As property investment advice is outside the regulatory framework for
other financial services, people who provide such advice are not required to be
licensed or to meet any standard of education or training.
In this chapter, the committee considers the adequacy of the regulatory
regime for investment property advice and recommendations for legislative
changes intended to improve consumer protection available to investors, for
both direct and indirect property investments.
Investing in property and consumer protection
Almost 10 per cent of Australians invest in property,
but there are no specific laws protecting Australians from receiving bad
property investment advice. Instead, there are various national and state and
territory laws which may, depending on the circumstances, protect consumers.
The different treatment of property regulation is largely a legacy of
constitutional powers, as the states and territories have residual power in
relation to real estate property. Thus the power to regulate property has
remained with the states and territories, and real estate property is not defined
as a financial product under the Corporations Act.
In contrast, the states and territories referred their constitutional powers to
the Commonwealth for financial products regulated under the Corporations Act.
As such, advice provided to investors in Market First's schemes who invested
through off-the-plan contracts of sale would not have been covered by the
Corporations Act, as off-the-plan developments are regulated by the state and
territory governments. As discussed earlier, ASIC has commenced proceedings in
the Federal Court of Australia in relation to 21st Century Group's
land banking schemes offering options, arguing that the schemes are unregistered
managed investment schemes and the 21st Century Group companies and
Mr McIntyre have been unlawfully carrying on an unlicensed financial services
Australian Consumer Law
The Australian Consumer Law (ACL) covers consumer protection and fair
trading, and replaced a wide range of national and state and territory laws
which previously existed. The ACL commenced on 1 January 2011 and is jointly
administered by the states and territories and the national government (through
the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC)). Under the Australian
Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001, ASIC administers mirrored
consumer protection provisions to financial products and services.
The state and territory governments regulate property transactions,
including the conduct of licensed real estate agents. While licensed real
estate agents are subject to disclosure and conduct requirements, these do not
apply to (unlicensed) property spruikers and do not regulate property
State and territory regulation of property transactions vary slightly
from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some states are active in attempting to
address misconduct that is occurring in the real estate sector. For example,
Consumer Affairs Victoria informed the committee about protections under the Sale
of Land Act 1962 (Vic) (Victorian Sale of Land Act) to address schemes
which were promoted by property spruikers in the early 2000s, including vendor
terms and rent-to-buy schemes:
The protections under this act include a right for purchasers
who enter vendor terms contracts to require vendors to transfer land in
exchange for a mortgage back. The vendor terms contracts are those where a
purchaser makes multiple payments to a vendor before a property is transferred
to them. The Sale of Land Act also prohibits sellers from mortgaging their
property after they have entered into a vendor terms contract and entitles
buyers to recover their moneys where this occurs. The protections in the Sale
of Land Act for off-the-plan sales include limiting the deposit to 10 per cent,
requiring any moneys paid by a buyer to be held in trust and giving buyers the
right in certain circumstances to rescind a contract and receive a refund for
any moneys they have paid.
While the Victorian Government has regulated to address loopholes in the
Victorian Sale of Land Act for past spruiking schemes, it has not yet responded
to the concerns raised about land banking schemes. Instead, Mr Cohen from
Consumer Affairs Victoria told the committee the land banking schemes would be
considered in a review of the Victorian Sale of Land Act as part of a broader
review of the Victorian consumer property regulatory framework.
The review will be conducted by Consumer Affairs Victoria and focus on:
the sale of land and real estate transactions in Victoria;
the management, powers and functions of owners corporations; and
licensed professionals who assist with the sale of land and real
estate transactions, and professional owners corporations and managers.
Under its terms of reference, the review does not have a specific focus
on the unlicensed persons who assist with the sale of land in Victoria.
In considering the concerns posed by land banking schemes, which have mostly
been located in Victoria, it may be of value for the review to investigate the
regulations governing persons who are currently unlicensed but who are
influential in the sale of land and the provision of property investment
The ACCC informed the committee that generally:
...with fair trading agencies at a State/Territory level, the
ACCC is more likely to pursue matters that involve national conduct and/or
involve national traders, whereas fair trading agencies may be more likely to
target the conduct of businesses and individuals where the conduct is
contained, originating or primarily within their State or Territory.
Although the schemes covered by the committee's inquiry were mainly
located in Victoria (one was in Queensland and there was the proposed
development in the Pilbara, Western Australia), the marketing of those schemes
extended beyond that state's borders. Clearly there is a national aspect to
land banking schemes.
Mr Cohen, Director of Consumer Affairs Victoria, acknowledged that the
ACL provides some protections to investors who get caught up in schemes that
are marketed in misleading or deceptive ways.
When expressing concerns about property spruikers, Mr Cohen also noted that
their conduct includes conduct that is outlawed by the ACL with regard to false
or misleading representations and unconscionable conduct.
One of the general protections available under the ACL is against
misleading or deceptive conduct. Section 18 of the ACL prohibits a person, in
trade and commerce, from engaging in misleading or deceptive conduct. While
this section is drafted broadly, the penalties for such conduct are weaker than
those under the Corporations Act or elsewhere in the ACL—civil penalties and
criminal sanctions do not apply, but remedies include injunctions, damages and
The Corporations Act
In contrast, advice on financial products, such as securities and
managed investments, is regulated under the Corporations Act, which is enforced
by ASIC. Moreover, the FOFA reforms and continuing attempts to increase the
professional and ethical standards of financial advisers have significantly
strengthened the consumer protection regime around the provision of financial
advice. Property investors do not enjoy the same level of protection.
Moreover, further reforms are contemplated in the financial services
sector as indicated in the government's response to the Financial System
Inquiry. They include developing legislation to:
confer on ASIC a product intervention power;
allow ASIC to ban individuals from management positions within
financial firms; and
replace the term 'general advice' with one that clarifies the
distinction between product sales and financial advice.
