The Trade Practices Act (TPA) is too big and too complicated. The Government has introduced phase I of their two-phase plan to implement a new Australian Consumer Law which will bulk up the Act even further (the Bill alone runs to 84 pages). The adds to the additional 90 pages of statutory text generated by the recent passage of the criminal cartel act. It cannot go on … the annotated acts are bursting at their seems.
So what can be done to stem the flow of dense legislative supplements to what was once a neat little Act (the original 1974 Act comprised a little over 38,000 words of text; the current consolidation contains more than 305,000 words)? The answer is probably nothing. It is unlikely there will be any substantive legislative repeals or genuine attempts at simplification, although this would be desirable, and the problem is likely to get worse with current inquiries into unconscionable conduct, creeping acquisitions and the meaning of ‘understanding’ in part IV of the Act likely to generate more legislative content in the near future. Another answer is needed.
Chris Bowen MP, when he was then Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs, announced that the Government would change the name of the TPA to the ‘Australian Competition and Consumer Act’ while in the process of implementing the Australian Consumer Law. It was though that somehow this would ‘better reflect its purposes of promoting competition and empowering consumers’. It is believed the Govenment is still intent on this name change. Although, as a bit of a traditionalist, it hurts me to part with the term ‘Trade Practices Act’, of which I am now very fond, the proposed name change might present an opporunity. While in the process of changing the Act’s name why not split it up? Let’s divide it into a consumer act (‘Australian Consumer Act’ perhaps) and a competition act (‘Australian Competition Act’?). These are two separate fields of law and policy (even if there may be some overlapping objectives) – they need not be married together in this legislative jungle.
While we’re in the process of splitting up the Act let’s also re-number it. A multitude of additions and alterations over the years has led to an absurd numbering system. The last part of the Act is Part XIII. You might deduce from this that the Act has 13 parts. You would be wrong; it in fact has 28 parts and a schedule. Parts include IIIAA, XIAA, XIB etc. All very logical! The section numbering is even better. The new cartel laws begin with section 44ZZRA and end with section 44ZZRV. Why? Because the government wanted to slip them in between sections 44ZZR and 45. Again, very logical and easy to follow for business trying to adhere to the law – and this is not the worst of it. This bizarre numbering is scattered throughout. We have s 51ACAA (I kid you not), s 44AAGA, s 75AZQ, s 87CAA, s 95AZEA (seriously!), s 10.01 (yes, in Part X the numbering system completely changes – we go from s 119 to s 10.01 – 10.91 then we jump to s 150A at the start of Part XIA – there are no sections 120-150 in the Act) and my personal favorite, s 151BUAAA. It is simply absurd.
So, with the re-naming and and of the Act we can also begin a re-numbering system. Nobody really loves s 151BUAAA or will be sorry to see it go. Lets put what we want in the Act (or Acts), then start the renumbering of parts and sections from scratch. No doubt future amendments will mess this up a little, but the Act cannot continue on it’s current numbering trajectory.
There are, of course, more serious issues than poor structure and numbering of the Act. It is highly complex and, as a result, inaccessible for many of those parties to whom it is directed (consumers and business). But a simplified structure (one that clearly separates consumer and competition legislation and policy) and a logical numbering system would, at the very least, be a good start.