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Thursday, 15 June 2006
Page: 22

Mr RIPOLL (10:38 AM) —I rise today, on behalf of the Labor Party, to speak on the Do Not Call Register Bill 2006 and the Do Not Call Register (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2006. It is my great pleasure speak on such important legislation because this has been an issue in the Australian community for many years, one that members on this side of the House—Labor—have been calling, pardon the pun, for action on for a considerable period of time. The introduction of this legislation is a significant win for Labor. This legislation has been pursued by Labor and we have put pressure on the government. While it is a win for Labor in parliamentary terms, it is a huge win for the community. Labor have been calling for the establishment of a national do not call list since before the last federal election and have been campaigning on the issue for the past two years. Personally, I have very actively campaigned on this issue in the local community. It gives me great pleasure to be here today to speak on this bill, because the people of Oxley—indeed, all the people of Australia—will be very pleased when these measures have been introduced. This is a long overdue win for Australians and a change that will give them back some peace of mind and a bit of phone freedom. The government’s backflip on this issue is very welcome.

The bills essentially provide for the creation of the national Do Not Call Register that allows individuals to opt not to receive unsolicited calls from telemarketers. The register would be overseen by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the ACMA. The new regime that will be established by these bills will give a greater sense of freedom to all Australians—freedom from being pestered by telemarketers during dinner, while bathing the kids or while relaxing and enjoying a bit of quiet time at home by themselves or with their friends and family. This is very real—I do not say these things lightly.

I will speak from my own experience of telemarketers. After getting home from a long day at work and spending some time in the kitchen undertaking some household chores—enjoying a bit of quiet time and feeling pretty tired—it is annoying enough that the phone rings at all, even though it could be a friend, but you can be very annoyed, even angry, when you realise it is an unsolicited call from a telemarketer trying to sell you something over the phone. I think everybody could relay their own personal experience. When it happens to you once in a night it is annoying, and when it happens to you twice in a night it is frustrating, but when it happens to you three times in a night you get very angry. Sometimes the only option is to take the phone off the hook.

People do not mind being interrupted by a phone call at home when there is a good likelihood of it being somebody who is close to them—a friend or someone who is calling them personally—but, for a lot of people, answering the call late at night is approached with trepidation. For many older people, it can be an intimidating experience to have somebody on the other end of the phone asking them specific questions, giving them information and, from my own experience, giving them a bit of a hard time. For many people this is quite intimidating. It can be a horrible experience.

With the introduction of the measures, that will no longer be the case. People will be able to opt out of receiving unsolicited telemarketing calls. When this bill is introduced people will rush to this list. They will do so in their tens of thousands. People will take this opportunity to opt out, because they see it as their right to use their phone for private purposes and not for receiving unsolicited calls. As the explanatorily memorandum states, the framework contained in the bill is designed to regulate and minimise:

... unsolicited telemarketing calls made to Australian telephone numbers that originate from overseas numbers or Australian numbers.

It also acknowledges that, while telemarketing is a legitimate method by which businesses can market their services or seek donations, the new system will empower Australians to express a preference not to be called by telemarketers. As much as I believe telemarketers have a right to call people, people have a right to refuse those calls and to therefore opt out completely from the system. I think that is legitimate for consumers in this country.

There are some exceptions in the bill: for example, some public interest organisations are permitted to make telemarketing calls. I think the real issue is that those so permitted should make calls within reasonable hours and within the reasonable bounds of what people would expect. The principal mechanism of this new regime is the establishment of a Do Not Call Register, which would be kept by the Australian Communications and Media Authority or a delegated authority. People will be able to register not only their home number but also their mobile phone number. For many people, their mobile phone number is also their home number as many people have adopted the practice of having a mobile phone as their means of communication. It is important that mobile phones are included because for many people it is a work related tool or a communication device that is very personal to them, and they do not want to be annoyed by telemarketing calls on that private number.

Telemarketers who wish to promote their services will be required to check their calling lists against the numbers registered in the do not call list to ensure that they do not contact numbers of individuals who have opted out of receiving telemarketing calls. My very strong message to telemarketers is to respect the wishes of those who opt out and list their numbers as not to be called. I think that is very important.

Complaints relating to the Do Not Call Register and breaches of the bill can be made to the ACMA. A range of penalties are enforceable. I believe that those penalties should be followed through completely and that they should be fully enforced. A strong message needs to go out that these laws will be acted upon. People have tried to opt out—a company has rung them and they have asked to be removed from the company’s list—only to find that they have received a call from the same company 15 minutes later, or the following day or the following week. It seems that for many people the frustration of continually trying to ring and get their name removed has been pointless. This bill should alleviate that problem.

The introduction of these new measures has long been overdue. Unwanted telemarketing is a serious problem and one that is getting worse in this country. I just want to bring to the attention of the House, and of people listening, a few salient facts as they relate to the telemarketing industry. The volume of telemarketing calls in Australia has been skyrocketing, to the point where, for many telemarketers, it is now almost a useless exercise. I see some acknowledgment of that in the gallery. As I said earlier, I think people understand this whole point about telemarketers very directly. For a lot of telemarketers as well it must be frustrating to ring people who are sick and tired of getting these calls, to the point where it is absolutely useless. People get frustrated and angry and are hesitant to answer the phone later in the night because of all these calls.

