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Thursday, 15 June 2006
Page: 26

Mr SECKER (10:52 AM) —Failure is an orphan but success has many fathers. It is always interesting that, when you see members of the opposition get up on what is obviously a very good government initiative, they always try to claim the credit for it. I am not saying that they did not have any influence on these decisions, but to outrageously claim all the benefits of and all the credit for the Do Not Call Register Bill 2006 is genuinely over the top. I think the member for Oxley normally gives a fairly reasonable contribution to this parliament. He even showed his warm and caring side today, telling us how he enjoyed cleaning up and cooking at home and did not like being interrupted by the phone calls while he was doing that. He is a very warm and caring member—although I think many people, when they are washing the dishes, would not mind being interrupted by something!

I agree with the member for Oxley that there is nothing more annoying when you have got home after a long day at work and you want to spend some time with your family or you have some other things to do or you have settled down to watch a movie—all those occasions when you are having your own time—and you are interrupted by someone who has no interest in you except in what he or she can perhaps sell to you. It is very annoying, and those occasions seem to have been on the increase.

I can remember years ago—and I do not know whether it is an urban myth or not—that the story used to be that if somebody rang up you could leave the phone off the hook, just walk away and then that person might hang up but they could not use that line. That is what I used to do. But unfortunately, after about half an hour, you realise that somebody else might be trying to get through to you, so you hang up your phone. Other people have had the experience of getting one of these calls from a telemarketer. They have decided that they will just leave it there hanging, go off, wash the dishes and come back, and they have found the person still talking without drawing a breath. Those sorts of stories abound all over Australia.

It is very annoying, and I think there is general agreement on both sides of this parliament that there will not be any opposition to this legislation because it is a very fine idea. I regularly have constituents ringing up and complaining. I tell them that there is a register, but this goes much further.

Often these calls are time consuming, with a hundred different questions before you even find out what they are calling about. As a rule, if I get one of these calls myself, I just say, ‘Not interested,’ and hang up. You soon come to recognise them. But I will be the first to admit that I mistook one caller with an Indian-sounding voice who tried to ring me three times. I was getting pretty annoyed by this stage, until I found out that this person actually worked for my local bank and had a pretty important reason to be ringing me up. That was the problem, as I think we all must recognise. I think India is the telemarketing centre of the world, and we recognise these voices, as I did. I plead guilty of making a mistake on this occasion.

On top of the frustration, as I said, many of the telemarketers are not even calling from Australia, nor do they speak fluent English. A recent advertisement by the Royal Automobile Association in South Australia depicted the character George talking about the frustrations of overseas call centres, in a humorous approach. The ‘Which deli?’ advertisement showed George telling cafe owner Trevor about the service provided by a call centre operator from New Delhi, India. George asks where the call centre operator is calling from, to which he replies, ‘New Delhi.’ George says that he is actually at the new deli in his neighbourhood. The call centre operator replies that they should catch up for a curry and a pappadum. Whilst the advertisement has been removed from the air, as the Advertising Standards Board received the complaint that it was racist, it certainly shows the common frustrations felt by many people at having service calls answered by overseas call centre operators.

This legislation is a very welcome step to saying goodbye to those nuisance calls. It is fantastic that this government—and I give credit to members of the opposition that they support it as well—has heard the cries of the public demands for such a register to be established. Last year alone, complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman on telemarketing had increased by more than 600 per cent. That is a huge increase in anyone’s terms. That is saying something about the inconvenience and interruptions to people’s lives that these calls are creating.

We should also note that the proposal of such a register is supported by the telemarketing industry peak body, the Australian Direct Marketing Association, or ADMA. I think they should also be given credit for recognising this problem. The model being proposed is a legislated national register which will give the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the power to enforce industry compliance. The ACMA will also establish the administrative arrangements for the operation of the register. This legislation will also enable the establishment of minimum contact standards to which all telemarketers must adhere, including all exempted organisations such as charities.

There may still be some concern that charities are exempt. In my experience, charities are often the ones making these calls—and also to small business. I note that the member for Oxley raised this as well. I think that, in time, we will need to review those two areas. Small businesses often complain to me that they are busy during the day when they get these calls and the calls take up their time. We all like to think that charities are good and that they provide a great service, but they can also be annoying. I often get phone calls asking for donations, not because I am a member of parliament but because I am an average Joe Citizen like everyone else. Certainly my constituents often tell me that it is charities that are doing the ringing up, often at 7 o’clock or 8 o’clock at night when it is very inconvenient.

