Improving the Effectiveness of the Consumer Product Safety System: Australian Law Reform in Asia-Pacific Context

[This is the original draft blog for The Conversation, related to my ongoing ARC-funded joint research project DP170103136 and a paper this year (manuscript on SSRN.com here). A version will be presented and then discussed in the 1 December 2020 webinar for the International Association of Consumer Law (pre-recording available here).]

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of safety risks, but also the socio-economic costs to reduce them. Public health interventions can also collide with human rights and constitutional principles, and undermine state capacity. Australia’s policy-makers and regulators are still facing many difficult choices.

In consumer law, they and peak NGOs like Choice have been busy grappling with a range of pandemic-related issues. These range from hand sanitiser quality through to refunds for airfares and other travel services. Nonetheless, hopefully policy-makers can now get back to some unfinished business, as we learn to live with COVID-19 while praying for a vaccine or cure.

In October 2019 the Treasury released its Consultation Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) entitled “Improving the Effectiveness of the Consumer Product Safety System”. This was part of a suite of reform initiatives agreed after the 2016-7 review of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), which re-harmonised consumer rights and regulatory powers nationally from 2011.

The review’s Final Report and now the RIS considered adding to the ACL an EU-style “general safety provision”. European countries (such as the UK in 1987, then the EU from 1992), as well as Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia (1999), Canada (2010) and Singapore (2011, partially), have introduced such a GSP. It was discussed in several earlier government inquiries, notably by the Productivity Commission in 2006 and 2008, but the Commission concluded that the ACL should try some other measures first. A GSP would require manufacturers and importers to ensure that they only supply safe consumer products, otherwise risk public law sanctions from regulators.

Choice found that many Australians wrongly assume we already have this requirement. Yet the ACL currently only allows mandatory safety standards to be set pro-actively for specific types of general consumer products (currently around 40). Regulators can also issue bans (around 20) for products found unsafe, but this is a reactive response.

Also only after harm arises, manufacturers indirectly incentivised to supply safe products by harmed consumers potentially bringing strict liability compensation claims. But such ACL product liability claims, requiring individuals to prove a “safety defect”, are diminishing. Even large class action law firms prefer focusing resources on simpler claims by shareholders against companies for misleading conduct.

The Treasury’s draft RIS invited public comment on various reform options and three perceived problems. One problem was misunderstanding about the current ACL regime. A second was its largely reactive nature, impacting on regulatory interventions and supplier behaviour. A third was considerable harm from unsafe consumer products. The ACCC identified 780 deaths and 52000 injuries annually. It also estimated at least a $4.5 billion annual economic cost, assuming around a $200,000 “value of a statistical life year” for premature deaths and disability. There were also costs of $0.5 billion in direct hospital costs for governments, and further costs associated with minor injuries and consequential property loss.

My own Submission and a related peer-reviewed article added comparative empirical data in support of a GSP. First, the OECD Global Recalls portal shows that Australia reported higher per capita voluntary recalls over 2017-9 than Korea, the UK, Japan and the USA. Australia had a rate similar to Canada, but its legislation has a more expansive duty on suppliers to report product accidents to regulators compared to that added to the ACL. A large proportion of our recalls involve child products, mostly from China.

[Table 1: Comparing Australia’s Recalls (2017-9)]

Secondly, annual recalls have been growing in Australia, as pointed out by Catherine Niven et al (co-researchers for our ARC-funded project comparing child product safety) and various submissions by Choice. The uptick is noticeable from around 2012, tracking burgeoning e-commerce and more importers dealing with more manufacturers abroad.

[Figure 1: Australia’s Recalls (1998-2019)]

The USA instead had fewer recalls after introducing third-party conformity assessment for toy exporters after problems around 2008. Niven et al add that Australian recall notices do not need to include some significant information. Many Australian recalls of child products also involve breaches of the mandatory standards that have actually been set. Our regulators could try to sanction local suppliers more for that. But introducing a broader GSP, alongside some of the other RIS options and/or “product safety substantiation” power as discussed in my article, would encourage a “paradigm shift” needed among Australian firms.

Suppliers would need to think more carefully about (and document) safety assessments before putting consumer products on the market. This is more efficient and safer than releasing products and then trying to recall them after problems start to be reported, hoping not too many consumers get harmed. It would also encourage Australian firms to “trade up”, like counterparts overseas, to the standards expected in many of our trading partners.

