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Thursday, 15 June 2006
Page: 30

Mr FITZGIBBON (11:08 AM) —I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: “whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1)   welcomes the Government’s decision to implement Labor’s plan to establish a Do Not Call Register;

(2)   declares that the carve out for small and micro business represents a substantial deficiency in the bill and represents Government complacency on small business policy; and

(3)   calls on the Government to adopt Labor’s more comprehensive model”.

I begin my contribution on the Do Not Call Register Bill 2006, as I did yesterday on a couple of occasions, by expressing my disappointment at the government’s decision to gag this and a number of other important bills—and they are important for a number of reasons. From the reaction of the government’s own backbench, we can see the importance of the immigration bill that is being gagged. We all understand why it is being gagged. It has been done in an attempt to minimise political damage and fallout for this government. Yesterday Labor wished to move a technical amendment to the petroleum bill and we were denied that opportunity.

There could be no better example of an affront to parliamentary democracy than the successful attempt to deny minor opposition parties the right to move amendments in this place. However, it is not only an affront to Australian democracy; it is an insult to all those whom we represent in this place. We should be able to move such amendments in this place. Indeed, today I am again being denied the opportunity to move, on behalf of many Australians—in this case small business—a consideration in detail amendment to this bill. There could not possibly be any justification for that action.

On that basis, I seek leave to table the amendment that I would have moved in the consideration in detail stage, if I had been given the opportunity to do so and not gagged by the government on this issue. I have discussed the matter with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage and I am sure he would be happy to grant leave.

Leave granted.

Mr FITZGIBBON —The Do Not Call Register Bill 2006 provides for the creation of a national register that will allow individuals to opt out from receiving unsolicited telemarketing calls. The register will be overseen by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Exemptions will be provided for certain types of telemarketing calls to allow organisations who carry out activities in the public interest to carry out their work and to continue to provide services to the community. The exempt bodies are charities, registered political parties—so the Prime Minister will be able to call people at home again during the next election, if he is still around—independent members of parliament and candidates, religious organisations, educational institutions and government bodies.

The Do Not Call Register (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2006 enables the development of relevant industry codes and standards relating to telemarketing calls. It requires the ACMA to make national standards regulating the making of all telemarketing calls. The mandatory standards will relate to certain conduct matters, such as the time at which telemarketing calls may be made, the information that must be provided to recipients and the termination of such calls. The standard will apply to all telemarketers including those exempt from Do Not Call Register arrangements.

As indicated by the member for Oxley, Labor welcomes this legislation; it is long overdue. I am sure that he pointed out to the House that Labor has been calling for this for at least 18 months—I think longer. I believe that we took this policy to the last federal election. For whatever reason, the government for a long time was very reluctant to move on the matter, but community pressure has been overwhelmingly strong and has obviously forced the government’s hand.

I just make mention of the member for Chisholm. Unfortunately, she cannot be here today. She is unwell and has had to go home. She will be very disappointed to have missed this debate. All members of this House will be aware that the member for Chisholm has driven this agenda. She has run a very heavy public campaign and has introduced a private member’s bill into this place to give effect to what the government is attempting to achieve today.

It is interesting to note the number of submissions that were made on this bill. I was surprised to see them as I went through the bill’s explanatory memorandum. There were some 12 submissions from small business, 28 from charitable organisations, 32 from telemarketing organisations, eight from telephone carriers, five from consumer groups, eight from government, 20 from special interest groups, one from a social and market research organisation and, interestingly, 377 from individuals. So you can see where the push is coming from. It is not coming from industry organisations, as is so often the case in this place. The push is coming from ordinary mums and dads and families out there who are sick and tired of receiving unsolicited telephone calls at dinnertime or while they are watching their favourite movie or footy event. I am one of those victims. In particular, over the last Christmas period, I was inundated with unsolicited phone calls from these marketing organisations. It drove me crazy—absolutely crazy. It enraged me at times to be receiving these calls while trying to enjoy a short Christmas break and some quiet time with my family.

Interestingly, my daughter came home from school one day and informed me that someone at the school had told her the best way to deal with these calls is not to hang up but to leave the phone off the hook, sitting idle, and just let the telemarketers speak for five minutes or for however long until they work out that you are no longer on the other end. So that has become the practice in my household, and I understand that many households have adopted that same practice.