Delegations between the ACCC and
The delineation of ASIC's and ACCC's regulatory responsibilities in
relation to property investment matters is not always clear-cut. The ACCC
advised the committee that the two agencies do, however, have the capacity to
delegate powers in relation to specific matters or to establish standing cross
delegations in relation to particular areas. It also noted that ASIC and ACCC
were currently engaged in discussions about the possibility of cross
delegations in relation to property investment matters.
Developments in Australia's consumer law
Reviews conducted by various governments and regulators over the past
two decades have recognised that some advice on direct property investment
provided by financial advisers, accountants, real estate agents and spruikers
is similar to advice provided by financial services professionals on securities
and managed investments. On this basis, those reviews have argued, to varying
degrees, that it would be both fair and efficient to regulate property
investment advice on the same basis as other investment advice as defined in
the Corporations Act.
Despite this recognition, there has been little progress in strengthening the
regulatory regime for property investment advice or bringing it broadly into
line with the significantly stronger regulatory regime for non-property
Several of the major reviews, inquiries and other developments that
relate to or have addressed the regulation (or lack thereof) of property
investment advice are outlined below.
The Wallis Inquiry
The Wallis Financial System Inquiry in 1997 considered that real estate
agents who promoted negatively-geared investment packages were providing retail
financial advice and recommended that the adequacy of the regulation of
property investment advice be reviewed:
The existing regulation of real estate agents should be reviewed.
Real estate agents providing investment advice should be required to hold a
financial advisory licence unless the review clearly establishes the adequacy
of existing regulation.
ASIC's 1999 review of the financial
advising activities of real estate agents
In 1999, following the recommendation made by the Wallis Financial
System Inquiry, ASIC reviewed the financial advice provided by real estate
agents for direct property investment. ASIC distinguished between three
different types of advice provided by real estate agents:
information about the property itself, such as title details, sale or
expected price and details relating to the sale transaction;
general information or advice relating to the financial viability of a
real estate transaction such as likely capital gains, likely rental income and
marketability of the property; and
advice about the suitability of the investment to a particular intending
purchaser which is or purports to be tailored to the particular circumstances
of the purchaser, such as the affordability of the purchase based on the
purchaser's income and taxation circumstances and negative gearing benefits.
In this report, the committee is concerned with the types of advice
provided in categories (b) and (c). ASIC was of the view that the argument for
comparable regulation (with financial services legislation) through greater
regulatory intervention was strongest in respect of category (c).
ASIC found that there was a strong functional similarity between
financial advice about real estate and securities for two main reasons:
although the underlying products—real estate and securities—have
product specific differences, the financial considerations that have a direct
bearing upon any decision to acquire, hold or divest such products are often
the same (for example, the financial circumstances or investment needs of the
investments in real estate and securities are interchangeable
ASIC's report did not consider the regulation of other people who also
provide financial advice on real estate, referred to as 'real estate
marketers'. ASIC noted, however, that it had become aware of significant
concerns regarding the activities of these marketers. In its view, there
appeared to be no logical reason for such persons being exempt from similar
regulatory regimes where the potential effect of their activities on consumers
was akin to that of the activities of real estate agents.
Concerns about the activities of property investment spruikers have been
reported to ASIC and the ACCC for many years.
Mr Henry Kaye's misleading and
In October 2003, the ACCC instituted legal proceedings against
Mr Henry Kaye and his company, the National Investment Institute Pty
Ltd, alleging misleading and deceptive conduct over the promotion of a
'millionaires' property investment strategy.
Mr Kaye was a provider of property investment courses through the
National Investment Institute (NII). The primary program was called the 'Investment
Mastery Program', a 12-month property investment strategy course that cost at
In September 2003, Mr Kaye launched his 'Henry Kaye $1 million' challenge,
which consisted of free seminars where Mr Kaye would choose one attendee from
each seminar and teach them 'to become property millionaires, in six months'.
Mr Kaye also claimed that he would turn 1,000 ordinary Australians into
property millionaires within 12 months.
In radio and newspaper advertisements, Mr Kaye expanded on his promise:
The critics say Henry Kaye can't turn ordinary Australians
Well, be there when he proves them wrong!
He'll teach five volunteers to become property millionaires,
in just 6 months ...without using their own money, or taking on the risk of
And if he fails, he'll give a MILLION DOLLARS to charity.
In its decision on this case, the court noted the contents of such
advertisements and found that Mr Kaye and the NII had engaged in misleading and
deceptive conduct, that:
the strategies did not enable
ordinary Australians to become millionaires;
neither Mr Kaye nor NII had
reasonable grounds for claims that an ordinary Australian would, if they
followed Mr Kaye’s strategies, become a millionaire; and
neither Kaye nor NII had
reasonable grounds for claims that five volunteers provided training by Mr Kaye
would become property millionaires in six months without using their own money
or taking on a risk of debt.
The then ACCC Chairman, Mr Graeme Samuel, announced that the court's
decision 'stands as a warning to all other property investment spruikers and
the general public that the ACCC will not hesitate to take court action where
it feels that consumers have been deceived by untruthful advertising'.
As noted earlier, the penalties available for breaches under the
misleading and deceptive provisions (including under the equivalent pre-ACL
provisions) are not as broad ranging as those available under the Corporations
Act. While the ACCC was granted an injunction and declaratory relief to mark
the court's disapproval of the conduct, the judge declined to order Mr Kaye to
conduct a corrective advertising campaign, as it would be 'punitive'.
The ACCC therefore had a mostly successful outcome from the case but there was
no relief for Mr Kaye's victims who suffered financially, both from the fees
paid to attend related seminars and the poor advice provided to attendees.