[Luke Nottage receives funding from the Australian Research Council: DP170103136, “Evaluating consumer product regulatory responses to improve child safety”. He provides occasional pro bono advice to Choice regarding consumer law and policy reform, and acknowledges assistance from them in compiling what is reproduced here as Figure 1.]

Comparing Australia’s Response to COVID-19: Against Whom, What, Why and How? Submission to a Senate Inquiry

Written by: Luke Nottage (Sydney Law School) and Tom van Laer (Sydney Business School)

We welcome this opportunity to provide a Submission to the Australian Parliament’s “Senate Committee on COVID-19” inquiry into the Australian government’s response to the outbreak and pandemic.[1] It seems very early to begin making such an assessment. But we o1ffer from our respective disciplines (comparative law and narratology) some preliminary observations as well as lines for future investigation that may assist Parliament and others contributing to this ongoing debate.

  • Our analysis builds partly on our recent joint contribution to USydney blogs (here and forthcoming).[2] One key message from that contribution is that this pandemic and its response have created a new narrative world, rather like a peculiar disaster movie, that prioritises only certain types of heroes and “expertise”. Another key point is that different countries nonetheless have been able to respond well if they have and can mobilise citizens’ trust in communities and (generally well-run) government.[3] A third lesson is that as Australia keeps trying now to move into a phase of socio-economic revitalisation, a new narrative will emerge and could be framed by political and other leaders.
  • In addition, more broadly, basic methodology in comparative law highlights the importance of working out what to compare and why. This is not obvious even if we try to focus on health outcomes. For this parliamentary inquiry, one question is whether to focus on death rates (which are easier to measure and compare, and the ultimate concern) or infection rates (varying widely depending on national testing regimes, but still maybe useful for projecting rates of deaths and serious treatments). On either measure, Australia has been doing extremely well by global standards.
  • If focusing mainly on COVID-19 death rates in assessing a current or future response, however, another aspect is whether and how to count deaths that are indirectly caused by the virus even over the short- to medium-term. These could include deaths from deferred or delayed surgeries or treatments, a greater than usual number of suicides (prompted by extended isolation) and more fatal traffic accidents (found eg in some parts of Japan despite an overall drop, as travel restrictions emptied streets so cars were driven faster).[4] Even greater complications come from trying to assess long-term consequences for the health and related welfare systems, from lockdown measures that result inevitably in severe economic slowdowns, as the stress from long-term un(der)employment is known to be extensive but hard to measure. It is even more complex to compare such effects across countries, as they have very different baselines regarding unemployment and health/welfare systems.
  • Contemporary experts in comparative law are also very attuned to considering what is being compared in terms of law. It is usually not enough to just compare the “black-letter law” rules set out in primary or secondary legislation. (This is well illustrated by Australia’s public health orders restricting movement, which needed to be further “interpreted”, eg as to what constitutes permitted “exercise”, by health ministers and/or police commissioners.[5]) Nor is it even enough to consider case law interpreting legislation (for which anyway there has been hardly any in Australia relating to pandemic responses, unlike countries like France or Germany with constitutionally-protected civil liberties).[6] We also need to compare norms that are “law-like” in terms of origin (from or supported by the government) and impact. Our blog posting mentions Sweden and Japan as countries where social distancing and travel restrictions are being implemented effectively, even among growing death and infection rates respectively, largely without police-enforced criminal or administrative sanctions. A question for this inquiry is therefore what Australia’s more narrowly legalistic response says about how we operate and our values as a society.
  • Japan’s pandemic response, which mostly appeals to communitarian norms of self-restraint rather than having the government and police enforce strict legal rules (as in Australia, albeit with local differences), is reminiscent of John Haley’s argument that Japan even in modern times is governed quite effectively by Authority Without Power (OUP, 1991). Regarding limited “power”, through legal enforcement mechanisms, legal sociologist Takao Tanase’s Community and the Law (co-translated for Elgar, 2010) highlights that Japan remains acutely aware that rigorously extending a “modern” legal system into socio-economic ordering can often be a double-edged sword – even as it has embarked on another wave of justice system reform this century.[7]
