Debate resumed from 25 February; motion of Ms GARRETT (Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation).
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) — It gives me pleasure to rise to speak on the Veterans and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015. It might not be as exciting as the previous bill about hairdressing. Indeed I hope that you, Acting Speaker, will have the opportunity to make a very short contribution to the debate on that bill when it comes back on.
The Veterans and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015 amends a number of acts and contains some very important provisions. This bill seeks to amend the Veterans Act 2005, the Sale of Land Act 1962, the Australian Consumer Law and Fair Trading Act 2012, the Residential Tenancies Act 1997, the Motor Car Traders Act 1986 and the Cooperatives National Law Application Act 2013, along with the Association Incorporation Reform Act 2012.
The main part of this bill is the amendments with respect to the Veterans Act 2005. Like many others who will contribute to this debate, I will refer to the importance of 2015 for the history of the Anzacs and the Gallipoli landing as part of my contribution, as other members will do during the course of this debate. Principally part 2 of the bill — clauses 3 to 6 — deals with amendments to the Veterans Act. There are four areas of amendment. Firstly, clause 3 enables the minister to seek the advice of the Victorian Veterans Council when determining whether to approve the interstate transfer of patriotic fund assets.
Clause 4 enables the director of Consumer Affairs Victoria to have some limited powers to consent to amend the trust deed of a patriotic fund. Clause 4 also enables the amalgamation of patriotic funds. Clause 5 contains a related amendment to clause 3 and provides for the director or the minister to approve a prescribed amount of patriotic funds to be transferred interstate. Lastly, clause 6 provides for the validation of patriotic fund assets in the event that these assets are inadvertently transferred without prior approval.
In that overview I have just described there is reference to patriotic funds and the Victorian Veterans Council, which play an important role within the veterans community and the community more generally. The question arises: what are patriotic funds? Patriotic funds were created as trust funds after the First World War. They provide an opportunity and a vehicle for Victorian communities to raise funds simply to assist soldiers and their families, which is a noble activity that Victorians continue to be involved in to this day, and it is very important that arrangements are in place for those funds.
The key objective of such funds is to provide welfare services and clubrooms for returned service personnel and their dependants and families. Victoria has around 600 patriotic funds, and they are administered by legally appointed trustees — for example, the Victorian Veterans Council is a trustee of some patriotic funds, as are branches of Legacy, the Victorian branch of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia, and the Returned and Services League, otherwise known as the RSL.
During the course of each year there are a number of different events and fundraising activities for which these trustees go out into the community and seek support. All of us in this chamber advocate very strongly for and support the different appeals at those times. Whether it is the annual Legacy appeal, or the selling of badges and poppies on the most important days in our history, such as Anzac Day, Remembrance Day, Vietnam Veterans Day and other milestones, we actively support those who go out and support those wonderful patriotic funds, the proceeds of which are then distributed. They are really provided for the purposes of supporting our ex-service veterans and their families. That is their key role.
If you are a trustee of a patriotic fund, you have obligations, and it is important to note that these trustees must abide by rules and obligations in terms of the Veterans Act 2005. It was remiss of me at the start not to have thanked the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation, her office and the department for their briefing on this bill. I thank them very much for the material they have been able to provide.
The Victorian Veterans Council is an independent statutory body that was established in 2006. It plays an important role, one of which is to provide advice and report directly to the Minister for Veterans about issues affecting the Victorian veteran community. It also advises the minister and oversees many of our funds, such as the Anzac Day Proceeds Fund and the Victorian Veterans Fund. The Victorian Veterans Council has 11 members, 8 of whom must be members of the ex-services community or members of ex-service organisations. If you do some quick maths, you get the sense that the vast majority of those members have experience in a service or ex-service organisation. The Victorian Veterans Council is headed up by Rear Admiral John Lord, AM, and a number of esteemed members also form part of that group.
As I mentioned, the Victorian Veterans Council oversees the Victorian Veterans Fund. The purpose of that fund is to make sure the community honours and commemorates the service and sacrifices of veterans. It is around education, making sure that Victorians are educated about the story of conflicts that Australians have been a part of over many years. We should not forget as part of that the peacekeeping activities that are also most important; education is not just about conflict but also about peacekeeping. Importantly, it assists with educating the dependants of veterans.