Ministerial Council on Consumer
Affairs working party, 2003–2006
In 2003, the intergovernmental Ministerial Council on Consumer Affairs (MCCA)
established a working party to develop a regulatory framework for advice about
property investment. The Ministerial Council comprised national, state and
territory consumer affairs ministers.
The working party released a discussion paper in August 2004 outlining
three options for regulatory reform: maintaining the existing regulatory
framework, but placing greater emphasis on its use; a 'medium intensity'
regulatory scheme with additional disclosure and conduct requirements for
advisors; and a 'high intensity' licensing regime for advisers with mandatory
training and competency requirements, as well as disclosure and conduct
In 2006, following a subsequent consultation process, the Ministerial
Council reported that the states and territories supported a national approach,
with a national regulatory regime for property investment advice, but the
federal government wanted to continue to investigate other, more light-touch
options for reform. There was no further mention of the matter in the
Ministerial Council's communiques, and subsequent inquiries by a Victorian
parliamentary committee revealed that jurisdictions were ultimately unable to
reach agreement on the level of intervention required in the market.
The lack of progress by the MCCA was evidently a source of frustration
for some industry observers and participants. In its 2008 review of Australia's
Consumer Policy Framework, the Productivity Commission quoted the Real Estate
Institute of Australia, which had observed:
...in August of 2003 as a result of the Henry Kaye activities,
MCCA, quite rightly in our view...decided to review licensing of property
investment advisers...in March 2007 we are still waiting on the report from MCCA,
nearly four years after the event. This is simply not good enough and the
reasons for this inactivity should be addressed.
Parliamentary Joint Committee on
Corporations and Financial Services inquiry
In 2005, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial
Services (PJC) tabled a report, Property Investment Advice—Safe as Houses?
In its report, the committee recognised that property was a very important
asset class in Australia yet the property investment advice profession seemed
'poorly organised and developed when compared with other areas of investment
advice such as the financial planning profession'.
Unfortunately many consumers have learnt, to their cost,
their investment in property can be a complex matter, with considerable risks
for the uninitiated.
In addition to a number of recommendations aimed at strengthening
consumer protections against property spruikers, improving financial literacy
with regard to property investment, and improving lending practices as they
applied to investment properties, the PJC's recommendations included:
that the regulation of property investment advice, but not of
real property or real estate transactions generally, should be a Commonwealth
that Chapter 7 of the Corporations Act be amended to include real
property as a separate asset class;
that a definition of property investment advice be inserted into
the Corporations Act—this definition, it was suggested, would make clear that
property investment advice encompasses representations about the future value
of, or income from, a property, but would not include statements about the past
or present income from the property; and
that anyone providing property investment advice should have an
AFSL (with some specific exceptions made for certain professionals and
The PJC report noted that instituting barriers to entry for those
advising on property investment, through requiring a licence, would assist
regulators to enforce standards in the sector:
A better solution
would be to make it difficult for spruikers to commence operating in the first
place, and to continue operating, by giving regulatory agencies the abilities
to act quickly and proactively. The Committee considers that including real
property under FSR [Financial Services Regulation] will mean that spruikers
promoting property will need an AFS licence and be subject to all the related
codes of conduct and probity. While no absolute guarantee against unscrupulous
behaviour, it will be much more difficult for spruikers to operate.
Victorian Parliament Law Reform
In 2008, the Victorian Parliament's Law Reform Committee undertook a
comprehensive analysis of the regulatory framework for property marketeering
and the provision of property investment advice. It identified a number of
weaknesses in the state and territory consumer protection laws, which are also
relevant to the ACL:
the provisions are 'corrective' in nature because they deal with
misconduct after it has already taken place;
enforcement of the laws relies heavily on regulators, who may
prosecute only the most egregious conduct;
they do not provide barriers to entry into the market;
they deal only with unfair conduct, not with the quality and
appropriateness of advice or conflicts of interest;
it can be difficult to prove breaches of the law in this area;
businesses who breach the law may continue to operate, often by
'resurfacing' under a different name.
The Law Reform Committee's preferred position was for the Commonwealth
Government to regulate property investment advisers under its financial
services laws in the same way as financial advisers.
Accordingly, it made a number of recommendations including that the Victorian
Government should propose to the MCCA at its 2008 meeting, that:
the Commonwealth Government regulate property investment advisers;
real estate or property transaction should continue to be
regulated by the states and territories;
the Commonwealth Government amend the Australian Securities
and Investments Commission Act 2001 (Cth) and chapter 7 of the Corporations
Act 2001 (Cth) so that advice about direct property investment is included
in the financial services regime; and
the Commonwealth regulation of property investment advisers
include advice about investment in all types of direct property
in the Commonwealth regulation of property advisers; and
define the purchase of direct property as an investment where the
property was purchased for the predominant purpose of obtaining a financial
Notably, both parliamentary committees recommended a national regime and
also a functional approach to regulation rather than an occupation approach.
That is, rather than specifying that real estate agents or marketers be
regulated, a certain type of advice about property investment should be
Evidence before committee
Evidence before this committee is consistent with that of previous
inquiries and strongly supports their findings. For example, Mr Ben Kingsley,
chair of the Property Investment Professionals of Australia (PIPA), told the
committee that the lack of a comprehensive regulatory framework for property
investment advice was harming consumers. In his assessment, there were some bad
apples in the industry that had the potential to destroy the good name of
reputable operators, explaining:
...it is more than a handful who operate in the property
investment space, because it is unregulated. Even with regulation we still see
some gaps appearing...The financial value that households put into buying bricks
and mortar or investing in bricks and mortar is a significant investment. We
are talking about this land banking being $40,000, $50,000 or $60,000, but we
are talking $500,000 or three quarters of a million dollars to invest in a
property and they may be taking advice from someone who has just put on a suit
and gone for a one-day or a half-day how to sell property course and are
advocating things to family friends at barbecues.
