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Consumer Voices: Sustaining advocacy and research in Australias new consumer policy framework issues paper; Submission to Treasury (June 2009)

Office's submission to the Treasury's 'Consumer Voices: Sustaining advocacy and research in Australia's new consumer policy framework' issues paper

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Background

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (the Office) welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Consumer Voices: Sustaining advocacy and research in Australia's new consumer policy framework issues paper. The Office's comments focus on the issues raised in Chapter 3 of the paper, concerning policy-related consumer research.

The Office previously made a submission to the Productivity Commission commenting on privacy issues raised in the Commission's draft report of its Review of Australia's Consumer Policy Framework.[1]

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner is an independent statutory body whose purpose is to promote and protect privacy in Australia. The Office, established under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (the Privacy Act), has responsibilities for the protection of individuals' personal information that is held by Australian and ACT Government agencies, all large private sector organisations, all health service providers, and some small businesses. The Office also has responsibilities under the Privacy Act in relation to credit worthiness information held by credit reporting agencies and credit providers, and personal tax file numbers used by individuals and organisations.

The Office's role includes community education, provision of policy advice to agencies and organisations, and monitoring the impact of technological changes on privacy and data protection.

Role of regulators in contributing to consumer-focused policy research

The Office recognises that consumer voices can be heard by government in a variety of ways.

Consumer advocacy organisations have an important role to play in contributing to the body of consumer research. Regulators, including this Office, can assist consumer advocacy organisations in conducting such research by making relevant information public, such as complaint and enquiry statistics, to inform their research. It is important that regulators provide ready access to such information to the community, including to consumer advocates to support their research and advocacy roles.

Regulators also play a significant role by undertaking or commissioning research on consumer attitudes relevant to their sphere of responsibility.

For example, the Office has conducted a quantitative study of community attitudes towards privacy, in 1994, 2001, 2004 and 2007.[2] The research involves a nation-wide telephone survey, with the interviewed respondents being representative of the adult population nationwide. The study aims to understand Australians' changing awareness and opinions about privacy laws and how they apply to government and business, and how individuals view a range of emerging issues such as identity fraud and the use of closed circuit television.

The longitudinal nature of the research enables the Office to monitor changes in community attitudes relating to handling of their personal information over time. It also provides the Office with feedback on the level of consumer awareness of privacy laws. The Office draws on the findings of this research to:

  • inform the provision of responsive policy advice to government, and
  • target communication products effectively to consumer groups.

The research also helps to ensure that the Government is kept informed about consumer views about significant societal changes that may impact on Australians' understanding of their rights and responsibilities under the Privacy Act. Such changes may in turn require an informed legislative or policy response.

The issues paper acknowledges the contribution of government agencies in undertaking or commissioning consumer focused policy research. At the same time, the extent to which some regulators are able to have an active research agenda is dependent on resources, particularly for smaller agencies.

Effective models for funding consumer policy research

The issues paper seeks views on future models for government support for consumer research. The paper notes that 'The Australian Government is ... conscious of the need to ensure that ongoing government support for consumer policy-focused research is coherent in its focus, services government policy priorities and processes effectively and is sustainable in the medium to long term.' (page 17)

In the Office's view, it is important that consumers are able to influence and help to formulate the research agenda.

Regulators are also well placed to identify gaps in the existing evidence base which would benefit from additional research. For example, in the privacy area, there has been limited Australian research on attitudes of young people about how their personal information is handled. Quantitative and qualitative research in this area would be useful in building an understanding of inter-generational differences in privacy concerns, knowledge, and behaviours. In turn, this would help to inform whole-of-government policy responses to emerging issues and enable more effective targeting of education about privacy to young people.

The Office suggests that consideration could be given to providing funding to regulators to manage a program of contestable grants within their particular sphere of expertise. This model would have the benefit of providing an independent process for identifying research priorities and managing the research process.

An example of this model is provided by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, which hosts a Contribution Program to support research into the protection of personal information. The Canadian Parliament provides a specific allocation of funding to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada to run this program, currently 500,000 Canadian dollars per annum. A variety of not-for-profit organisations are encouraged to apply for funding through this program, including consumer and advocacy groups.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada disseminates the findings of the research in a number of ways - posting summaries of the research reports on their website[3], as well as links to recipient web pages where the full text of the reports can be accessed, and organising workshops which bring together some of the recipients who have received funding under the Program. Researchers for the parliamentary committee which oversees the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's work use the material generated from the research it funds.


[1] Available at: http://www.privacy.gov.au/materials/types/submissions/view/6749

[2] Office of the Privacy Commissioner, Community Attitudes Research 2001, 2004, and 2007, available at: http://www.privacy.gov.au/aboutprivacy/attitudes

[3] At http://www.priv.gc.ca/resource/cp/index_e.cfm