  • Relatedly, a final general lesson from comparative law methodology is to be aware of who we are comparing, ie which legal systems. The US is often an outlier, in its law and related socio-economic system,[8] so this Inquiry and later analyses should probably not focus much on that country. Australian jurists (and others) also often compare the UK, as the “mother country” still especially for basic legal principles, but we now borrow more instrumentally and widely, so should keep looking at other (continental) European as well as Asian countries. In particular, we can learn from the comparatively effective yet diverse pandemic responses adopted in East Asia, as mentioned in our joint blog posting added to this Submission.
  • With these methodological principles in mind, one conclusion that emerges from a preliminary comparative analysis of the pandemic is the importance of “proportionality” and “subsidiarity” principles in regulatory responses (including in international law, such as investment treaties[9] – often examined recently in Australian parliamentary inquiries).[10] As in public and private health, it is risky to jump in quickly with stronger measures, especially where there are uncertainties; to minimise side-effects and unexpected consequences, it is usually better to begin with less intensive interventions. Even when we set a short-term public health goal (like COVID-19 infection or especially death rates), and re-set goals as evidence becomes available or circumstances evolve, the response should be proportionate. It should seek to minimise adverse longer-term health effects (eg physical or mental health problems or suicides from sustained social isolation) and other adverse socio-economic impact (including economic contraction impacting on funding for the health and related social welfare systems). To get the balance right often means devolving decision-making authority to lower levels in government, with better information about constraints and impacts: the subsidiarity principle, well-developed say within the EU.
  • Japan seems to have pursued quite a proportionate response, only increasing restraints after infections started to escalate in March, rather like Sweden (but the latter with a much higher death rate). Yet Japan shows less devolution, arguably due to quite a centralised polity, despite the important policy-making contributions by Tokyo and Osaka governors. As a federal system, Australia has displayed more subsidiarity. Prime Minister Morrison and the federal government did usefully innovate around the Constitution by creating a “national cabinet” including premiers or leaders of all states and territories, to help coordinate pandemic responses in light of public health and economic advice. But states and territories across this huge island continent have still differed in timing, scope and implementation of pandemic responses, linked to infection and death rates but also arguably politics (with more centre-left states intervening more, notably Victoria eg not allowing solo fishing as golf as permitted “exercise”). Responses also vary even at local council level (with eg some even in New South Wales closing off city beaches to surfers, even if not necessarily at risk of police closing them down for exceeding state-level restrictions on crowds).
  • By contrast, New Zealand, a much stricter lockdown was implemented nation-wide with no regional variation, aiming at “eradication” rather than “management” of the virus.[11] In hindsight so far, given similar health outcomes so far compared to Australia, the policy seems less proportionate given the necessarily much greater adverse socio-economic impact (even in a more agrarian economy). Perhaps the policy was influenced by the electoral cycle, with Prime Minister Ardern before the pandemic viewed as facing a close election in September this year[12] – leaders don’t want to go to the polls amidst escalating death rates. But the policy could be implemented nation-wide because New Zealand still probably has what former constitutional law professor (and later Prime Minister) Geoffrey Palmer criticised as “the fastest law in the West”.[13] New Zealand still has a unitary state with only one house of parliament and no constitutional bill of rights, and quickly enacted new lockdown legislation,[14] attracting some belated and muted criticism.[15]
  • Another conclusion from a preliminary comparative analysis is that countries and their residents often tend to display a curious nationalism regarding their respective pandemic responses. New Zealanders mostly still seem very happy with their government’s measures. Perhaps this reflects a psychological defence mechanism to deal with a tough lockdown, or an undercurrent of historical deference to authority (“conservative reformism”, as put in an analysis comparing Japan’s “reformist conservatism” in legal education),[16] or a sense of nationhood premised on New Zealand leading the world (eg first to give votes to women, expanding the welfare state over the 20th century, then deregulating dramatically  in the 1980s while going “nuclear-free”), or more risk aversion generally. Another factor is that New Zealanders may feel a bit threatened by bigger resource-rich Australia. On the last point, it would be interesting to see how say smaller countries with closely linked larger neighbours (like Korea and Japan, or Japan and China) perceive comparative responses. It would also be interesting to research how emigres perceive the pandemic responses in their new countries. Perhaps they are very optimistic and supportive because they want to subconsciously justify their immigration choice (Nottage, as a New Zealander who emigrated to Sydney two decades ago, may be an example), or instead very critical (perhaps linked to different disappointments in having moved country).
