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Tribute to Rob Stowe, Fair Trading Commissioner

14 March 2017

Ms MELANIE GIBBONS ( Holsworthy ) ( 12:02 ): I move:

That this House:

(1)Congratulates Rod Stowe, the Commissioner for Fair Trading, for his commitment to the people of New South Wales.

(2)Acknowledges Commissioner Stowe's efforts to protect the consumers of New South Wales.

(3)Recognises Commissioner Stowe's achievements during his 40 years of public service.

I support this motion, which recognises Commissioner Stowe's achievements during his 40 years of public service. I am glad he is here today to witness our recognition of those 40 years. It is a phenomenal achievement. There are a few members in this House who are not yet 40, including the new Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation, who is in the Chamber. It is phenomenal to think that Commissioner Stowe has spent all that time in public service. What a fantastic contribution he has made to New South Wales. I take a moment to also mention Amy Cook, a former staff member of mine and now a senior media adviser to Commissioner Stowe. It is lovely to see her smiling face. I am sure she is doing a fabulous job. On Tuesday last week, Valentine's Day, Commissioner Stowe celebrated a magnificent milestone: 40 years of continuous service in the New South Wales public service. I have the highest admiration for the dedication, loyalty, professionalism and thorough decency Commissioner Stowe has displayed throughout his four decades of service to the people of New South Wales.

Today Commissioner Stowe might be a 40-year veteran member of the senior executive service, but, like all of us, he had to start somewhere. As an 18-year-old former school captain from Westmead High School, Commissioner Stowe began his working life as a Clean Water Act licensing clerk in the then State Pollution Control Commission. He had some side trips through the Department of Education, the Department of Local Government and the State Superannuation Board, before joining the Department of Business and Consumer Affairs as a policy adviser in 1989. Commissioner Stowe quickly became one of the agency's key staff, serving for some time in the early 1990s as executive officer to the Commissioner for Consumer Affairs. As the State-wide head of Fair Trading's Customer Service Division, Commissioner Stowe demonstrated two of his enduring commitments in the portfolio: defence of Fair Trading's comprehensive engagement with regional New South Wales and of the agency's vital services to vulnerable consumers. He instilled a passion for history and pride in the organisation's achievements by inaugurating the annual publication of the Fair Trading Year in Review, which keeps the agency's story alive in an era of large cluster annual reports.

A decade before becoming commissioner, Commissioner Stowe led the New South Wales Government's consumer protection strategy for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. He knew that Sydney was being tested as a showcase of the Australian experience, and his work helped to ensure that the many thousands of foreign visitors left Australia with positive memories. I am sure they still hold those memories dear today. I understand that the 24-hour traveller consumer helpline was particularly well received. Later in that decade, Commissioner Stowe had the once in a lifetime opportunity to represent New South Wales on the interjurisdictional working group that developed the landmark Australian Consumer Law [ACL] in 2009-10. If one looks closely at the ACL, his fingerprints can be discerned. He fought hard to require disclosure by traders that they intended to refurbish defective products as opposed to replacing them completely. The ACL is undergoing a major review right now, and Commissioner Stowe is again playing a pivotal role. It was for those and many other achievements that he was deservedly awarded the Public Service Medal in 2011—a true honour.

When this Government first won office in March 2011, the then Minister for Fair Trading, Minister Roberts, decided to recreate the position of Commissioner for Fair Trading and appoint Commissioner Stowe to the position. I acknowledge Minister Roberts in the Chamber. Commissioner Stowe then set about putting his beloved agency back together, regaining control of the policy and strategy function and reforming the agency's compliance and enforcement functions. He has been a tireless advocate for consumers, seizing every opportunity to take to the airwaves and warn consumers of the latest scams or dangerous products, making sure they know where to get help. Every year, under Commissioner Stowe's stewardship, NSW Fair Trading resolves around 50,000 consumer complaints, handles around a million customer inquiries, administers 40 Acts of Parliament, licenses tens of thousands of tradespeople and other workers, and safeguards—ready for this?—$1.3 billion in tenants' rental bond money.