It seems that Australians are not the first to encounter this type of register, with successful schemes having been in operation in many countries, including the United States since 2003 and the United Kingdom since 1999. The proposed model for Australia takes the best features of schemes already operating in other countries but is primarily based on the United States model. This register gives the power to the consumer to say no to these annoying calls.

Consumers will have the legal right to stop telemarketing approaches at any time by placing their numbers, both fixed line and mobile phone numbers, on the national register. Once a telephone number is on the do not call list, telemarketers other than those in the exempt categories will be prohibited from contacting a registered number unless they have prior consent. All this is free to consumers. Individuals can nominate to register either via the internet, post or telephone and, once they have done so, their numbers will remain on the register for a period of three years before they will have to be reregistered unless they are removed earlier.

As per similar international systems, the government will fund the regulatory costs of the register and will contribute to the establishment costs for the register, including some ongoing costs. With the register proposed to cost just over $33 million over four years to establish, the government will make a contribution of $17.2 million over the four years. The industry will contribute $15.9 million over the same period, and telemarketers will then be required to pay for access to the register in the form of fees for access. I am pleased to note that ACMA would be empowered to enforce compliance of the register with the onus then being on the telemarketing industry to avoid calling anyone on the register without their consent. Should they not consult the register and dial consumers who are on it, they will face a fine.

I am also pleased to note that the register would apply to calls made within Australia as well as to calls made from overseas. Often companies have call centres located overseas, and this legislation will capture calls made overseas to an Australian number, even if the telemarketer or the commissioning company does not have a presence in Australia. Whilst enforcement of such calls may be difficult, it is recognised that telemarketing is in large part an international problem. With this in mind, the government has recognised the importance of cooperating with other countries in developing bilateral or multilateral arrangements to help move more effectively towards global enforcement of telemarketing.

Of course, in every situation, there are exemptions to the rules. Within our country there are some organisations that would be exempt from these rules, such as certain government bodies—including the armed forces and police forces—registered political parties, religious organisations, charities and educational institutions. For government bodies, telephone calls are an important mechanism through which the government is directly able to contact the public. Exempting such bodies as government departments, agencies including armed forces and police forces and authorities or instrumentalities of the Commonwealth, states and territories requiring to contact the public from time to time would seem sensible and appropriate.

For the purpose of staying in touch with constituents, political parties, independent members of parliament and nominated political candidates would be exempt. I note with some interest that, I believe, a member of the other place has suggested that politicians should not be exempt. We may laugh in this House about senators not knowing much about constituents at times, because we are the people’s house. I am sure you, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, would have done a very similar thing when, like me, you are driving along in a large rural electorate and you ring someone out of the blue—it is not a bad thing to pick a number—with a hands-free phone set-up so that you are not breaking the law and driving dangerously. That is a risk we take. If someone does not like us doing that, they can vote against us. That is their ultimate way of saying, ‘We didn’t like that call.’ My experience in this is that people have been quite surprised that a member of parliament has rung them out of the blue, and they are quite happy have a chat about anything. As long as you do it in a polite manner and listen to them, they take it very well. I think that is a very good thing for parliamentarians to do.

The exemption also applies to persons nominated as a candidate under the Commonwealth Electoral Act—and I think it is only fair that we treat all candidates, whether or not they are the sitting member, the same. They can be a candidate under the Commonwealth Electoral Act or a relevant state or territory law that deals with electoral matters. Where this exemption does not apply is when a party member seeks to promote their own business through telemarketing calls for their own benefit. We are awake to that. As religious organisations provide valuable support and community services, as well as moral guidance to many people within the community, they have been exempt from these rules. Educational institutions also need to contact their students to inform them of the needs of the institutions and to solicit funds to ensure their viability, and for these reasons they are also being exempt from the rules.

While it sounds as though consumers are trying to stop communicating with anyone unknown to them, we must remember that the telemarketing industry actually wants this register. The industry will benefit through decreased operational costs associated with the proposed national telemarketing standards, reduced costs of compliance with state and territory legislation and better targeting of calls as they will no longer call individuals who will hang up on them—as I do and as I am sure many members of this parliament and many members of the public do.

This legislation signifies consumers and the government taking a stand for our privacy and our precious time and how we choose to use it. For a long time we have received these annoying calls and, with people working as hard as they do now—families and children being busy with schooling, sports and other activities—time is precious. Why would anyone want to waste five minutes that they could have with their children, after just walking in the door from work and with the children heading off to bed, to listen to a telemarketer calling from another country and selling something that is completely useless to the family? The Do Not Call Register will put an end to this. I do not think anyone in this chamber should oppose this bill and would be very surprised if anyone did. I commend the bill to the House.