  • A further point that emerges from comparative analysis is that wider narratives can differ even towards a global crisis with many commonalities. Trying with difficulty to discern Australia’s narrative towards disasters during its summer of bushfires, Tom van Laer was struck that the British government typically deploys a narrative of “we can endure this”. That was developed first doing the Blitz of London during World War II, and revived to deal with IRA and later terrorist attacks. The narrative in Australia seems much less definite and consistent, and perhaps this is because the country (let alone New Zealand) has fortunately had few natural and other disasters. The narrative response by Japan’s leaders nowadays seems quite British, but is worth investigating further in comparison also with Asian countries. We should also track how narratives are evolving as, at least in Australia and some countries, the COVID-19 pandemic shifts from being primarily a health crisis to being an economic crisis. The related narrative tension was highlighted quite early in Australia by Prime Minister Morrison talking about the pandemic being about both “lives and livelihoods”, but we should track how a new story-line develops compared to the countries, as suggested towards the end of our joint blog posting.
  • In addition, drawing more directly on the disciplinary perspective of narratology (how people use stories to persuade each other), Parliament first would benefit from working more systematically and curatorially with academics in developing and supplying official narratives, props, sites and endorsements. Limiting the potential for contradictions, such collaborations increase the likelihood citizens will cope with returning from the pandemic in a similar way. Parliament too may creatively use the experience of the pandemic. For example, mementos can materialize the successful return from the pandemic to the everyday world, a transition of which to be proud.
  • Second, emotionally distress because of the pandemic experience means that there is a vital role for Parliament to play in intentional interventions designed to help citizens cope with distress step by step. It is one thing to assert that citizens can be convinced that distress is cathartic; research findings instead show transforming that distress into benefits turns out to be complex and complicated, and may require a professional approach. To clarify, a reference to theatre may be helpful. In professional productions, trained actors typically are the ones to build narrative worlds. In “method acting” they blend their primary, ordinary lives into the narrative worlds and let the narrative worlds embrace them. Meanwhile they self-consciously realize the adopted narrative world is important but nonetheless different from the “real” world, a realization which eases coping with distress. The ease of getting out of the narrative of our pandemic world therefore constitutes a skill that drama schools teaching method acting could train citizens to do too. Meanwhile, extraordinary experience providers at large can consider offering intentional interventions like consultations, courses, counselling, discussions, therapies or training.
  • Third, this Senate Committee inquiry speaks to impactful issues in experiential industries more broadly. For example, both COVID-19 and virtual reality involve narrative worlds, which may present a costly challenge. These parallels explain the rise in addiction to certain video games and particularly richer virtual reality (e.g., Zoom) to which citizens can return whenever they like, for as long or as short a time as desired. For them, these realities stand as continuous identity reaffirmation and renewal, which can occur in no other way. To stop is to diminish the self. By contrast, the pandemic world will not continue forever to place a mental or physical burden on citizens. They therefore must treat their recent extraordinary experience as a series of happenings that transported their self profoundly but temporarily. They then can process it with awareness and abandon. Resumption of disbelief in the everyday world lies close to the heart of such successful retainment of ordinary life. Citizens ought to analogise the pandemic reality as a temporary narrative world, and become (or be made) aware that their alternate reality can only contribute to transformation of the everyday world if they at least periodically withdraw and reflect. The government has many opportunities and resources to help their citizens in this endeavour.

