Australian Consumer Law

This article was originally written for the October 2021 edition of Hemispheric News, delivered as part of the Hemispheric Views podcast member bonus program, One Prime Plus

The Australian Consumer Law (ACL) is an unsung hero for the everyday Australian citizen. In 2011 it was introduced and replaced a bunch of outdated legislation, notably the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth). That piece of 1974 legislation was a foundation block of my university degree and I think s.52 is still seared into my brain.

At the time of its introduction I was working in the business lobby, and I remember the doom and gloom scenarios that companies were painting. “It will destroy us!", “where’s the fairness?” were refrains heard all too often. Really makes the heart bleed. 🤷‍♂️

The legislation was introduced during the 43rd Parliament of Australia, led by The Hon Julia Gillard AC. Yet another achievement of a government that wasn’t thought highly of, but had a history of legislative achievement unlike many others, and certainly any since.

The ACL rebalances the scales in commerce to provide better support to consumers who buy in good faith, but who turn out to have bought items not of merchantable quality. There are a host of provisions, but this is the crux: if a product fails to meet its stated purpose within 12 months of purchase as new, then the buyer is entitled to remedial action, including a full refund. This also can’t be waived by not returning in original packaging, or any other kind of ‘gotcha’.

This is how operation of the ACL can be explained:

When the consumer chooses a refund:

The supplier must repay any money paid by the consumer for the returned goods, and return any other form of payment made by the consumer — for example, a trade-in.

If this is not possible, they must refund the consumer the value of the other form of payment.

A supplier must not:

  • offer a credit note, exchange card or replacement goods instead of a refund

  • refuse a refund, or reduce the amount, because the goods were not returned in the original packaging or wrapping.

A consumer will usually need to show a receipt or other ‘proof of purchase’.

ACL rendered Apple’s traditional AppleCare product obsolete in Australia. For a period of time there was virtually no point buying AppleCare because it offered no benefit beyond that which the ACL enshrined in law. Now we have AppleCare+ and the benefits of cheap screen repairs, but failing equipment is still no reason to consider buying that particular insurance policy.

I’ve experienced some problems with some wifi routers I bought about 4 months ago from Amazon. Upon a reminder from a Hemispheric Views Patron I found the option to make a call to Amazon. Upon determining that I was in Australia, I was offered 3 options. The first two seemed like weird cruddy deals that people in other countries have to put up with (sending the faulty unit back and waiting for a replacement of that part, or accepting a part refund of $130). The third option was my ACL protection - the ability to send the whole thing back to Amazon for a full refund. That’s what I wanted, and that’s the option I took. The other choices paled in comparison.

You see evidence of the ACL quietly in action (and markedly different to other jurisdictions) in everything you buy in Australia. Vendors are required to insert a printed sheet explaining a consumer’s rights. There is no need to complete those shoddy ‘guarantee’ forms to gain warranty protection from the ACL.

This is an area of governance that the Australian government got right, and I’m so glad that it is in operation. And despite all the clutching of pearls, no businesses seem to have gone bankrupt as a result of the ACL.

Andrew Canion @canion