According to Mr Kingsley, the industry as a whole is 'an immature
industry'. He stated further:
I think it has representations from mum-and-dad investors who
have done well out of their investments and have looked to potentially enter
the industry to provide advice without fundamentally understanding risk
profiles and without the general level of knowledge and education people need
to provide advice to others.
Mr Kingsley was adamant that regulation was required for a 'sustainable,
professional' property investment advice industry.
Comparing property investment advisers to mortgage brokers, Mr Kingsley told
the committee that he had seen the mortgage broking industry cleaned up with
the introduction of the National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009.
In his view, the aim of any regulation should be to ensure that consumers were
receiving appropriate advice, not to remove responsibility completely from
So they [consumers] need to go in with their eyes wide open,
but, from an industry point of view and from a professional practitioner's
point of view, we need to make sure that they are getting the most appropriate
advice from the most appropriate adviser as opposed to going to see their tax
accountant, who says property investment is great, or speaking to uncle Frank
at a barbecue.
In regards to the regulations that should be implemented, Mr Kingsley
told the committee that if the dominant purpose of the property purchase is to
invest in property for a return, whether it is for rental income or a capital
gain, advice about this purchase should fall under the Corporations Act.
This would occur if real property was classified as a financial product under
the Corporations Act.
PIPA further recommended that:
to be a 'qualified property investment adviser', persons should
be required to meet minimum qualification requirements with a specialisation in
property investment advice;
existing financial advisers should complete units of study on
property investment advice to be authorised to give property investment advice;
licensed real estate agents (or 'selling agents') should be
banned from providing property investment advice, while licensed real estate
agents who act as 'buyers agents', accountants and mortgage brokers who wish to
give property investment advice should be required to meet the minimum
requirements as a qualified property investment adviser; and
the negotiation for purchasing the property should continue to
fall within state and territory regulation of licensed real estate agents.
Elements of this recommendation are similar to the recent and successful
push to have better educated and trained financial advisers.
To be financially successful does not require an academic qualification,
but the government and ASIC have repeatedly recognised the importance of
ensuring that financial advisers (who are required to hold an AFS licence) meet
minimum education and training standards to ensure they have sufficient knowledge
to provide appropriate financial advice.
Unfortunately, it took many years of strong advocacy and far too many
examples of consumer loss through unsound financial advice before measures to
improve standards of financial advisers were finally adopted. The government
has announced its intention to increase the professional standards financial
advisers are required to meet to hold an AFS licence, which will further
separate the competency and qualifications of professional (financial adviser)
and non-professional (property spruiker) roles in the investment advice field.
On 3 December 2015, the Minister for Small Business and Assistant
Treasurer, the Hon Kelly O'Dwyer MP, announced that the government had released
exposure draft legislation to give effect to reforms to raise education,
training and ethical standards for financial advisers.
The committee urges the industry and governments not to delay and to
start implementing measures immediately to lift the standard of advice on
investment in property.
Recent developments in the marketing of land banking schemes
demonstrates that spruikers are active in the property investment industry and
continue to employ their ingenuity to promote such products, particularly to
unwary investors. Regulators appreciate that, as they clamp down on one type of
scheme or promotion, property spruikers move on to another one intended to
escape attention. Mr Cohen from Consumer Affairs Victoria told the committee
about the challenges regulators face in keeping abreast of the activities of
property spruikers. Mr Cohen observed:
...there have been previous schemes that have had particular
modus operandi. Particular examples we give are the rent-to-buy schemes and the
vendor terms contract schemes. As regulation and regulators have caught up with
those schemes there have been changes to the way in which these schemes might
Mr Cohen conceded that for regulators there was a catch-up period and highlighted
the importance of being alert to the mode in which changes are taking place in
the promotion and nature of these schemes:
New schemes emerge; investors get caught up in those schemes;
they come to the attention of regulators, who are often looking backwards
rather than looking forwards to catch those matters. So, to that extent, the
need to continually be looking at those modus operandi and be looking at
whether the framework in place to respond to those is appropriate is a key
element of it.
While there are some regulatory protections which are relevant to the
activities of property spruikers, it is evident that regulators in this space
often play a 'cat and mouse' game with those property spruikers who seek to
benefit at the expense of investors.
Thus, any proposed reforms must also take account of the resourcefulness of
property spruikers and their talent for devising ways that allow them to
operate on the margins of, or outside, the regulatory frameworks.
The committee is also concerned that spruikers renowned for their
involvement in property investment scams are allowed to continue to provide
property investment advice. In this regard, the committee notes the propensity
of rogue operators to reinvent themselves and to continue promoting property
scams even after being exposed for such activities. In this regard, the ACCC
noted that the capacity for individuals or corporations to resurface was a
broader challenge for the ACCC in its compliance and enforcement efforts. It
noted that the commission was 'assisted by the capacity to seek injunctions
against entities including individuals and banning orders preventing
individuals from taking management roles for a period of time. It stated
The courts have demonstrated willingness to make such orders.
We can and have taken contempt action against those who breach such orders with
material sanctions that can apply. This said, there remains challenges as
identified in the Committee’s query.
The ACCC expected these challenges may be considered under the 2016 ACL
Review but could also 'involve broader regulatory framework issues including
practices loosely referred to as "phoenix behaviour"'. According to
the ACCC, reviews may also consider the adequacy of penalties or other
sanctions that 'may deter or prevent repeat behaviour'.
Despite the number of reviews recommending that property investment
advice be regulated, no concrete action has been taken toward the introduction
of a uniform regulatory framework that would include property investment advice,
which remains exempt from the Corporations Act.
