TRAVEL AGENTS REPEAL BILL 2013
Ms GARRETT (Brunswick) — Thank you, Deputy Speaker, and congratulations on your elevation to the Deputy Speaker role. I am certain you will discharge your duties with the impartiality and skill that we have known you to possess.
It is a pleasure to rise to speak on the Travel Agents Repeal Bill 2013. As many of my colleagues have already pointed out and made clear, Labor opposes this bill.
It does so because it believes that at the heart of any legislative response in the area of consumer affairs should be the issue of consumer protection. This bill fails that test.
At this time it is important to acknowledge the hard work of the shadow minister responsible for this bill, the member for Preston. He is known in our show as extraordinarily forensic; his attention to detail is renowned. He has examined every corner of this proposed legislative response and provided very clear direction for the Labor caucus as to why this bill should not be supported by the opposition.
When we consider this bill and when we consider the fundamental and critical nature of consumer protection, the devastation for consumers in this area cannot be understated. When things go wrong in this space, they go very, very wrong.
Hardworking men and women who save, often for months and years, for holidays for themselves and their families expect — indeed quite rightly demand — that they should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Removing consumer protections means that those hardworking men and women are at risk of losing not just their money but also their effort, their hopes and their dreams along with the hopes and dreams of their families. Frankly, it is a thoughtless and careless approach from what has been a demonstrably thoughtless and careless Napthine government.
As we have heard, the bill seeks to do a range of things. It applies to an agreement reached in December 2012 amongst state and commonwealth ministers, or a majority thereof, to abolish the cooperative scheme for the uniform regulation of travel agents, thereby removing a range of requirements from travel agents.
It seeks to abolish a national scheme which commenced in 1986 and which has regulated intermediary agents who make travel-related arrangements for travel consumers. As we have also heard, the national scheme requires travel agents to be licensed and to be ongoing members of the Travel Compensation Fund. For the state government to wind this back requires very good cause.
The government’s stated rationale for introducing this legislation is based on a number of issues, including the fact that the rise in bookings made online has led to a significant reduction in the use of travel agents and therefore a reduction in the number of people who are able to access the Travel Compensation Fund; that other regulations — including existing company laws, voluntary insurance products and credit card chargebacks — provide enough protection for consumers, according to the government; that the travel agent market is dominated by a small number of big companies which are subject to a range of existing controls; and that, also according to the government, the new voluntary accreditation system, which is to be led by industry, will be sufficient to cover the range of consumers who rely on travel agents to book their holidays.
We have heard, most notably from our lead speaker, the member for Preston, that key stakeholders, including CHOICE, have expressed considerable concerns about this bill.
The major issues highlighted by CHOICE include that the bill is a piecemeal response and is not an appropriate replacement for a compulsory compensation scheme because, for example, not everyone uses their credit card to pay for their holidays online. It is also of concern, according to CHOICE, that the government is imposing a system that promotes high cost debt payments through the form of credit cards, that existing products do not cover travel agents’ insolvency and, most importantly — and I think the house should reflect on this — that there is no certainty, would you believe, that such coverage will emerge if the fund is abolished.
As the member for Evelyn assumes the Chair, I will just pause to place on the record my congratulations on her elevation to the role of Speaker. I will return to the bill. As the member for Dandenong quite rightly pointed out during his contribution, many migrants use travel agents on a regular basis to book their trips overseas.
This is also particularly relevant to my electorate of Brunswick as well as that of Richmond. The member for Dandenong spoke about migrants going to the bank to take out money before visiting their travel agents, and doing this over many years. These people will be left terribly exposed by the changes proposed by this legislation. As the member for Ivanhoe pointed out, we know that a voluntary scheme will not provide consumers with the protection they deserve.
In CHOICE’s submission to the government’s draft plan on this matter, it argues very strongly — and those opposite should take note — that in its view the proposed changes are likely to leave travellers out of pocket and fall well short of the government’s stated commitment to enhance consumer protection. Labor shares the deep and well-considered concerns of the highly respected consumer advocacy group CHOICE. We believe that this bill and the scheme it introduces will hurt consumers, particularly the many who cannot or do not want to rely on using credit cards to make bookings online.
We know — and the member for Prahran also knows this through the government’s own figures — that about one-third of all travel expenditure is still made through travel agents and that a huge number of people rely on a robust regulatory system to make sure that travel agents are doing their jobs properly and that in the case of insolvency there is some recourse.
Why are we not surprised that the government has failed to properly articulate a message about or articulate how this substantial group of consumers will be protected with the abolition of the mandatory accreditation scheme? Unsurprisingly the government has failed to demonstrate how small consumers — particular those on the lower end of the economic scale, and we do hope that the Napthine government will recognise them at some point — will be able to finance or launch insolvency actions under the complex web of existing insolvency legislation regulation. Those in the house may or may not know that I was formerly a
lawyer — —
Mr Wynne — Oh, really?
Ms GARRETT — I say to the member for Richmond that, yes, I was a lawyer.
I know the complexity of navigating a system when you are a small punter who has been done over or lost money at a very low scale — it is very hard to navigate that system. The member for Prahran will know how hard it is to navigate the system. The loss of your holiday, for which you have saved so hard for your family to enjoy, is so keenly felt. The loss is huge when you consider what you would have to do to go forward and prosecute.
There has been no proper explanation from the government — again, why are we not surprised? — of why the Travel Compensation Fund should be abolished. Once again the government has failed to demonstrate why it is necessary to not have an independent consumer complaints system.
In summary, Labor does not oppose this bill lightly. It understands that times have changed; it understands that the ways people navigate their social and leisure times have changed.
But they have not changed to the extent that a significant number of people do not still need the protections provided by the Travel Compensation Fund and the regulatory system, because the losses from rogue agents are great if there is a problem. They will be far greater if this government fails to properly assess the situation or consult and quite frankly fails to properly protect the consumers of this state. Labor opposes this bill and does so with pride.