Consumer Affairs Victoria’s (CAV) 2020–21 year was focused on supporting the Victorian community and economy through the impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and promoting Victoria’s social and economic recovery.
When the pandemic began in 2020, CAV responded quickly to support the community in a time of uncertainty. Our staff rose to the challenge of implementing COVIDSafe workplaces, and I would like to especially thank our front-line staff who continued to provide services, often during periods of increased demand and pressure. This includes our Information and Dispute Services Centre (IDSC) – the CAV contact centre – which kept our priority phone lines and online services open throughout the year with all remaining lines reopened by mid-December. During periods where our inspectors and investigators were unable to conduct on-site inspections, we turned our focus to desk-based compliance activities. As restrictions eased, we resumed on‑site inspections, with a focus on high-risk transactions and conduct.
This year we continued work to protect renters and rental providers under the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020, particularly by delivering services under the Residential Tenancies Dispute Resolution Scheme (RTDRS). Our work in partnership with the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria (DSCV) helped tens of thousands of Victorians reach agreements on reduced rent and access various relief schemes.
The end of these emergency measures on 28 March 2021 coincided with the introduction of new rental laws, ensuring there was no gap in protection for renters. The Residential Tenancies Amendment Act 2018 introduced more than 130 reforms to Victoria’s rental laws from 29 March 2021, creating a safer and fairer rental market for Victorian renters and rental providers. Our comprehensive communications and education campaign supported renters, rental providers, industry groups, community organisations and government partners to transition to the new laws.
Our compliance program supported safe and secure housing for rooming house residents. This included on-site inspections to check compliance with safety standards and to promote COVIDSafe environments in rooming houses. We also responded to Victorian community concerns about underquoting and trust account defalcations by identifying and responding to misconduct by estate agents.
In 2020–21, we instigated a range of enforcement actions against businesses for unfair practices across our regulated industries. In addition to responding to conduct identified in our rooming house, underquoting and trust account compliance programs noted above, we finalised a significant court action against a solar panel business which was found in breach of the Australian Consumer Law. The company was fined $3 million in the Federal Court, and its director ordered to pay $450,000 and banned from being a company director for five years.
We also issued two public warnings, with the first about an unregistered builder who was misleading consumers and providing substandard building works and the second about a furniture removalist for a range of poor practices. Our enforcement work will continue into next year, with nine criminal matters currently before the courts.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to impact consumers and businesses across the state, we found avenues to make it easier for businesses to comply with their compliance obligations. We supported refunds and extensions of time to meet regulatory obligations and simplified fundraiser obligations.
During the year we undertook significant work and consultation to prepare for the introduction of the Professional Engineers Registration Act 2019 on 1 July 2021. This new registration scheme delivers on an important government commitment, supporting infrastructure delivery in Victoria and giving Victorians greater confidence by ensuring only suitably qualified and experienced engineers provide professional engineering services. Under a co-regulatory model, and in a first for Victoria, registration will be jointly administered by the engineering profession and government.
Last year we reported our IDSC would be moving from Melbourne to the GovHub in Ballarat as part of the Victorian Government’s commitment to invest in regional Victoria. I am happy to advise the transition of 105 employees to the GovHub concluded on 28 June 2021, finalising a four-year transition of its operations and workforce to this important regional hub.
Looking ahead to 2021–22, we are committed to focusing on consumer wellbeing, minimising the risk of consumer harm and supporting the confident participation of consumers and businesses in a market still impacted by the pandemic. We will continue to focus on responding to the impacts of COVID-19, providing funding for services to support the most vulnerable in our community and supporting consumers with up-to-date information through a range of communication channels. We will also work with businesses and organisations to ensure regulatory obligations can be clearly understood and that it is easier and faster to interact with us. Risk-based decision making will be central to our compliance program and working closely with partners will be an important element of achieving these aims.
I would like to thank the Minister for Consumer Affairs, the Hon Melissa Horne MP, for her ongoing support this year. I would also like to acknowledge and thank our colleagues in funded agencies delivering critical services to vulnerable Victorians, our partners across the department and other government agencies and regulators for their support, as well as again our staff for their resilience and hard work this year. While the year ahead will present new challenges, I am confident 2020–2021 has shown that as a regulator, Consumer Affairs Victoria has the flexibility, agility and expertise to contribute meaningfully to the government’s efforts to support Victorians through a period of ongoing change and uncertainty.
Executive Director, Regulatory Services &
Director, Consumer Affairs Victoria