Michelle Lensink

Discover Australia

This speech is about the issue of consumer affairs. In South Australia consumer protection is afforded under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), the Fair Trading Act, the Trade Practices Act (which notably covers misleading advertising) and the Trade Standards Act (which relates to product safety standards and customer contact issues, such as refunds, bag searches and price tags).

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (15:40): As shadow minister for consumer affairs, I speak for all South Australians on the issue of consumer affairs. Every one of us conducts transactions every day, whether it is to buy a cup of coffee, do the groceries, have lunch or go to the butcher or the fruit and veggie shop, and mostly these transactions are honourable and each side is happy. I also speak for South Australians who conduct their transactions on the internet (and that is most of us) quite regularly.

On the internet, however, we normally deal with companies or institutions that we have dealt with before—our bank, an airline, a telco or a utilities' provider. The one exception is when we deal with tourist-related activities. Tourism is big business. In South Australia it is worth $4.6 billion every year. We have almost 30 million visitor nights a year, and if you search for accommodation on the internet the first pages which inevitably come up are not the motels or bed and breakfasts themselves but companies like Discover Australia which act as brokers. You sometimes do not even know that you are not dealing with a business which runs the accommodation: you are dealing with what is effectively a booking agent.

In a case that has been brought to my attention, a South Australian constituent typed 'accommodation' and 'Clare Valley' into a search engine and then clicked on the Discover Australia website. There she found advertised 'Clare Valley Cabins', which promised a single night stay for $130. She phoned the Discover Australia number, which is a 1800 number, and so she did not know that she was speaking to someone in Perth, not to someone in the Clare Valley. Discover Australia told her that there was one more cabin left and that she should act quickly to secure the booking. She was told that all the cabins had spas and were in a secluded bush setting but speed was essential. She hesitated a little. The quoted price was $234 instead of the advertised $130 on the website, but, feeling some pressure, she accepted.

An email arrived quickly in her inbox with a PDF attachment. Even that urged her to 'book as early as possible to avoid disappointment'. She then gave her credit card details immediately. What she did not notice was the name of the accommodation, which was a country club not a secluded cabin. It was actually a large resort. She got back to Discover Australia literally within minutes. Of course, it was their mistake because they had not mentioned 'room', 'hotel' or 'Clare Country Club'. Instead of giving her money back, they said (and this was the first instance she was aware of it) that she would incur a $100 penalty and that her only compensation would be $60 worth of vouchers she could use if she booked with them a second time (as if that was likely).

Reputable online traders are quite clear about their conditions. An honest company requires you to tick a box saying that you have read and understood their conditions before you are allowed to go to the next step of the booking—not so with Discover Australia. Its completely arbitrary conditions can only be found by clicking on an icon at the side of the screen which says 'contacts and bookings' and that opens into a new page. You then have to click another icon which says 'conditions and information', which opens another page, and only then by scrolling down past 'validity and costs', 'dynamic costs and instant purchase', 'deposit', 'payments and documentation', 'accommodation and children's rates', 'responsibility', 'airline indemnity', 'travel insurance' and 'luggage' do you finally get to 'cancellations'. There, in literally the fine print in an obscure place on an obscure page, does it say that Discover Australia charges a service fee of $100 per booking or 20 per cent of the gross cost, whichever is the greater—that is to rectify a mistake or a deliberate subterfuge made by the company itself. No amount of pleading by this consumer made any difference to Discover Australia's Western Australian principal.

This company is one of those companies that has the potential to give tourism in Australia a bad name. In South Australia consumer protection is afforded under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), the Fair Trading Act, the Trade Practices Act (which notably covers misleading advertising) and the Trade Standards Act (which relates to product safety standards and customer contact issues, such as refunds, bag searches and price tags).
Discover Australia might not be breaking the law (although we are looking into that), it is however breaking consumer confidence in our tourism industry, and that is something that no individual tourist or the statewide industry can afford.

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