[1] https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/COVID-19

[2] See https://japaneselaw.sydney.edu.au/2020/05/covid-19-in-asia-and-beyond-we-are-story-characters-living-in-a-new-story-world/ and forthcoming via https://sbi.sydney.edu.au/coronavirus.

[3] As Prof Francis Fukuyama notes in a recent interview, the effectiveness of  COVID-19 responses lie less in regime type, but rather whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state: https://supchina.com/2020/05/01/francis-fukuyama-interview-covid-19/

[4] https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20200516/p2g/00m/0na/010000c

[5] See generally our colleague A/Prof Andrew Edgar, https://auspublaw.org/2020/03/law-making-in-a-crisis-commonwealth-and-nsw-coronavirus-regulations/

[6] Compare eg Dr Holger Hestermeyer, http://constitutionnet.org/news/coronavirus-lockdown-measures-german-constitutional-court; and https://www.lepoint.fr/societe/coronavirus-le-conseil-d-etat-limite-le-pouvoir-des-maires-17-04-2020-2371882_23.php.

[7] Nottage, Luke R., Translating Tanase: Challenging Paradigms of Japanese Law and Society (May 27, 2006). Victoria University of Wellington Law Review, Vol.39, No. 4, pp. 755-778, 2009; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 07/17. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=921932

[8] Eg in comparative studies by Nottage on consumer law (especially product liability law), corporate governance, and contract law (many freely available via https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=488525) – all areas moreover that are now hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

[9] See eg Nottage, Luke R., Rebalancing Investment Treaties and Investor-State Arbitration: Two Approaches (June 14, 2016). Journal of World Investment and Trade, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp. 1015-1040, 2016; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 16/54. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2795396

[10] Nottage, Luke R. and Ubilava, Ana, Costs, Outcomes and Transparency in ISDS Arbitrations: Evidence for an Investment Treaty Parliamentary Inquiry (August 6, 2018). International Arbitration Law Review, Vol. 21, Issue 4, 2018; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 18/46. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3227401 

[11] On the pros and cons of the eradication vs management strategies, from an interdisciplinary academic perspective, see generally the recent Go8 Report at https://go8.edu.au/research/roadmap-to-recovery

[12] Gary Hawke, https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/12/20/ardern-stardust-and-a-closer-than-you-would-think-2020-election/

[13] Unbridled Power (1st ed 1979), later edition reviewed here: http://www.nzlii.org/nz/journals/OtaLawRw/2005/10.html)

[14] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/120572466/coronavirus-virus-laws-rushed-through-in-last-parliament-before-lockdown.

[15] https://thespinoff.co.nz/covid-19/28-04-2020/the-legal-basis-for-the-lockdown-may-not-be-as-solid-as-weve-been-led-to-believe/

[16] Nottage, Luke R., Reformist Conservatism and Failures of Imagination in Japanese Legal Education. Asia-Pacific Law & Policy Journal, Vol. 2, pp. 28-65, 2001. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=837045

Reforming Product Safety Law: Good and Bad News from the Australian Consumer Law Review

Written by: Luke Nottage and Catherine Niven
In 2008, as consumer confidence in Australia took a big hit from the Global Financial Crisis, the Productivity Commission published a report advising the federal Treasurer to lead a belated “re-harmonisation” of consumer protection law. The State and Territory governments agreed to enact substantive provisions mirroring those legislated by the federal Government, thus creating a uniform “Australian Consumer Law” (ACL) in force nation-wide from 2011.
This reform project was mainly “sold” as saving transaction costs for businesses domestically, but also in their dealings with overseas markets that have also been “trading up” to higher standards of consumer protection law (including now ASEAN). As such, for example, all Australian jurisdictions introduced general provisions voiding unfair contract terms along the model adopted by the European Union (EU) in 1993, following the lead of Victoria in 2003. More directly impacting on consumer product safety, the ACL added a novel reporting requirement that suppliers notify the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) about serious product-related accidents, introduced already in 2001 by the EU – albeit in more expansive form.
In addition, the Australian governments also agreed to review the operation of the ACL after five years. In March 2017, with little fanfare, officials in “Consumer Affairs Australia and New Zealand” (CAANZ) released a Final Report including recommendations for ACL reform. They include mixed blessings for enhancing consumer safety law.

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Book Review – Celeste Arrington “Accidental Activists: Victim Movements and Government Accountability in Japan and South Korea” (Cornell University Press, 2016)

This extensively researched and succinctly written book effectively compares the processes and outcomes of several major movements for victims’ redress from governments in Japan and Korea. The focus is on campaigns that developed especially from the 1990s, an era of perceived “judicialization of politics, enabled by democratization in Korea in 1987 and more competitive electoral politics in Japan since 1993” (p. 203), when victims sought redress for poor decisions regarding Hansen’s disease (leprosy, as discussed in ch. 3), blood tainted with Hepatitis C (ch. 4) and abductions by North Korean authorities (ch. 5).
Arrington examines not just the respective victims’ contestations with the state, but also the nature and timing of their interactions with key mediating institutions (ch. 2): the legal profession (to pursue litigation), the media (providing publicity for their causes), and activist groups (for lobbying). In particular, she emphases how too much early engagement with politicians – even “elite allies” – aimed at achieving legislative or bureaucratic intervention, as occurs more in Korea’s more open-textured democratic process, may lead perversely to poorer redress outcomes as the issue becomes more polarised politically.