Commissioner Stowe has long believed in sharing some of that data with the public. When this Government stated its commitment to open data, he knew that the time was right to act. Last year Fair Trading launched the nation's first ever public register of consumer complaints, which is likely to become a major legacy of his time as commissioner. Another personal legacy is last year's agreement between the Commonwealth, States and Territories for a mandatory information standard on free-range eggs under the Australian Consumer Law. Commissioner Stowe advocated fearlessly for improvement in this fraught area of the marketplace, battling those who said it could not be done. I heard him speak on radio many times on the issue. He did a great job. Commissioner Stowe deserves our enduring respect. I offer him heartfelt congratulations on his fortieth anniversary in the public service. I am glad he is here today. Minister Kean in particular was determined that this motion be moved today because he wanted the House to honour the anniversary. It is fabulous to see that two Ministers who have worked with Commissioner Stowe are in the Chamber to honour his contribution. I commend the motion to the House.

Ms YASMIN CATLEY ( Swansea ) ( 12:08 ): On behalf of the Opposition, I extend our heartiest congratulations to Commissioner Rod Stowe on his 40 years of public service. I acknowledge his presence in the gallery. I am so pleased he is here. Mr Stowe is an exemplary public servant. In my dealings with him, he has displayed the confidence, knowledge and respect that has won him admiration on all sides of politics.

Rod Stowe started with the then State Pollution Control Board on 14 February 1977. During his career he moved through various department and agencies—spending time in the Department of Education and the State Superannuation Board, before joining the then Department of Business and Consumer Affairs almost 30 years ago. Mr Stowe's career in Fair Trading has many highlights, such as support for vulnerable consumers—where he was a fierce defender of Fair Trading grants programs, including the No Interest Loans Scheme as well as the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Service for which we are so grateful.

I also note his staunch support for regional areas—I am from a regional area so again I thank him—defending and extending the network of Fair Trading centres delivering dispute resolution, inspections and community outreach services directly to regional citizens of New South Wales. There has been a winding back of that, but we will not talk about that now. Mr Stowe was also involved in the national implementation of the Uniform Consumer Credit Code, and helped oversee the consumer protection strategy for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

In more recent times, as Deputy Commissioner at NSW Fair Trading, Mr Stowe oversaw the critical national reform and has been invaluable in driving the initiatives of the Council of Australian Governments, including the implementation of the Australian Consumer Law and the National Occupational Licensing System. Mr Stowe has witnessed a range of changes in his 30 years in Fair Trading—although I think that is an understatement—and has seen his agency evolve over time in response to new and emerging threats and risks to consumer rights. I also note that he has done a fair amount of heavy lifting in the media department—we listen to him regularly—and it is often through Mr Stowe's media presence that I, along with the broader community, have become aware of Fair Trading issues.

I congratulate the Government on moving this motion, and trust it is a sign of its confidence and respect for Mr Stowe. I say that because it was only a few years ago that he earned the ire of the then Minister—the third of the six we have had from this Government in the same number of years. The reason behind this kerfuffle appears to be that Mr Stowe was simply doing his job—getting out there into the community and warning of dodgy products. At the time a dangerous USB charger was linked to a tragic death. Some of us in the House—I note the member for Bankstown and the member for Blacktown are in the Chamber—recall the spectacle of the Government's shabby treatment of Mr Stowe at that time. If it were up to elements of the right in the Liberal Party, Mr Stowe's career in the service would have ended prematurely.

I hope that today's motion represents a collective apology from the Liberal Party. I know its rough treatment of Mr Stowe a few years ago did earn the condemnation of the community and many public servants. It reflected the attitude of this Government towards the public service. However, today is not the day to dwell on the nasty vindictiveness of the Tories. I appreciate the opportunity as shadow Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation to extend the thanks of the Opposition to Mr Stowe for his years of service. Mr Stowe is a model of a good modern public servant, and the Opposition again congratulates him on his 40 years of service. I commend the motion to the House.

