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Do voters have consumer rights too?

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All of us, irrespective of economic status, are consumers of goods and services. As such, therefore, we should wholeheartedly welcome the introduction of the draft Consumer Protection Bill and the efforts to publicize it through the holding of public consultations. This is very necessary if the public is to embrace this positive step and to help to empower consumers to claim and protect their rights.{{more}}

There is a crying need for consumers to become aware of these rights, as an essential step in exercising those rights and in being prepared to insist that those rights are respected and the provisions of the law enforced. Too often, in the face of some unscrupulous suppliers of goods and services engaging in practices which take advantage of consumers, there is a tendency for us to place total reliance on the state to defend our rights, forgetting that justice for consumers can only be ensured when we are prepared to organize and fight for it.

It is in this respect therefore, that the role of consumer organizations is critically important. There have been many efforts at building such organizations over the years, but we, as citizens, do not seem to be prepared to make the sacrifice to join, to pay fees and to help to build a powerful national organization which will redound to the benefit of us all.

I remember as far back as 40 years ago, the late Bertram ‘Sonny’ Nicholas, a senior prison officer, and another deceased, political activist Caspar London, spearheaded such an effort. While giving lip service to it, real active support never materialized. Today, it is social activist Junior Bacchus in the forefront, but we still are reluctant to give him the full support that such an initiative requires. I want to take this opportunity to urge both Mr Bacchus and the Consumer Organization to aggressively carry out a recruiting campaign, as well as to urge as many of us as possible, myself included, to join the association. The Bill is a positive step, but it needs a strong united consumers’ body to ensure that it is effective.

If one reflects on it, a true consumers’ association has the potential to be by far the largest mass organization in any country, since every one of us is, in one form or another, a consumer. It is a sleeping giant which, if aroused, has limitless possibilities where consumer rights and justice are concerned. But we need to build it and to ensure its independence. There will be those who, for self-interest, will attempt to influence its leadership, and too many of us are inclined to put on our political spectacles every time we look at any organization. A genuine consumers’ association must be prepared to stand up for the rights of all consumers, irrespective of political, religious or social affiliation.

Which brings me to the somewhat humorous thought of how does the concept of consumer rights apply to us as voters? How does it fit in to politics, political parties and politicians? To think of it, political parties offer goods (politicians) and services to consumers (the voting public), but what and where are our rights as political consumers? Where is our protection?

The Consumer Protection Bill sets out the rights of consumers and spells out what those who offer goods and services can and cannot do. Let’s look at some random examples. For instance, Section 75 of the Bill deals with what is called “Bait advertizing”. This refers to suppliers who advertise goods or services which they do not intend to offer for supply, or, have no reasonable grounds for believing that they can supply such goods or services.

Now, if we take political manifestos, it becomes obvious that voters need some consumer protection here; for, how many manifestos over the years have contained grand promises which there are no reasonable grounds to believe that the party which makes such promises could ever deliver? One can also take Section 67 of the Bill, dealing with promotion of goods and services. The proposed Bill forbids suppliers from making promotions in misleading, fraudulent or deceptive manners. But don’t parties mislead us when they present candidates or proposals which are designed just to get our vote? Where is the protection of the voter here?

We could go on and on, whether, as in the Consumer Bill, there should be warranties to safeguard against defective goods (useless Parliamentarians), whether there should be provision for redress when the goods or services that we get turn out to be materially different from what we were promised on the political platform, or whether we were not told of what the Bill calls “inherent risks” in accepting some goods (politicians).

The point has been made, however. In politics too, we are consumers, and if sold short by parties, then maybe we need the right, as in section 103 of the Bill, to demand recall of the defective goods (politicians) and their services (policies).

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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