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The Futures of Legal Education in Japan

Articles by Andrew Watson and Stacey Steele in the latest issue (41, 2016) of the Journal of Japanese Law review recent developments in Japanese legal education. They helpfully add to an already surprisingly voluminous literature in Western languages on the topic. This short Comment summarises some background before sketching some innovative ways forward. [A fully-footnoted version is forthcoming in the next issue of the Journal.]

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Symposium: Consumer and Contract Law Reform in Asia

Private law and regulatory frameworks impacting on consumer protection are being reformed in many parts of Asia, the world economy’s fastest-growing region. This development is important for Australian exporters and outbound investors, as well as policy-makers engaged over 2016 in a five-yearly review of the Australian Consumer Law. [My Submission to that inquiry is here – Download file]
This symposium on 10 August 2016, hosted by the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS) with support from the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), brings together experts from around the Asian region to outline and compare reform initiatives achieved or underway in consumer law as well as contract law more generally. [On 12 August at UNSW, ANJeL is also supporting a symposium on “Democracy, Pacificism & Constitutional Change: Amending Article 9?”: the draft program is here – Download file.]

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“Takeover: Foreign Investment and the Australian Psyche”

[This is the title of a well-known Australian journalist’s recently published book, which provides a useful platform for comparing the law and politics of foreign investment regulation in other Asia-Pacific countries. The following is an un-footnoted version of the first part of my paper for a special issue of the NZBLQ, following the lively “FDI Roundtable” hosted in June 2015 by Amokura Kawharu at the University of Auckland.]
1. Introduction
According to the FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) Regulatory Restrictiveness Index compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Australia scored 0.13 overall in 2014 compared to an average of 0.10 across 55 countries (including all OECD and G20 countries) and the OECD average of 0.07. In terms of significant world economies, this places Australia in a group with somewhat above-average restrictiveness towards FDI, including also Korea (0.14), Canada (0.17) and Russia (0.18). Another group is even more restrictive, including China (0.42), Indonesia (0.34), India (0.26) and – intriguingly – New Zealand (0.24). At the other extreme are major economies with more permissive regulatory regimes: the Netherlands (0.01), Japan (0.05), the United Kingdom (0.06) and the United States (0.09).
The FDI Index is based on:
• foreign equity limitations;
• screening or approval mechanisms;
• restrictions on the employment of foreigners as key personnel; and
• operational restrictions (eg on capital repatriation or land ownership);
and the OECD acknowledges that: “is not a full measure of a country’s investment climate. A range of other factors come into play, including how FDI rules are implemented. Entry barriers can also arise for other reasons, including state ownership in key sectors”. Indeed, a detailed academic study shows that the screening mechanisms are conceptually similar in China and Australia, but now applied in a much more liberal manner in Australia.
Index data since 1997 shows how restrictiveness has gradually diminished, as in other OECD countries. But it is revealing to outline (in Part 2. below) the longer-term historical evolution of Australia’s regulatory controls and broader public debates over FDI. This analysis usefully sets the scene for a close analysis of a topical issue nowadays: treaty-based investor-state arbitration (Part 3 [omitted below, but discussed generally elsewhere on this Blog]). Some parallels and contrasts can then be drawn with New Zealand, its close trade and investment partner (Part 4 [omitted – but further elaborated here, also comparing Korea]).

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Free Trade (Agreements) Enhancing Consumer Protection in Southeast Asia

[A version of this posting appears on the East Asia Forum blog.]
Those opposed nowadays to greater economic integration through the WTO or free trade agreements typically assume that this will undermine consumer protection, especially due to more unsafe goods coming into local markets. But as David Vogel documented in the mid-1990s for the US, we often find “trading up” to higher safety standards. Partly this is because exporters may need to improve safety features to comply with requirements set by public or private law in the destination country. It is then often inefficient to remove such features for products also sold into local markets, where requirements may initially be lower, or if features are removed consumers and regulators in local markets will more readily press for local safety standards to be raised.
FTAs and other international agreements can also facilitate enactment of better consumer product safety laws. The EU was an early example. In 1979, the Treaty of Rome was interpreted to require “mutual recognition”: goods produced to safety standards required in one EU country would be deemed to satisfy standards in an importing country. But to avoid a “regulatory race to the bottom”, the EU also developed a new and more effective approach to setting joint minimum safety standards.
Intriguingly, Southeast Asia is experiencing similar developments. …