Mr MATT KEAN ( Hornsby—Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation) (12:12): It is an honour and a privilege to acknowledge in the House today one of the State's most outstanding public servants. Rod Stowe is a great man, a man of integrity, decency, intellect and loyalty. A more dedicated public servant we will not find in this State. Today I join my colleagues and thousands of New South Wales citizens to say thanks to Rod for giving everything he has to this State over 40 years. It is appreciated and today we want to celebrate that—40 years of dedication to protecting consumers and providing good government, which is what he has done every day he has turned up for work. It all began on Valentine's Day 1977.

Dr Geoff Lee: For the love.

Mr MATT KEAN: For the love, obviously. Rod saw an advertisement in the local paper inviting people to apply for employment with the New South Wales Public Service. He was offered a job on the spot and he got to choose where he wanted to start. I believe cards were held up and for some reason Rod chose to start his public service in the State Pollution Control Board. His first boss was Assistant Commissioner David O'Connor, a man who would have a major influence on Rod's career and would later go on to become the first Fair Trading Commissioner in New South Wales.

After a short time there he went on to serve in the Department of Education and local government, and the State Superannuation Board before joining the Department of Business and Consumer Affairs as a policy advisor in 1989. It was in this role that Rod found his true calling; protecting consumer rights and standing up for the vulnerable. Rod has so much to be proud of, but most notably his role in leading the consumer protection strategy during the 2000 Olympics will not be forgotten.

As Fair Trading Commissioner Rod has built a national profile as one of the most respected figures in consumer affairs. He is a revered figure across the nation. In fact he was the driving force behind the landmark Australian Consumer Law enacted in in 2009. These are just two of the many reasons that Rod was appropriately awarded the Public Service Medal in 2011—fitting recognition for an enormous contribution. In addition to these many tangible personal achievements, I take this opportunity to acknowledge Rod as a leader within government. In the past weeks while I have been the Minister I have seen that what has been said about the devotion of his staff is true because of the loyalty he shows them and the leadership he shows every day of the week.

When Rod speaks, people listen; largely because of the reputation he has forged for honesty and acting with the highest levels of integrity. His staff are rightly devoted to him. He is a genuinely collegiate leader, motivated not by money or power but by a burning desire to make New South Wales a better place. Rod has provided wise counsel and absolute loyalty to 18 Ministers before me. As the eighteenth, I personally thank him. I sincerely thank him for taking an interest and for mentoring me and helping me get through these past few weeks. I cannot say how excited I am to continue working with him to make our State even better in the months and years to come. Everyone who knows Rod, everyone who has been fortunate enough to work with him or to be showered by his friendship is a little bigger, better and stronger because of it. We are here today to celebrate a remarkable contribution and the difference that Rod Stowe has made to this State. Rod, I can confidently say that New South Wales is a better place because of your service. I commend the motion to the House.

Ms TANIA MIHAILUK ( Bankstown ) ( 12:17 ): On behalf of the Opposition and the electorate of Bankstown, I congratulate Mr Rod Stowe, the Commissioner for Fair Trading, on his commitment to protecting consumer rights in New South Wales and, in particular, his amazing service over the past 40 years. I acknowledge what the Minister and the shadow Minister have said and congratulate the member for Holsworthy on moving this motion today. Having worked for 18 Ministers, I encourage Mr Stowe to write a book because it would contain some very interesting stories.

Mr Stowe was appointed as Commissioner in August 2011 and I was appointed as the shadow Minister in October 2011 and served in that role until March 2015. During that time some good reforms were implemented and others concerned to me. There was a slash-and-burn mentality at that time. The O'Farrell Government wanted to cut many jobs and no doubt there was destabilisation in Fair Trading, the branches and the department. I can imagine it would have been a very difficult time for Mr Stowe's staff because his role was to protect consumers, to provide invaluable information to businesses and to ensure that the regulatory framework survived.

Some things were very challenging, but there were some good results, such as the motor vehicle inquiry that both the Government and Opposition supported. That led to some great achievements. We passed legislation to protect children with the installation of child-safe windows following a shocking number of children falling from apartments. Those reforms were very important and I am delighted the Opposition had a role in ensuring they happened.

