Council to provide the government with advice on small business priorities, competition and consumer policies.

Here are four take-outs from Billson’s wide-ranging speech:

1. Technology is changing and business and the law needs to keep up

The adoption and reach of new technologies is growing at an unbelievable pace. Radio took 38 years to reach 50 million people, but Facebook achieved this feat in just two.

Billson says because these changes have happened quickly, businesses and the legal system have struggled to keep up.

“Consumption is increasingly moving online and we need to make sure consumer protections are keeping up with the rapid pace of change,” he says.

“More than one in every four Australians is shopping online each week. And even where they don’t make the purchase online, five out of six have used the web to do research about a potential purchase.”

Billson says Australians are among the world’s largest online shoppers, a fact businesses should embrace.

“Statistics like this tell us that there are big opportunities and benefits for small businesses that sell online. Small businesses should be actively looking to exploit the opportunities of online retailing,” he says.

“But the changing environment also presents challenges for policy-makers and regulators.”

2. Australian Consumer Law is tech neutral

Billson explains Australian Consumer Law provides protections for consumers and small businesses from being misled to “outright scams” ripping people off.

While technology is evolving, ACL is said to be “technology neutral”, according to Billson.

“It applies in the bricks-and-mortar context and for consumers online,” he says.

“This means that the ACL applies in the same way for all retailers – that is, there is a level playing field that encourages competition between businesses.”

While there is often a fierce rivalry between purely online businesses and bricks-and-mortar retailers, Billson says ACL doesn’t discriminate.  

“All consumers in Australia have the same rights and all businesses have the same obligations, irrespective of where they transact,” he says.

“This means consumers can shop confidently, and businesses can have the clarity and consistency they need to keep compliance costs low.”

3. More can be done to improve consumer protections

In the speech, Billson mirrored the concerns of Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims and said there are still concerns to do with “drip pricing” and comparator websites, which is a priority for the consumer watchdog.

“Rod noted that drip pricing can cause both competition and consumer detriment, as the incremental disclosure of fees and charges over an online booking process can mislead consumers about the ultimate price,” he says.

“More can also be done with comparator websites to improve their transparency and reliability, and the ACCC has indicated that it will work with the industry to achieve this.”

4. No more excessive regulation

The Coalition’s red tape agenda has been well communicated and Billson affirmed the government’s commitment to reform.

“Excessive regulation is a drag on productivity and innovation, and we believe that the government’s footprint in the economy should shrink,” Billson says.

“The average time small businesses spend on tax compliance is about 500 hours a year – and that’s just tax compliance. It doesn’t take into account the time and money spent on complying with other regulations.”

Billson says the Coalition is committed to reducing compliance burdens on small business in order to lift productivity and innovation.


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