The committee endorses the principle that if two products are
functionally similar investments, they should be regulated in a similar manner.
In this regard, the committee considers that the functionally similar nature of
advice about property and other investment types, as well as the effect of the
regulatory framework for financial services on the property spruiking sector,
more than justifies the extension of the Corporations Act to advice on
investment property. Australians are entitled to expect property investment
advice to be appropriate and in the best interests of the potential investor.
This objective can be achieved by ensuring that there are barriers to entry for
advisers and that they are required, among other things, to act in the best
interests of their clients, as is the case for financial advisers under the
The extension of the Corporations Act to advice on direct property
investment would provide the licensing, disclosure and conduct obligations the
committee considers are required, and eliminate the regulatory gap between
direct property investment advice and financial product advice. The committee
recognises that there may need to be appropriate exemptions for particular
services associated with property investment and adjustments to the educational
and training requirements to make them more appropriate for people providing
property investment. The PIPA's recommendations about the minimum qualification
requirements for a property investment adviser provides an appropriate model.
The committee recommends that the government, in consultation with the
states and territories, should strengthen the regulatory framework of the
property investment industry to bring it into line with regulations applicable
to the financial investment industry. Specific areas include:
making the regulation of property investment advice a
Commonwealth responsibility (recognising that services provided by licensed
real estate agents would remain under state and territory regulation);
inserting a definition of property investment advice into the
Corporations Act and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act;
requiring that anyone providing property investment advice
should hold an Australian Financial Services Licence (with appropriate
In respect of the last recommendation, the committee suggests
that the independent industry-established standards setting body for financial
advisers could set the educational and training requirements for property
investment advisers and the code of ethics to which they would subscribe.
Opportunities to advance reforms
Work underway through the COAG process presents an opportunity to build
on the work of previous inquiries and to introduce much needed reform in the
property investment sector.
Consumer Affairs Forum
At their MCCA meeting in April 2010, ministers noted the importance of
adequate investor advice specifically related to property and that the
Commonwealth was considering options for regulating property investment advice.
In June 2014, the MCCA's successor, the Legislative and Governance Forum on
Consumer Affairs (the Consumer Affairs Forum), discussed property spruikers.
They did so again the following year, also noting progress over the previous 12
months on a project by Consumer Affairs Australia and New Zealand (CAANZ),
which is to conduct a statutory review of the provisions of the ACL in 2016. CAANZ
is to provide a final report in March 2017.
Consumer Affairs Australia and New
Zealand (CAANZ) review of the ACL
On 12 June 2015, Consumer Affairs Ministers reached agreement on the terms
of reference for the ACL review.
Under the terms of reference, CAANZ will assess the effectiveness of the
provisions of the ACL, whether these provisions are operating as intended and
address the risk of consumer and business detriment at an appropriate level of
regulatory burden. Consideration of these provisions will include but not be limited
general prohibitions against misleading or deceptive conduct,
unconscionable conduct and unfair terms in consumer contracts;
prohibitions against specific 'unfair practices', including bait
advertising, referral selling, unsolicited supplies of goods and services,
pyramid selling and component pricing;
the system of statutory consumer guarantees;
the national product safety framework; and
enforcement powers, penalties and remedies applying under the
The review will also:
assess whether the existing institutional, administrative and
regulatory structures underpinning the ACL, such as the 'multiple regulator
model' and the coordinated enforcement, education, policy, research and
advocacy approach of the Commonwealth and states and territories, are effective
and efficient in supporting a single national consumer policy framework;
consider the interface between the national consumer policy
framework and other legislation, its jurisdiction and reach, including whether
there are legislative gaps, duplication or inconsistencies with
industry-specific and other laws, and opportunities to reduce unnecessary compliance
costs on businesses, individuals and the community while maintaining adequate
levels of consumer protection;
examine changes in consumer and business awareness of their
respective rights, protections and obligations, including access to information
about dispute resolution and consumer issues, since the implementation of the
assess the flexibility of the ACL to respond to new and emerging
issues to ensure that it remains relevant into the future as the overarching
consumer policy framework in Australia.
While the terms of reference of this review are comprehensive, some have
direct relevance to the matters raised during this inquiry. The committee
strongly supports the review taking into account the concerns outlined in this
report and making recommendations designed to bring advice on investment in
property in line with the regulations governing financial advice. In the
committee's view, it is important that the matter of advice on property
investment receives close attention in this comprehensive review of the
Australian consumer law.
The committee recommends that Consumer Affairs Ministers consider the
terms of reference for the review of the Australian Consumer Law with a view to
inserting a specific reference to advice on property investment in term of
reference no. 1.
National review project targeting
Between 2013 and 2014, ACCC and ASIC in collaboration with the states
and territories participated in a project by the Compliance and Dispute Resolution
Advisory Committee (CDRAC) concerned with property spruiking. The national
project focused on a number of high risk property spruiking industry
participants. Consumer Affairs Victoria informed the committee that, as part of
this project, 66 property spruikers had been investigated, with
disciplinary action taken including education and warning letters,
substantiation notices, enforceable undertakings and a prosecution.
The ACCC provided more detailed information on results of the project that has
led to twenty traders receiving legal notices to substantiate claims made in
advertisements and at seminars, which in turn prompted legal action against at
least 10 entities and their associates including:
Benjamin David Chislett, Creative Property Australia Pty Ltd and
Benny Bull Pty Ltd (led by Consumer Affairs Victoria)
No Loan Home Pty Ltd trading as Perth's Easyhomes WA, Filip
Butkovic, Nikola Butkovic, Patricia Susilo, Bryan Susilo and Rowan Lines (led
by Consumer Protection Western Australia (CPWA))
We Buy Houses Pty Ltd and Rick Otton (led by ACCC)—Mr Otton
failed to substantiate marketing claims. The court enforceable undertakings
prevent Mr Otton and his companies from running seminars and promoting
their schemes in WA for two years. CPWA also commenced proceedings against people
who had attended Mr Otton's seminars and implemented the business models,
resulting in Supreme Court of WA rulings against No Home Loan Pty Ltd in May
2012 and Patricia and Bryan Susilo in February 2014 as noted above.