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Developing ASEAN Recall Guidelines for Consumer Products

[The following is a longer and un-footnoted draft of a sixth Policy Digest prepared for a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre joint research project and an ASEAN Secretariat project on harmonising consumer protection law.]
1. Introduction
Recalling or withdrawing consumer products from the marketplace or taking other “corrective action” regarding actually or potentially unsafe or sub-standard products are important parts of consumer law and practice. Manufacturers and other suppliers can be incentivized to monitor the ongoing safety of their products after delivery into the supply chain for consumers, and then undertake corrective action to minimize harm, by private law mechanisms (such as tort claims for negligence brought by consumers) or reputational considerations (loss of customer goodwill etc). However, especially in developing countries experiencing problems with access to justice through the courts or limited media or NGO activity with respect to consumer affairs, public regulation relating to recalls has become significant.
National laws in ASEAN Member States (AMSs) mostly now provide for regulators to require suppliers to undertake mandatory recalls, under specific legislation enacted for (higher-risk) sectors such as automobiles, health products or foods, and/or under general consumer protection laws. In the shadow of such powers, regulators can also more effectively encourage or negotiate with suppliers to undertake (semi-)voluntary recalls. Sometimes suppliers even decide to undertake (purely) voluntary recalls, even without prior consultation with regulators or knowing their extent of their mandatory recall powers.
However, AMSs still lack general consumer protection laws that oblige suppliers to notify regulators when they undertake such voluntary recalls, as required by amendments in 1986 in Australia and 2013 in New Zealand. Nor do such laws in AMSs impose a broader product accident or hazard reporting duty on suppliers, even if the latter have not yet initiated a recall, as required in Australia since 2010 as well as the EU since 2001, Japan since 2006, Canada since 2010, and the US. Both types of obligations can encourage and assist suppliers to undertake recalls more effectively, through drawing on the technical expertise and communication networks of the consumer regulators.
Especially if AMSs take the first step of amending their national consumer protection laws to require suppliers to notify regulators about voluntary recalls, but even now given the mandatory recall powers generally available to regulators, it becomes important to define what is meant “recall” or whatever broader term (like “corrective action”) may be used in the relevant legislation, and provide guidance on when and how to undertake such remedial action effectively. In many major economies that have introduced duties on suppliers to make disclosures to regulators, on top of legislation providing for the latter’s back-up powers to order mandatory recalls, guidelines have recently been published or updated that elaborate quite extensively on rather sparse legislative provisions relating to recalls. These include quite detailed guidelines or handbooks publicized recently by authorities in the EU, the US, Australia, and Japan (although only in Japanese). By contrast, there is little publically-available guidance provided in AMSs. For example, the “Guidelines on Product Defect Reporting and Recall Procedures” are issued by the Health Sciences Authority of Singapore as a relatively short (undated) webpage, and anyway only relate to health products.
This Policy Digest therefore compares such recent guidance materials to identify key components and features that might be elaborated into “ASEAN Recall Guidelines” for consumer products generally. Although aimed primarily at suppliers and regulators, facilitating also evolving information-sharing platforms such as the ASEAN Product Alert website assembling national reports on some mandatory and voluntary recalls, such Guidelines aim also to benefit consumers. Accordingly, peak consumer associations or relevant NGOs should be closely consulted in elaborating such ASEAN Recall Guidelines.

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Cosmetics regulation under national and ASEAN law

