Your Christmas gifts might not be as safe as you think. Picture: iStock
Your Christmas gifts might not be as safe as you think. Picture: iStock

Are your Christmas gifts actually safe?

That big stack of stuff under the tree: we consider it safe as houses because our safety standards are as high and wide as the sky.

Every product in the tinselled and trussed up shops or available online from within our borders has been checked and passed muster, right?

People in the know have ensured the item can't be sent to the market without passing tests, surely? No and no: that presumption could not be more wrong.

"Safety first" might be an aphorism, but it holds little truth where Australian products are concerned. In Australia, it is not illegal to put unsafe products on the market for sale.

This flies in the face of prevailing notions of a consumer market most consider over-regulated, over-policed and over the top.

Head of CHOICE policy and campaigns Sarah Agar says there are currently no explicit requirements under Australian law for manufacturers and retailers to make sure the products they sell are safe but we blindly presume the checks have been done and standards met.

Their surveys have found that four in five consumers surveyed believe there are legal safety requirements, protections and penalties in place.

Most of us assume the products we buy have been safety tested. Picture: iStock
Most of us assume the products we buy have been safety tested. Picture: iStock

But the system relies on a body such as CHOICE testing them against the standards to show that they are failing.

Only a smattering of products deemed high-risk have mandatory safety standards, and almost without exception these are now in place because of a death or a serious injury.

How horrid that someone must die or be maimed to summon basic, enforceable standards to protect those who will come afterwards.

The gate is only effectively shut after the horse had bolted and trampled someone to death. Dreadful.

The products with mandated (and therefore enforceable) safety standards include kids' gear such as cots and strollers, bikes and aquatic toys. But even then, the protections are not as rock solid as consumers might expect.

Even when mandatory standards are developed, the recall system on faulty items is largely voluntary in Australia, meaning the manufacturer chooses when to recall a product and sometimes they don't do that at all.

While some kids’ gear and toys have mandated safety standards, they are not as rock solid as consumers might expect. Picture: iStock
While some kids’ gear and toys have mandated safety standards, they are not as rock solid as consumers might expect. Picture: iStock

For example, CHOICE tested a dozen portable cots in May this year and 10 failed the mandatory safety standards. When contacted, only one manufacturer chose to recall that cot and the other nine are still available for sale.

In some cases, the compulsory standards are out of date. The cots and stroller mandatory measures were set almost 20 years ago, and the newer standards that were introduced are voluntary.

Everything is in place to introduce a legal obligation on businesses to ensure the products they sell are safe. Early last year, the report of a review into Australian consumer law - a federal legal device - was handed down and in August last year the state ministers agreed to implement the recommendation after consulting with their states.

And there, what looked like a promising, necessary reform stopped dead.

It is a restructuring that would bring us in line and up to speed with the EU, Canada and the UK. It would catch us up rather than put us at the cutting edge, but that is far preferable to where we are.

We need the newest standards to be made mandatory and therefore enforceable. We need violations to be policed more vigilantly. And we need Australian consumer law to include a requirement that products for sale are subject to safety requirements.

Until then, we need to speak up when something seems amiss, not just trust that someone else has done the checking and has our back.

Dr Jane Fynes-Clinton is columnist for The Courier-Mail.