It would be remiss of me not to mention a dark period in the commissioner's tenure, July 2014, which I lived through as the shadow Minister. I echo the words of the member for Swansea. The member for Blacktown and I had Mr Stowe's back during that difficult period, which he did not deserve. It came about as a result of the tragic death of young Sheryl Anne Aldeguer caused by a faulty USB charger. Then Minister Mason-Cox did not want to take responsibility for the failure of communicating with the public. Instead, he chose to spend a week engaging in some of the most appalling behaviour. I know the commissioner was undermined tremendously by some people who are still working in this place. I will not embarrass any individual, but we know who undermined him at that time. I congratulate Commissioner Stowe on his amazing efforts. I am delighted he still holds his position. I hope that when he chooses to do so he retires on his own terms and is not forced out by a ridiculous situation like that which took place in July 2014. I congratulate the member for Holsworthy on moving this motion.

Mr ANTHONY ROBERTS ( Lane Cove—Minister for Planning, Minister for Housing, and Special Minister of State) (12:21): It is a pleasure to be with my colleagues to celebrate a life of service to the people of New South Wales by the extraordinary Commissioner Rod Stowe. I love calling him Commissioner Rod Stowe because we reintroduced the title of commissioner after some members opposite took it away. Today we are celebrating his great contribution and we have heard many stories. The Department of Fair Trading, led by Rod Stowe, is the workhorse of the New South Wales government sector. People sometimes forget the amount of input the department has in everyday life. I will reflect on some of the things Commissioner Stowe, his team and I did together.

As the father of the Australian Consumer Law, Rod was the man everyone deferred to and sought advice from at Council of Australian Governments meetings. There is not a State or Territory consumer affairs Minister or consumer affairs department head who did not regularly telephone Commissioner Stowe to seek his advice and counsel. Our strata reform package was part of a great period. Well, it was sort of great. We packed it all up into a box ready to go, then I was shipped off to the Resources and Energy portfolio. The reforms were then unpacked and repacked by a couple more Ministers. It was great to see Minister Dominello coming through and getting the reforms done. I thank the commissioner for that. It was a long process but it was important to give people living in our new vertical villages a degree of freedom, self-governance and empowerment.

As the workhorse of government, it was Fair Trading that took on the fight against synthetic drugs. That work saved people's lives and I pay tribute the commissioner for it. The reforms regarding window locks are still coming online, but they are undoubtedly also saving lives. We also protected many people from travelling con men, whom we chased up hill and down dale. That was a great time. Our work got a lot of runs in the English media, which was tremendous. There is so much I could discuss just from our first few months working together. Rod Stowe is a true friend of the consumer and the most vulnerable. Nothing illustrates that more than the No Interest Loan Scheme. Through his great work and leadership we are assisting people who are at their most vulnerable and needy. Rod has been a great mentor to me. I could not have asked for a better public servant to head a department, and I always appreciated his advice and counsel. I learnt a lot about leadership from the way Rod quietly went about his job but always had the back of his department and staff. I pay tribute to Rod for that. It is a great credit to him.

I thank Elizabeth and Rod's family for giving him to us for 40 years. I know he is up early every morning; he used to call me on his way to the station in Leura. In rain, hail, snow or sleet Rod belts his way into town to serve the people of New South Wales. We should call him Rod Stoic. On behalf of the Government I thank Rod Stowe for his 40 years of service. I look forward to seeing him give many more years of service to the people of New South Wales.

Dr GEOFF LEE ( Parramatta ) ( 12:25 ): I pay tribute to Commissioner Rod Stowe and congratulate him on celebrating 40 years of excellent public service. As a humble backbencher I have been particularly impressed by the three Ministers the commissioner has mentored, guided, informed and chaperoned to keep them out of trouble. He has done an excellent job. I first met Commissioner Stowe when he had a small office in Fitzwilliam Street, Parramatta. He immediately saw the value of Parramatta and Western Sydney and knew his department had to move to there. I thank him for his forethought in moving his entire operation to the new centre of Sydney.