The Anzac Day Proceeds Fund provides practical assistance to veterans and their dependants who are in need, which is terrific. I mentioned the patriotic fund earlier. The Victorian Veterans Council oversees five patriotic funds: the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (Victorian Branch) Scholarship Fund, the Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen and Women Scholarship Fund — Albert Coates Memorial Trust, the Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen and Women Scholarship Fund No. 1 — Nurses Memorial Centre, the War Widows and Widowed Mothers Association Scholarship Fund and the Victorian Blinded Soldiers’ Welfare Patriotic Fund. I read those out to show what types of funds they are trustees of. That is replicated throughout Victoria, so it is a worthy cause.
I will turn to clause 3, which needs to be read in concert with clause 5. It states that the minister must seek the advice of the Victorian Veterans Council, which is a very noble and good point. If I did have a question about it, my question would be to ask when and how that might apply — that is, are there guidelines as to when the minister might seek that guidance from the Victorian Veterans Council? The intent of it is something to be supported, and we certainly do support it. However, there are questions about clarity as the practicalities are still a little bit unknown.
I will turn to clause 5, because it needs to be read in concert with clause 3. This deals with the interstate transfer of patriotic funds. At the moment the Governor in Council has to approve any interstate transfer of patriotic funds. This provision seeks to enable trustees of a patriotic fund to transfer patriotic fund assets to trustees or corporations located in other states without the approval of the Governor in Council with certain conditions — that is, if the value of the assets does not exceed $1000 in any six-month period or any other prescribed amount and the approval of the director is obtained, or the value of the assets does not exceed $5000 in any six-month period or other prescribed amount and the approval of the minister is obtained. Quite simply it is saying that under these proposed provisions the director may approve a transfer of patriotic funds interstate to a figure of up to $1000 in a six-month period or up to $5000 in a six-month period with the approval of a minister.
My question at the briefing was to ask how the government had arrived at these figures and the six-month term. Advice given during the briefing was that it was something that had been sought on the advice of the Victorian Veterans Council. I make that commentary just as part of the debate because it is important to know how these things are arrived at. We will take the government at its word with respect to that.
Clause 6 enables the Governor in Council, minister or director, as appropriate, to validate the transfer of patriotic fund assets that require the approval of the Governor in Council, the minister or the director under section 34, 35 or 36, but which were made without the approval being obtained. If there is a sense that if the funds or assets from the patriotic fund have been inadvertently transferred interstate without that prior approval and the transfer would have been approved by the director, the minister or Governor in Council, there is some recourse to give that transfer the tick of approval. That is something we on this side of the house support. Having said that, it does not exempt a trustee from criminal liability if things have gone wrong in respect of that. That is an important element of the bill.
Clause 4 deals with the amalgamation of patriotic funds and enables the director to approve, on the written application of the trustee of a patriotic fund, either the amendment of the trust deed of that patriotic fund or the adoption of a new trust deed for the fund. Again on the surface that seems a sensible provision, and it is supported by the veterans community. Unfortunately in some jurisdictions where RSL sub-branches are finding it difficult to remain viable and to survive we might see the merging or amalgamation of those sub-branches. The problem we have at the moment is that if both of those sub-branches have patriotic funds, there is no capacity or vehicle to amalgamate those funds. An important provision of this bill, under clause 4, is to ensure that that can now occur.
We support the amendments to the Veterans Act 2005. After I sought feedback on the bill from RSL president David MacLachlan, wrote to me:
The bill provides the mechanism for us to improve our corporate governance arrangements, particularly when sub-branches come together and there will be more of them doing so in the future. This comes about primarily from membership changes and, more importantly, the availability of volunteers with the requisite experience to run organisations of this nature. These sub-branches are essential to the provision of welfare and commemorative support in communities and we certainly don’t wish to see them close altogether hence amalgamation becomes desirable.
In closing, he said:
This bill, as I said earlier, will allow us to amalgamate patriotic fund accounts and reduce administration.
This year is a very important one as we commemorate our history, marking the centenary of Anzac and the Gallipoli landing. A range of activities are occurring across the state. I personally think it has been fantastic to observe and witness in my own community over the last 10 years or so more and more people becoming involved in activities to commemorate such important dates on our calendar. For example, I remember going to the Traralgon dawn service 10 years ago, and the number of people there was moderate, but last year it was absolutely jam packed with people of all ages. It is particularly overwhelming and really encouraging to see so many young people attending services, whether they be Anzac Day or Remembrance Day services. It is absolutely wonderful.