According to ACCC, regulators issued 67 education and
warning letters and seven traders gave regulators legally-enforceable
undertakings to modify their behaviour.
Victoria is now leading a national review project in collaboration with
state and territory consumer affairs agencies and the ACCC to examine consumer
protection and property laws across Australia to 'identify legislative gaps and
propose options for reform'.
The directive for this project came from the Consumer Affairs Forum.
The project targets misleading behaviour in relation to property investment
spruikers and is considering:
...education, compliance and regulatory strategies aimed at
preventing consumer and investor detriment resulting from property spruikers
targeting prospective investors with promises of easy and quick wealth creation
through property investment and other techniques such as rent-to-buy schemes.
Consumer Affairs Victoria is also working with the other ACL regulators
to raise awareness among consumers about property spruikers and the risks of
obtaining investment advice from wealth-creation seminars. The purpose is 'to
educate consumers about property spruikers and rent-to-buy schemes and
particularly conduct that contravenes the ACL and targets vulnerable consumers'.
This project complements the other national work underway including the
compliance project to combat misleading behaviour by property spruikers and
identify legislative gaps and propose options for reform.
Other consumer affairs administrators across Australia have also
commented publicly on the work of the national review project into property
spruikers. For example, NSW Fair Trading Commissioner, Mr Rod Stowe, warned
that consumers were often being misled into the financial benefits of buying
into a particular scheme, stating:
Regulators across Australia have initiated court action to
stop promoters who promise financial benefits they cannot deliver on or who
fail to tell people about their cooling-off rights to get out of a service they
were pressured into buying at a 'free' seminar.
Mr Stowe has been reported as observing that property spruiking is 'an
area that falls between the cracks somewhat' between real estate agents who are
regulated under state and territory property legislation and the financial
services legislation administered by ASIC.
Dr Lanyon from Consumer Affairs Victoria told the committee about an
important conceptual change in the way the consumer affairs agencies were approaching
the problems posed by property spruikers:
While previous work had defined property spruiking as being
mainly about the provision of investment advice, we are looking at the schemes
that are being spruiked and the risks and detriments arising for consumers.
As noted in chapter 3, in the past, these schemes had been mainly
rent-to-buy and vendor terms. While Dr Lanyon explained that those legal forms
are not in themselves problematic, they target those with limited access to
mainstream finance, are 'often underemployed or commonly underemployed, have
low financial literacy and are generally in need of easy or quick financial
gains'. She informed national work was underway to identify 'the unique
consumer risks' with these schemes.
The committee acknowledges the importance of looking at the particular
schemes on offer. Evidence provided to the committee shows that property
developers and promoters will continually reinvent schemes and the way in which
they are marketed to circumvent situations where the regulatory regime closes a
loop-hole or strengthens consumer protections for a particular modus operandi.
To illustrate this point, Consumer Affairs Victoria advised the committee that while
representatives from all the states and territories consumer protection
agencies had attended property spruiking seminars to understand their operation
as part of the project, the seminars were more of the get-rich-quick type of
schemes and not land banking.
As such, the major surveillance of property spruikers in the last few years
missed the harm reported to this committee about land banking schemes.
Focus on right to a cooling-off
As part of the national review project, there has also been a focus on
reminding consumers about their rights in regard to cooling-off periods.
Some state governments have sought to remind property spruikers about their
obligations and consumers about their right to a cooling‑off period. A
media release from the Western Australian Consumer Protection division noted
that consumers respond to advertisements and attend 'free' seminars on the
understanding that they are getting information or advice to help them invest
in the property market. It stated that they do not envisage 'a high pressure
sales environment where they are expected to buy a training package or other
sales material but typically that is the case'. It advised that:
The ten business day cooling off period, which is mandatory
for unsolicited sales under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), applies if the
consumer is sold a product or service during the seminar, which was not the
promoted purpose of the seminar. I have issued a letter to property spruikers
in WA to remind them of their legal obligations....
The consumer must be informed in writing of their right to
terminate the signed contract under the ACL. Failure to do so will render the
promoter liable for penalties of up to $50,000 for a corporation and up to
$10,000 for an individual.
The release reminded promoters of the ACL's fundamental requirement that
'only true and accurate information' be given during the presentations at these
seminars. It stated, 'ACL regulators will be monitoring content for any false
or misleading representations and will expect any claims made to be verifiable
and breaches of the law in this regard could lead to fines of up to $1.1
million for a corporation and up to $220,000 for an individual.
The NSW government issued a similar media release.
The cooling-off period available under the ACL is an improvement on the
remedies available under the previous state and territory regimes, which were
inconsistent and not applied across the board. For example, under the Fair
Trading Act 1999 (Vic) the cooling-off rights for off-business-premise
sales did not apply to sales in hotels or similar venues where property
spruikers typically held their seminars.
In the case of land banking schemes, however, by the time some investors become
concerned about the nature of the schemes, the cooling-off periods may have
long passed. Even so, the committee sees value in the work being done to
educate the consumer about their rights when it comes to the marketing of
property investments and the obligations of the promoters.
The national review project on property spruikers is a positive development.
It is important that this project result in recommendations that not only
address existing legislative gaps but strengthen laws to address consumer
protection issues inherent in the way spruikers operate and the particular
scheme they are peddling at the time.