I remember going to his office on the day when he was working with Minister Roberts on a synthetic drugs bust in which department officers would visit convenience stores and tobacconists to identify those that were selling products that polluted people's bodies and were a terrible influence on the community. Within 24 hours officers hit the ground and Rod was leading an entire team of inspectors and sheriffs around Sydney. That was one of my first memories. I also remember the Fair Trading undercover operations. They would always fascinate me. I think Minister Roberts was Minister at the time the department had the HiAce van with the fake wall. Department staff would sit in there hour after hour doing surveillance and taking photos. Some people would say they were more like stalkers but, no, it was all done for absolutely the right reasons. I pay tribute to Commissioner Stowe for allowing his staff to get on with all their necessary enforcement work.

What impresses me most is the commissioner's ability to protect the rights of consumers and the most vulnerable in our community. It is too easy for businesses and unscrupulous operators to do the wrong thing, and it is the people with the least power in the community who often seem to be the victims. His leadership has led to legislation being enacted for the right reasons. Government members do not always like legislation; we like the concept of small government and allowing people to get on with their lives. But commissioners like Rod Stowe and departments like Fair Trading are excellent examples of why we need professional services looking out for the community. Once again, I congratulate the commissioner. I know that there is no show bag, no Christmas toy or Valentine's Day gift off limits. He and his dedicated staff will be there at every Royal Easter Show and every Christmastime when we are munching up toys in front of the cameras. I hope the new Minister will soon be out in the hard hat and vest feeding unsafe toys into the shredder.

Mr Matt Kean: We're going to have a crusher.

Dr GEOFF LEE: Apparently we will have a crusher this year. I am sure you will be able to inform Minister Kean about the best method. Thank you very much for your 40 years of dedication and service. Thank you for moving to Parramatta. Thank you for your advice and guidance. As a backbencher, I know that I can ring you and ask for your fearless and frank opinion and advice, which I always follow. Well done, Rod Stowe. I pay tribute to your 40 years of service.

Mr VICTOR DOMINELLO ( Ryde—Minister for Finance, Services and Property) (12:30): By leave: I also pay tribute to Commissioner Rod Stowe. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Like Minister Roberts, I was there from day one in 2011. There are only a handful of us who have been here since that time. It gives us a perspective from inside Cabinet; we get to see how every agency works, how effective they are, which ones perform and which ones are the heavy lifters. By any view—I have said this to the commissioner before, and I say it now on the record—NSW Fair Trading can hold its head up high as being probably one of the best agencies inside government. I mean that because I have seen them all. The amount of work that one small unit pumps out is seriously impressive.

I particularly appreciated that every time I went to NSW Fair Trading it was not like visiting an agency; it was a family. The commissioner has said that so many times. It is the result of his leadership, dedication, stoicism and, as my colleagues have said, his humility. The greatest leaders I have ever met are humble, and Commissioner Stowe captures that in the way he holds himself. He has taught me a lot about leadership, which really comes down to hard work and respect. Thank you very much, Commissioner. We are indebted to you for your service over four decades. I have a list of reforms that we have made together, and it is just extraordinary. There was the fun part—the dodgy Easter show bags and perilous Christmas toys. I must admit that no-one did it better than Minister Roberts: He was the champion when it came to crushing toys.

Let us not forget the commissioner's mornings with Wendy Harmer. The fact that he could communicate in a very conversational manner some pretty complex issues about consumer protection adds weight to his credibility. In our time together we oversaw the Samsung recall—to my knowledge the largest recall in Australian consumer history. Indeed, we took the lead on that issue, with the commissioner showing the other States and Territories how to do it. I think we were the first and the only State to have a mandatory government recall—again, to the commissioner's credit. Minister Roberts mentioned the commissioner's compassionate side in his dedication to the No Interest Loan Scheme campaign.

There was the Mr Fluffy task force. We are spending a quarter of a billion dollars remediating homes in the Queanbeyan region. Commissioner Stowe is overseeing that huge project. He was also part of the very complex real estate reform and the smart meter rollout. We do not hear about that. We hear about what happened in Victoria because it was a mess. That it has been going so smoothly on his watch is a credit to the commissioner. I was not going to mention biofuels—but I will. My friend opposite and I love biofuels, as I know does Commissioner Rod Stowe. So much so, it was a present from my dear friend Mr Roberts.

