Australian Competition and Consumer Commission

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The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is an independent Australian commonwealth government authority established in 1995 to protect consumer rights, business rights and obligations, perform industry regulation and price monitoring and prevent unauthorised anti-competitive behaviour. The ACCC administers the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth), more commonly known as the TPA.

The ACCC wields a substantial amount of power in the Australian commercial realm. It has legislative and judicial power to enforce a broad range of anti-competitive commercial issues, including powers to counter price fixing cartels, non-factual claims in advertising, monopolies, refusal of supply, and undue harassment in debt collection.

In most cases the spirit of the act, and thus the actions of the ACCC, favours neither consumer nor supplier, but strives to achieve a competitive market without artificial restrictions. For example, refusal of supply, a producer refusing to supply a potential retailer or customer with a product is not itself illegal unless the action would have an anti-competitive effect on the market as a whole. Conversely, practices that are invariably anti-competitive are always illegal, such as price fixing and non-factual advertising.

Penalties for non-compliance of the TPA can be quite severe. These penalties are usually imposed without the involvement of the court system, except in the case of non-compliance or dispute. Companies who do not comply with the Trade Practices Act can be fined up to $10 million, and individuals may be fined up to $500 thousand. The ACCC also has powers to enforce restitutive actions on the affected parties. For example, companies are frequently forced to publish retractions of false advertising claims in national newspapers and at their place of business. Companies found in breach of the TPA are usually bound to implement a compliance program to ensure future compliance with the act.

While the penalties allowed for by the Trade Practices Act are quite severe, there has been a reluctance on the part of courts to impose penalties to the maximum extent permitted. There has been a move recently to make certain offences under competition law, such as price-fixing or participation in a cartel, criminal offences rather than purely civil breaches. It is generally thought that the possibility of being found guilty of a criminal offence - and the possibility of a custodial sentence for executives involved - will provide a much stronger deterrent to anti-competitive behaviour.

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