A great initiative supported by both sides of politics has been the Premier’s Spirit of Anzac Prize. Just recently the latest recipients of the prize were announced. I was proud and privileged that in my electorate of Morwell two young people were successful applicants — Cameron Brinsmead from Levalla Catholic College and Laura Campbell from St Paul’s Anglican Grammar School. I think they commence their trip on 28 March and will head over to Lemnos and Athens in Greece; Istanbul and Gallipoli in Turkey; and Paris, France — all over the place. It is a wonderful initiative that gives our younger people an understanding of what happened in those terrible times so that the next generation can continue to tell the story. That is really important.
I sat down with young Cameron and asked if I could have a copy of his application. It was an amazing historical narrative, which was meant to recreate the hardship and emotions of Gallipoli. He had a transcript of communication between Douglas, who was serving in Gallipoli at the time, and his wife Margaret, his loved one back at home. It was an emotional and heartfelt read. They are the types of things that will be commemorated — I was going to say celebrated, but that is not quite the word — to make sure that future generations completely understand the horror of war and what occurred back in 1915.
I also take the opportunity to say thank you to our local RSL clubs and veterans groups, which have done so much over a long period of time to make sure that we honour and respect those who have served.
To digress slightly, I did a bit of research on my own family and have just recently found out that a couple of my great-uncles served in the Second World War — one on the HMAS Lonsdale and one in the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion — and an uncle served in Vietnam. But I had better get back to the bill.
Part 2 of the bill is reasonably well supported by those on this side of the house. In terms of part 3, which amends the Sale of Land Act 1962, from some correspondence received by the government from the Law Institute of Victoria, my understanding is that the institute was concerned about the phrase ‘terms contract’. In effect part 3 deals with some of the terminology that is used. For example, section 29A(1) of the act sets out two circumstances in which a contract for the sale of land will be a terms contract for the purposes of the act. Broadly these are where a purchaser under a contract is required, after execution of the contract, to make multiple payments to the vendor before the purchaser is entitled to transfer of the land, or where a purchaser is entitled to possession or occupation of the land before the purchaser is entitled to a transfer of the land.
Clause 7(1) amends section 29A(1)(b) of the Sale of Land Act 1962 to substitute the words ‘possession of the land or to the receipt of rents and profits’ for the words ‘possession or occupation of the land’.
As was explained to me in the briefing, and as is set out in the explanatory memorandum, removing the word ‘occupation’ is an important element of this. The example was given that if one were to store goods in a shed, that could potentially instigate a terms contract under the current description that is provided. Clause 7(2) amends section 29A(1) of the Sale of Land Act 1962 to deal with a situation where a purchaser may deliberately default on a normal contract for the sale of land and endeavour to instigate the terms contract. It was explained to me as part of the briefing that the language of part 3 of the bill needs some modification to make it very clear what a terms contract is. That is fine. There are also some amendments to the definition of ‘deposit’, but I will not go into any detail on that, given the time remaining.
Moving on to part 4 of the bill, I will deal with clause 9 first, which concerns the delegation powers of the director. Essentially when a director is absent or on leave, the powers to obtain documents, information and other evidence can be delegated to certain other persons. This might be an executive within the description of the Public Administration Act 2004, a person with a classification of a senior technical specialist, or a person with a classification of grade 6 or above. Clause 9 seems rather sensible on its face.
I want to spend some time dealing with clause 8. I think the best way to do that is just to explain what it does very quickly from the explanatory memorandum. We have some concerns about this particular provision, particularly around debt collection practices. The explanatory memorandum states that section 45 of the Australia Consumer Law and Fair Trading Act creates an offence of engaging in a prohibited debt collection practice. Section 45(2)(2) provides that contacting a person about a debt after the person advises in writing that no further communication should be made is a prohibited debt collection practice. What this clause seeks to do is amend section 45(2)(m)(iii) to broaden this exemption to cover all communications for the purpose of complying with the National Credit Code. This will include, for example, notices issued under section 179D of the National Credit Code relating to the default of a consumer lease.
As simply as I can put it, there are some concerns. Certainly some of the stakeholder comments we have received have caused a little bit of concern. For example, the Consumer Action Law Centre, while it supports and acknowledges the intention of the bill in this regard, has some concerns about its possible unintended consequences or perverse outcomes, as it puts it. I turn to deal with some feedback we have received from the centre. The centre agrees that the drafting of the section is currently too narrow. It agrees that being permitted to provide default notices under section 179D of the National Credit Code is sensible. However, it goes on to say:
However, the proposed change may exacerbate existing problems between 45(2)(m) ACL&FTA and section 72 of the National Credit Code (NCC). Section 72 of the NCC provides that:
If a debtor considers that he or she is or will be unable to meet his or her obligations under a credit contract, the debtor may give the credit provider notice (a hardship notice), orally or in writing, of the debtor’s inability to meet the obligations.