Importantly, the work of the national review project should feed into
the review of the ACL that is commencing in 2016 and reporting in early 2017.
The review, being undertaken by CAANZ, is the appropriate vehicle to highlight
the need for any changes to consumer protection law and to make recommendations
to ensure consumers are adequately protected from unscrupulous property
spruikers. This is the first comprehensive review since the ACL was introduced
in January 2011 and the continued concerns raised about property spruikers
should be addressed as part of this review.
Having regard to recommendation one, the committee recommends that
Consumer Affairs Australia and New Zealand, in its review of the
Australian Consumer Law, give serious consideration to:
the options for reform proposed by the national review project
into property spruikers;
whether investment property advice rightly belongs under the same
regime as financial products and financial advice and, if not, how consumer
safeguards available to investors in financial products can be replicated for
investors in property;
measures needed to prevent property investment spruikers with
demonstrably compromised integrity from continuing to operate in the business;
introducing a licensing regime for those providing advice on
property investment which would include minimum qualifications and a code of
conduct to which they would subscribe; and
increasing the penalties for misleading and deceptive conduct,
including the introduction of civil penalties and criminal sanctions.
This report has referred to recent reforms to improve and make the
regulatory regime around the provision of financial advice more robust. Based
on its work in other inquiries, the committee has formed the view that there is
still scope for improvement in this area. Because the committee is recommending
that investment advice be considered as a form of financial advice, it refers
to one particular area that, in its view, still requires attention—provision of
The report on managed investment schemes will deal comprehensively with this
matter. But, because the provision of general advice is relevant to land
banking and property investment advice more generally, the committee makes some
The PJC report observed that 'Property spruikers appear to have been able
to operate because the regulatory regime which governs property investment
advice is not well defined'.
As noted previously, advice is only a financial service if it is advice on a financial
product (this is called 'financial product advice'). In effect:
an investment seminar about investing directly in property would
not be financial product advice, as investment property is not a financial
product under the Corporations Act; and
an investment seminar about ways to purchase property indirectly may
be financial product advice if the investment vehicle is regulated as a
financial product under the Corporations Act. For example, if the seminar
recommended investing in property through a managed investment scheme, the
seminar would be providing financial product advice.
It should be noted that, even if an investment seminar gives advice on a
financial product, consumers may not receive the full suite of protections
available under the Corporations Act for personal advice as investment seminars
are usually classified as giving 'general advice'.
There are two types of financial product advice:
Personal advice is given in circumstances where the provider has,
or should have, considered the person's objectives, financial situation and
Only one aspect of the person's relevant circumstances needs to have been
considered for the advice to be personal advice.
Examples of advice that is likely to be personal advice include strategic
investment advice and advice on retirement income planning.
General advice is advice that is not personal advice, that is a
recommendation or opinion that does not consider a person's relevant
Typically, advice provided at investment seminars and the advice in marketing
brochures advertising a particular financial product or product range will be
ASIC makes the following distinction:
General advice about a financial product will not be personal
advice if you clarify with the client at the outset that you are giving general
advice, and you do not, in fact, take into account the client's objectives,
financial situation or needs.
Under the FOFA reforms in Part 7.7A of the Corporations Act, personal
advice provided to retail clients is generally subject to higher consumer
protections than general advice provided to retail clients.
The Economic Legislation Committee's inquiry into the Corporations
Amendment (Streamlining of Future Financial Advice) Bill 2014 received
submissions and testimony expressing concern that consumers were unaware of the
nature of general advice.
For example, Mr Alan Kirkland, CEO of CHOICE, took the view that it was
unrealistic to expect all consumers to understand the differences in the
regulation of general advice and personal advice:
We depend on consumers to work out, 'That's general advice,
so there is a lower bar and I should be much more cautious'...It is just not
realistic to expect the consumer to understand that distinction between
personal and general advice.
Noting the concerns about the possible misuse or misunderstanding of the
term general advice, the committee recommended that:
...the government give consideration to the terminology used in
the Explanatory Memorandum and legislation (for example, section 766B), such as
information, general advice and personal advice, with a view to making the
distinction between them much sharper and more applicable in a practical sense
when it comes to allowing exemptions from conflicted remuneration.
Similarly, the Financial System Inquiry's final report recommended
'renaming general advice' but did not suggest a particular term to replace
general advice. Instead, the final report recommended a more appropriate term
be chosen through consumer testing.
The government, in its response to the Financial System Inquiry, agreed to
rename general advice to improve consumer understanding after consulting with a
wide range of stakeholders and conducting consumer testing.
The investment seminars considered by the committee usually featured
disclaimers, including warnings about the general nature of the advice (despite
the repeated protestations from Mr McIntyre that his company did not provide
financial advice). The committee considers that the current general advice
warning is insufficient to convey to consumers that the advice does not take
into account their relevant circumstances and is not required to meet the same
level of protection as personal advice. This is particularly true for
investment seminars, which are typically high pressure environments where
participants can be rushed into making a decision by charismatic spruikers.
The committee considers that a nondescript label such as 'financial
information' or 'general financial information' is unlikely to convey to
consumers that general advice does not take into account their relevant
circumstances and is subject to lower regulatory standards but is still
attempting to influence their financial decision‑making.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government give due
the characteristics of investment seminars, wealth education
programs and similar product sales environments when consulting with
stakeholders and conducting consumer testing to rename general advice;
whether the general advice warning needs to be strengthened to
ensure consumers are aware that general advice is not required to meet the
higher regulatory obligations applying to personal advice; and
whether the obligations on those providing general advice should
be strengthened in regard to misleading information.
Borrowing to invest
The committee notes that in some of the promotional material for the
land banking schemes, reference was made to the provision of finance, in some
cases 100 per cent.