[The following is a longer and un-footnoted draft of a fifth Policy Digest prepared for a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre joint research project and an ASEAN Secretariat project on harmonising consumer protection law. It is highly relevant also to Japan in light of Kanebo’s large-scale recall of some of its skin-whitening products across the region as well as in Japan in 2013.]
1. Introduction
Consumer goods associated with higher risks, and often also extent of harm, tend to generate public regulatory interventions. Food is one example, for which nation states have often legislation quite early on. However, national legislation and implementation is increasingly impacted by international law, particularly World Trade Organization (WTO) or bilateral and regional free trade agreements agreements insist that food safety measures be based on rational and proportionate public health risk assessments, and not constitute disguised trade barriers. This is facilitated by such agreements expressly stating such requirements will be presumed to be satisfied if the national measures are based on food standards agreed in the Codex Alimentarius, administered by two United Nations bodies. The Codex process has remained relatively unpoliticised, based instead on scientific risk assessments, partly because most countries both export and import foods but also because food is a necessity for everyone. This backdrop has also made it easier for other international and regional bodies, including ASEAN and APEC, to collaborate with national regulators and the private sector to develop shared food safety standards in Southeast Asia and world-wide.
Pharmaceuticals and, more recently and in a less interventionist way, cosmetics (goods without, necessarily, any medicinal properties) have also tended to generate regulatory regimes at the national level. At the international level, however, the WTO’s 1994 Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreement does not expressly create a presumption of conformity from adhering to standards set by specified bodies, when national regulators introduce measures applicable to imports. There is no counterpart to the Codex process; different countries and regions maintain more disparate approaches to assessing and regulating non-food sectors, partly because they may not be exporting as much as importing certain types of goods.
Overall, moreover, the United States (US) often adopts more lenient regulatory regimes compared to the European Union (EU). This is particularly noticeable with respect to cosmetics: the US relies much more on voluntary industry self-regulation (plus more threat of private lawsuits for product liability), whereas the EU favours more interventionist public regulation. Nonetheless, the EU’s 1976 Cosmetics Directive aimed to balance consumer protection with harmonized standards to facilitate cross-border trade, especially within and into Europe. Because the regulatory regime remains stricter than in the US, and EU’s cosmetics manufacturers are more likely to sell into the more regulated European markets than American manufacturers, the EU can also support European manufacturers by encouraging countries and regions in other parts of the world to “trade up” to the EU rather than laxer US regulatory approach, when developing their own laws and practices. Already, by 2004, the lists of ingredients set under the 1976 EU Cosmetics Directive had been adopted by 30 countries, including countries in South America party to the Mercosur and Andean Pact regional arrangements. Other countries, including China and India, have reproduced significant features of the EU model.
Furthermore, although this is not widely known, the EU model has been adopted in Southeast Asia through the “Agreement on the ASEAN Harmonized Cosmetics Regulatory Scheme”. This was signed in 2003 to advance the ASEAN Free Trade Area program, albeit also against the backdrop of the WTO’s TBT Agreement. Schedule A creates the ASEAN Mutual Recognition Arrangement of Product Registration Approvals for Cosmetics, allowing individual ASEAN Member States (AMSs) to agree with other AMSs to allow, without further requirements, the import of products that satisfy the regulatory requirements of the other state(s). However, any such mutual recognition agreements (anyway possible under the TBT Agreement) were envisaged as a temporary step towards harmonizing cosmetics regulation in the region. More importantly, under the 2003 Agreement (Art 2(3)) the AMSs committed to implement by 1 January 2008 the “ASEAN Cosmetics Directive” (ACD) set out in Schedule B. This closely tracks the EU Directive, including by requiring the AMSs to “adopt the Cosmetics Ingredients Listings of the EU Cosmetics Directive 76/768/EEC including the latest amendments”. Supported by the ASEAN-EU Programme for Regional Integration Support, by early 2008 six AMSs had started implementing the ASEAN Directive into their national laws, followed by Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar a year and half later, and finally Indonesia from 2013. The ACD regime has therefore been described as “one of the first concrete instances of economic integration between ASEAN countries”.
Meanwhile, however, the EU itself replaced its Directive in 2009 with a Cosmetics Regulation, which on 11 July 2013 came into direct effect in the (now 27) EU member states, rather than having to be implemented by national legislation – sometimes not straightforwardly – as occurs when harmonisation is attempted by means of a Directive. The EU Regulation similarly attempts to enhance cross-border trade through harmonisation, expanding consumer choice while respecting public health, for example by adding new requirements to label cosmetics (such as suncreens) that include nano-particles.
Part 2 below therefore takes a closer link at key features of the ACD, including some differences that remain compared to the original EU model (and especially the US regulatory regime), as well as implementation and other challenges. As elaborated in Part 3, as well as various concrete improvements that could be made to this approach for harmonizing consumer product safety law, the model might eventually be extended to other sectors and anyway is relevant to general consumer regulators, even if the primary jurisdiction over cosmetics usually remains with health officials.

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