There aren’t many civilian public servants who can legitimately lay claim to having mounted almost as many busts, raids, sweeps and seizures as senior police, but the outgoing New South Wales Fair Trading Commissioner is one of them.
The man who for decades ruined Christmas for importers of dangerous toys, brought down billing scams and struck mortal fear into used car dealers across the state announced on Wednesday he will retire from the public service in July after more than 40 years.
Straight talking and good humoured, the veteran NSW consumer watchdog has been a master of attracting publicity big and small to areas of concern in an unrelenting effort to alert and educate consumers and businesses.
He’s also been instrumental in the development of the Australian Consumer Law and complaints registers that can detect spivs, shonks and charlatans when they push their barrows of misery across state borders to try and avoid detection and prosecution.
Never shy of a picture opportunity or using visual stunts to communicate messages that needed to cut through obtuse regulatory legalese, Stowe’s affable and highly accessible style of communications helped spawn a new wave of consumer rights advocacy that’s now seen in shows like The Checkout.
Head of media at Choice, Tom Godfrey, said Stowe would be “sorely missed” in his role as Commissioner.
“There isn’t anyone in the country, really, who has busted as many scams as Rod has,” Godfrey told The Mandarin.
“Rod was always famous for leading raids and there were plenty. If the minister was there, Rod wasn’t far behind him.”
And there were plenty of ministers too.
His latest one, NSW Minister for Better Regulation Matt Kean said Stowe had provided “more than 40 years’ continuous service to the NSW public, including almost three decades in the consumer affairs portfolio, under 18 different Ministers, and six years as Commissioner.”
It might not have been intentional, but Stowe will also have helped cement the careers of many politicians on both sides of politics, not least because the Fair Trading and consumer affairs arena is frequently used as a testing ground for new ministerial talent.
Stowe began his career as a public servant straight out of high school in 1977 and worked in pollution control, education, superannuation and local government before moving to the consumer affairs portfolio in 1989.
A favourite Fair Trading device for demonstrating policy in action his famed ‘ministerial crusher’ used to publicly destroy things that can cause children to choke, catch on fire and fall foul of a range of Australian safety standards. So much for light touch regulation.
Last year’s unforgettable pre-Christmas crush featured now NSW Finance Minister Victor Dominello gleefully driving an asphalt roller over a long line of brightly coloured defective toys.
Dominello’s replacement, Matt Kean said Stowe was “synonymous with consumer protection and is held in the highest regard nationwide as one of Australia’s most outstanding consumer affairs advocates.”
“He is also one of the most active Fair Trading Commissioners in the state’s history, with a well-earned reputation as a ‘hands on’ approachable leader.”
Stowe was awarded the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals (SOCAP) Life Time Achievement Award in 2015 and the Public Service Medal in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
He was also received formal congratulations from the NSW Parliament this on accruing 40 years as a NSW public servant.