Research conducted last year estimated that telemarketing companies made more than 1 billion—that is right: 1 billion—telemarketing calls. That is a staggering thought. That is 53 calls per person or 2.7 calls per household per week—way too many; a figure which is out of control. These numbers represent an increase in telemarketing calls of six per cent on the previous year. In addition, the behaviour of some telemarketing companies is deplorable. While many telemarketing companies act in a responsible manner, there are many others who act irresponsibly. In fact, some, I would say, use disturbing tactics to pressure vulnerable people on the end of a phone—people who do not have the capacity to articulate their wishes or the power to really refuse someone on the phone. That is a real issue, a real problem.

Many people in the community cannot simply be rude and just say to telemarketers, ‘Go away!’ This bill gives them the power to tell telemarketers to go away. And they can do it directly, by listing their numbers on the Do Not Call Register. Once people understand that these laws have been passed—and I can assure you that I will be doing everything I can to promote them in my electorate and that many others will be doing the same across the country—they will be rejoicing in their new-found freedom.

Many of the call centres engaged in telemarketing employ aggressive and, in some cases, deceitful sales practices, exploiting the most vulnerable in our community. As I say, this does not apply to all of them, obviously. There are many respectable, honourable telemarketers who do their job properly, within the bounds of the law and of what we would determine to be an ethical standard. But there are some who do not. Unsolicited calls are the biggest source of complaints to the New South Wales Office of Fair Trading, and in 2005 there was a surge in the number of complaints recorded in Victoria and South Australia. I am sure that the numbers in Queensland are also staggering—the numbers of people who are completely annoyed, who have absolutely had enough. It is clear, therefore, that there is substantial community interest in stopping unwanted telemarketing.

The community has demanded action. For years it has been ignored by government. Labor has been pushing this issue for well over two years. In fact, it was on the policy platform before the last election. Again, I welcome the backflip of the government on this issue. Every once in a while you have to applaud a backflip from governments. Governments that do backflips and admit that they were wrong should be congratulated. So I would congratulate the government on a spectacular backflip on this very important issue.

Labor acknowledged that the rate of unsolicited telemarketing calls had grown significantly in recent years. In fact, in 2004, Labor proposed the introduction of the national Do Not Call Register, but the then communications minister Daryl Williams dismissed Labor’s policy as just plain populist. Well, I am afraid he was wrong. It may be a populist issue but it is still a real issue—a real issue that concerns many people in the community and one that needs to be dealt with. Now that the government has backflipped on this and adopted Labor’s policy, I say that perhaps the then communications minister was more than wrong.

I want to make special mention here of my colleague the member for Chisholm, Anna Burke, who introduced a private member’s bill in late 2005 to establish a national do not call list, to be managed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Under that bill, telemarketers who contacted numbers on the list would be subject to fines of up to $10,000. The provisions of this private member’s bill are largely reflected in the Do Not Call Register Bill 2006. One area of difference between the Do Not Call Register Bill 2006 and Labor’s policy is that the government has prevented small businesses from registering on the list. Whether amendments to this bill reflecting this position should be moved will be discussed between the shadow minister for communications and the shadow minister for small business.

Labor welcomes today the change of heart from the Howard government to adopt Labor’s do not call list banning unwanted telemarketing phone calls. This is a win, as I said earlier, for Labor but it is also a huge win for ordinary families. Labor has long understood that Australians have become sick and tired of being hassled by annoying telemarketing phone calls.

Unfortunately for Australian families, John Howard played politics on nuisance calls. When the member for Chisholm, Anna Burke, gave notice that she would be introducing a private member’s bill into the House of Representatives last year creating such a national Do Not Call Register, the government refused to even allow a vote on the bill. The government then cynically released a discussion paper on the issue, on the day before the bill was scheduled for debate. Now, after almost six months of delay, the Howard government has fully adopted Labor’s policy position. Senator Coonan should explain why she has made Australian families endure a further six months of annoying telemarketing calls just to allow her to take the political credit for this policy. She should also explain why the nuisance calls will go on until 2007.

Petty politics like this demonstrates the arrogance of a government that has been in power for far too long. The Howard government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming all along on this issue. It is clearly out of touch with community interest and does not understand how frustrated and annoyed ordinary Australian families are when they get home from a hard day at work and receive these nuisance calls. Labor listened and pressured the Howard government. Now Australian families will see an end to this irritating practice.

The next challenge for the Howard government is to adopt Labor’s plan to give peace of mind to parents concerned about their kids’ exposure to violent and pornographic material on the internet. We will be happy to continue to pressure this government until it understands what ordinary families need and deserve. So today I also call on John Howard to perform his second backflip and adopt Labor’s plan, which requires all internet service providers to offer a filtered, ‘clean feed’ internet service to all households, schools and other public internet points accessible by children. As I said, we welcome this bill. We welcome the Do Not Call Register, and Labor are very pleased that the government adopted our policy.