Ms Melanie Gibbons: What about Phelpsy?

Mr VICTOR DOMINELLO: Do not worry, I am getting to that. The hits keep coming. Biofuels was such easy reform. Then there is the strata reform. There are some seriously meaty reforms—the most in a generation. I will not go into detail now, but there are more than 90 reforms in the legislation. Congratulations to Rod Stowe on that. The FuelCheck initiative was the first of its kind in Australia. NSW Fair Trading drove it, and to this day I still talk about efficiency in government and how fast the commissioner implemented it to huge consumer benefit. Now even the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says that if people want to reduce their petrol prices they should use FuelCheck. It is showcasing it for what it is: a true model of consumer empowerment. Then there is something that is very close to the commissioner’s heart: the Complaints Register. It was a very difficult policy to drive because he had to get the communications right and he had to have the trust of the stakeholders. The way Rod Stowe handled it is, again, an eternal credit to him. I have left the best till last: free-range eggs.

Dr Hugh McDermott: Time expired.

Mr VICTOR DOMINELLO: I will be quick. I will never forget the time we spent in Canberra—the toings and froings and the machinations. We could write a book about free-range eggs. But we got it through. As we say constantly, if we can resolve the free-range eggs issue we can go to Israel and solve the problems in the Middle East. On that note, I offer my congratulations and eternal thanks for your stewardship, your leadership and your enormous contribution to our State. Thank you very much.

Ms MELANIE GIBBONS ( Holsworthy ) ( 12:35 ): In reply: I will be brief to compensate for the time taken by Minister Dominello. A 40-year career in the public service gives us a lot to talk about. There are not many motions that bring three Ministers and two shadow Ministers to the Chamber to acknowledge one person on a Thursday.

Ms Trish Doyle: And the member whose constituent he is.

Ms MELANIE G IBBONS: That is nice to know. Two humble backbenchers, the member for Parramatta and I, also wish to acknowledge Rod Stowe's work. His main office is in the electorate of the member for Parramatta, who I know is terribly pleased about that. He tries to take all jobs to Parramatta. We try to promote jobs coming to our electorates as well. NSW Fair Trading has many regional offices that make a great contribution to the areas they serve, and I thank Rod Stowe for his commitment to the regions. He has heard today about the confidence people have in him and the respect they have for him. The commissioner is someone I think all members in this Chamber have a great affinity with; everyone talks about how they can pick up the phone and seek his advice.

We often hear him on the radio providing that advice to everyone. I quickly checked my washing machine during the Samsung debacle to see what brand I had. After hearing him on the radio, you check your appliances and toys to make sure they are safe. We have heard about the great work that Commissioner Stowe did on strata reform, motor vehicles, children's toys, synthetic drugs, window locks and with FuelCheck, as well as countless other issues that he has taken up and led. As the member for Lane Cove, the former Minister, said, the commissioner is a true friend of the consumer and the most vulnerable. That is a nice comment to make about someone. Commissioner Stowe has a desire to make our State a better place, as the member for Hornsby, and his current Minister, said. Eighteen Ministers is an awful lot to have to deal with and teach. I am sure that some were easier than others, and some were more challenging.

Mr Anthony Roberts: Some were not hard.

Ms Tanya Mihailuk: Some were more challenging.

Ms MELANIE G IBBONS: Some were more challenging. But what a difference Rod Stowe has made in providing consistency, leadership and forward planning. I wish him all the best in the years ahead for his career and his contribution to New South Wales. I wish him all the best during his time with Minister Kean. As the commissioner will have heard, the Minister has great admiration for him and urged the Government to bring forward this motion today acknowledging the commissioner. I am pleased to be able to lead the debate.

Thank you to your staff; it is lovely to see them with you today to hear your service acknowledged. Thanks also to your family. I know you leave home very early and get home very late, and they obviously help you do that. Thank you from us all. It is nice when all members can come together to honour someone with your integrity and commitment.

Motion agreed to.

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