Section 72 of the NCC goes on to say that, once a hardship notice is received the credit provider must respond to it in certain ways.
The Consumer Action Law Centre has then given a subsequent example to say what could now occur is that a debtor who is in long-term hardship requests no further communication under section 45(2)(m)(iii) of the act. The credit provider who would receive that notice then reads it as the consumer being unable to meet his or her obligations under section 72 of the National Credit Code. The credit provider then feels obliged to make contact with the debtor as is required under section 72 of the National Credit Code. In summary, the communication has continued despite the request by the consumer that it stop. The Consumer Action Law Centre has said that that is of some concern and has indicated that the paragraph under section 45(2)(m) should list what communications are permitted — for example, the default notices under section 88 and section 179D of the act.
Further to that, Acting Speaker, you would be well aware that in recent days debt collection has been the subject of much media scrutiny. I will turn to the Age of 17 March and an article headed ‘Mick Gatto-linked debt collecting company moves into the racing industry as police push for new laws’. This is of enormous concern to the opposition. I am sure all of us in this house are concerned about the activities of those ‘debt collectors’ who are now pushing into a range of industries, and that concern is certainly shared by police.
We know the changes to the consumer affairs laws in 2010 by the former Labor government, which were proclaimed in 2011, have caused major concern. Indeed if members recall, the second-last paragraph of that Age article says:
Debt collectors no longer needed to be licensed after a relaxation of the laws in 2011 —
I repeat: these laws were instigated under the previous Labor government in 2010, but came into effect in 2011 —
… paving the way for bikies and organised crime figures to establish a strong presence in the industry.
In an article on the ABC News website of 16 March headed ‘Opposition calls for bikie crackdown in Victoria, after claims state being targeted’, shadow Attorney-General John Pesutto stated that the Premier should not have abolished mandatory drug and alcohol testing on construction sites where criminal underworld activities are strong. He said:
He shouldn’t have refused to accept the coalition’s reasonable proposal to crack down on rogue debt collectors —
And I will refer to them in a moment. But then the Attorney-General said that he was open to making changes to the current laws if Victoria Police recommended them. He said:
We’ll certainly listen to the views of Victoria Police. They have not approached me yet …
I do not know where — —
Ms Hennessy — On a point of order, Acting Speaker, while I appreciate that the lead speaker on these bills is given a wide-ranging brief, and I do appreciate that the member only has a very limited amount of time left for the remainder of his contribution, it is my view that his current contribution extends so far beyond the relevance of the bill that the house is currently debating that he should be directed back to the substance of the bill.
Mr NORTHE — On the point of order, Acting Speaker, clause 8 of this bill refers to debt collection and debt collection practices. Lead speakers are always given the liberty of putting forward a broad-ranging view. I am referring to debt collection, and I am now getting to my point of making sure that the house well and truly understands some of the amendments and propositions that were put forward by the coalition as well.
The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms Ward) — Order! The member should continue to speak on the bill.
Mr NORTHE — Getting to my point, the Attorney-General is Sergeant Shultz — ‘I know nothing’ — because on 26 October 2014 the then Attorney-General, the member for Box Hill, put out a media release saying that the coalition would clean up the debt collection industry. The media release refers very clearly to the fact that Victoria Police had identified the need for proper regulation of debt collectors. The media release outlines a range of coalition proposals that we would like to see the government adopt, and that was our policy before the election with regard to debt collection.
In the limited time I have left to speak, the bill makes changes to a number of different acts, but I will move on to the amendments made in part 6 of the bill to the Motor Car Traders Act 1986, which clarify that a person who was but is no longer a licensed motor car trader is still able to be subject to disciplinary action in relation to their conduct while licensed. That provision was born out of a Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal hearing, and we support it. The bill also allows the Governor in Council to appoint a deputy chairperson to the Motor Car Traders Claims Committee.
The amendments made in part 8 of the bill to the Associations Incorporation Reform Act 2012 allow the secretary of an association to apply for an exemption from the requirement to provide access to its register of members to protect privacy for the whole association rather than just an individual. In summary, there are some sensible provisions within this bill but others about which we have concerns.