For example, in one of its brochures, Market First advertises:
Through our 100% financing option, it's possible to qualify
to invest with virtually no money down. This is a true revolutionary
game-changer for property investing in Australia.
This type of offer immediately set alarm bells ringing. Although the
matter of borrowing to invest in such schemes did not arise during the course
of the inquiry, the committee takes this opportunity to highlight the risks
associated with any such finance.
In its inquiry into forestry managed investment schemes, the committee
heard many accounts of retail investors finding themselves in dire financial
straits because of borrowing to invest. The committee takes this opportunity to
emphasise that when investors combine leverage and investment, they expose
themselves to higher risk, as gearing accentuates any loss stemming from the
failure of the investment. There are many traps for the unwary investor when it
comes to property investment. The committee recognises the critical importance
of financial literacy as a means of assisting potential investors to make
In its 2005 report on property investment advice, the PJC underscored
the need for consumers to protect themselves against spruikers:
No regulatory scheme, without being tyrannical in nature, can
completely shut down the use of deceit and manipulation in commercial practice.
While the proposed regulations will make operation more difficult for
spruikers, it is inevitable that they will remain and do their best to skirt
this, or any other, regulatory scheme.
Once the regulatory scheme is in place, it will remain
necessary for consumers to be alert, to look to their own interests, and to
approach anything which looks 'too good to be true' with a healthy scepticism.
The committee underscores the importance of investors being alive to the
risks of investing in property and equipped to make informed decisions and to
protect their interests. As Mr Kingsley, chair of PIPA, told the committee: 'There
is no such thing as a sure thing. You know that. If it is too good to be true,
it often is'.
Check the internet first
One of ASIC's main financial literacy tools is the MoneySmart
website, which ASIC created to help consumers and investors take steps to
improve their personal finances. ASIC informed the committee that their MoneySmart
webpage on land banking, which outlines the risks associated with land banking
schemes, went live on 6 August 2015.
This webpage outlines useful information about:
how land banking is sold to investors;
what can go wrong in a land banking scheme; and
checks to do before investing in a land banking scheme.
MoneySmart webpages are optimised so that search engines place
the webpage at the top of relevant search results; in other words, if someone
googled 'land banking' they would see the MoneySmart land banking
webpage as the third item in the search results.
For this tool to be effective, the information needs to be available when
consumers are making their decisions. In the case of land banking, this
information was available too late to assist investors in 21st
Century Group's and Market First's schemes. These investors would, however,
have been able to read some useful tips about attending investment seminars.
Education through MoneySmart is central to ASIC's action plan for
its National Financial Literacy Strategy 2014–17 and an important tool to
combat the influence of people intent on exploiting investors.
As noted earlier, however, regulators are often reactive and issue
warnings long after consumers have invested in a particular scam or purchased
an unsafe product. In respect of land banking, there were early warning signs
in 2013 and ASIC became aware of concerns about the schemes around May 2014.
Consumer Affairs Victoria has a warning on their website about land
banking schemes with 'tips to protect yourself'.
To alert consumers to the risks involved in property investment, the committee
suggests that Consumer Affairs Victoria insert in its home page a major heading
'investment property' alongside the existing ones (Housing and accommodation,
Shopping, Cars etc).
The consumer affairs agencies for the other states and territories should also
review their websites to ensure that guidance on investment in property is easy
The ACCC has a website ScamWatch, which outlines a number of
risks for people who attend investment seminars and contains information
providing warnings to consumers relating to investment schemes.
The committee notes that ScamWatch does not have as much detail or
helpful advice on investment seminars as ASIC's MoneySmart, which is
unusual given that the activities of property spruikers would generally come
under the ACCC's jurisdiction. ScamWatch also does not cite ASIC's
The internet is one the primary ways consumers research information and
opinions, which provides regulators with an efficient and relatively low-cost
way to increase financial literacy. Regulators must ensure their websites are
up-to-date and warn consumers about relevant risks and provide general
information about risky products or strategies. Where an investigation into
particular products or companies is still active, the regulator should still
alert consumers to risks in such a way as to not compromise the investigation
or infringe the rights those under investigation.
The committee recommends that ASIC, the ACCC and state and territory
regulators have a stronger focus on providing up-to-date and accessible
information alerting consumers to risks arising from the activities of
spruikers as part of their efforts to improve the financial literacy of Australians
and to encourage the early reporting of concerns about property investment seminars
Many of the behaviours exhibited by the promoters of land banking
schemes outlined in this report, such as high pressure selling techniques and
referrals to conflicted lawyers and other services, are also found in schemes
operated by other spruikers, including 'financial education' programs teaching
people how to invest in the share market. The committee has made a number of
recommendations for regulatory reform aimed at protecting consumers, and some
recommendations in the Australian Consumer Law and national consumer credit law
space that would increase protections for the victims of spruikers of
non-property investments, in addition to property investment.
The committee is optimistic that the recommendations made in this
report, if implemented, would provide greater consumer protections from the
operations of spruikers. With the great strides made in the regulation of other
financial services over the last 15 years, governments and regulators must turn
their attention to fringe activities, such as property spruiking, which for
legacy reasons have been left outside the financial services laws. In addition,
the committee emphasises that, regardless of the effectiveness of regulation,
consumers will always need to protect their own interests.
Given the established obligations and penalty regime under the
Corporations Act, consumers would arguably be better protected if land banking
schemes, and advice on property investment generally, came under the
Corporations Act. Should the Australian and state and territory governments
decide that investment property advice should remain under the ACL, then
reforms are necessary to strengthen that regulatory regime as it relates to
investment property and investment property schemes. The FOFA reforms to the
Corporations Act provide a sound model on which to base changes to the ACL.
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