It is very frustrating to receive these calls, often at the worst possible times. On that basis, like the 377 people who made submissions and the many members of parliament, including Anna Burke, who have been pushing the case, I am delighted that the government has finally moved on this very important issue. We lag behind other nation states. These measures have been in effect in the United States and in the United Kingdom for some time, and I understand Canada is in the process of putting them in place. I know there has been some concern about the impact on the telemarketing industry, but the evidence from other nations where these things have been put into effect is that it has not been too adverse. In fact, it has forced the industry to have another look at itself and at how it can better present its case to the consumers it is targeting. I am very pleased that we are moving to a mandatory system. I think that is the only way we will give proper effect to what we are trying to achieve in this instance.

The second reading amendment I have moved gives members an opportunity to talk about a few things, particularly the tardiness of the government in bringing this legislation forward. But it also gives us an opportunity to talk about the impact of this legislation on small business. The amendment I had intended to move at the consideration in detail stage of this bill would have allowed small business to opt back into system. Unfortunately from my perspective, the government has made a decision to not allow small business people to opt into the system. In other words, private individuals at home will be able to register and request that they not be called and people with mobile phones will be able to request that they not be called, but people in small business will not be able to do the same.

The Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Coonan, says that the government took this decision because she was concerned that business undertaking ordinary business-to-business activity throughout the day might inadvertently get caught up in this legislation. That makes no sense to me. I cannot see the Australian Communications and Media Authority taking action against a small business for inadvertently falling under the scope of this bill. It would be clear to the authority that that is not the intention of the parliament, and I think it is highly unlikely that the authority would take any action in that event.

There is a very blurry line here between what is a business phone and what is a private phone—take tradespeople, in particular, who use their mobile phones for both purposes. You can imagine the small business builder, up on top of a roof, working away, when his phone rings. He needs to have that phone on his hip because not having it on his hip means the possible loss of business. So he keeps the phone on his hip and he keeps it turned on in case a customer is trying to call. But how frustrating is it for him—or it could be her—to struggle to put the hammer down, get the phone off the hip and risk falling off the roof only to learn that the call is coming from a telemarketer putting a proposition to him that he has absolutely no interest in. You can imagine a motor mechanic working under a vehicle in the dirt and the heat when the phone rings. He is compelled to come from under the car and run to the office to take the phone call, and you can understand how frustrating it is for him to find that the person on the other end of that telephone call is indeed a telemarketer trying to sell him something he has no interest in whatsoever.

People in retail or people in hairdressing and beauty therapy doing their treatments cannot afford to ignore the phone, to have the phone off the hook or to offend people with an answering machine. They are absolutely compelled to answer that phone every time it rings because they want to deliver the best possible service they can to their customers and to their potential customers. There is nothing more frustrating for them than to be interrupted and to have to leave their client or their customer alone for a few moments to go to answer a phone call that turns out to be from a telemarketer flogging something they have no interest in.

Whilst I understand there could be some concern on the government’s part about people inadvertently getting caught in the net, if you balance that against the disadvantages for small firms then clearly you would have to default to the view that it is important to also include small businesses in that same net. I have moved the second reading amendment to give members the opportunity to talk more broadly about that. Again, can I say how disappointed I am that Labor will be denied the opportunity to move its amendment at the consideration in detail stage—a technical amendment that we should have been able to move. That amendment would have simply put small business back in the system.

In my amendment, as the House will see, we were measuring small businesses—those with 20 employees or fewer. If the government had allowed us to debate that amendment and had decided, for good reason, that a better measure could be put in place for small business, we would have been happy to have that debate and change the amendment. It is absolutely unacceptable for the government to deny us the opportunity to even move that amendment in this place. If I remember correctly, this bill has already been dealt with in the Senate. It initiated in the Senate, through Senator Coonan. So, in effect, we have been completely denied the opportunity to move that amendment. Often in cases when we face a gag, we have the opportunity to move the amendment in the other place. But, if I am correct on that point, we will not have that opportunity. This is a ridiculous denial of parliamentary justice.

I invite the minister representing Helen Coonan in this place, when delivering his summation on this bill, to better explain to the House why it was that in the end small business was carved out of this process, because it is certainly not coming from submissions from small business. I can quote for the House the head of the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia, Mr Tony Steven, who said:

Constant calls from telemarketers are a time imposition for small business. We do want to restrict business-to-business marketing, but we should be protected from mass marketing telemarketing campaigns run by call centres in India.

He reinforces the point I have made. We deal with some very technical legislation in this place on a daily basis, but the government wants to tell me they cannot produce legislation that protects small business from mass-marketing telemarketers and at the same time ensures they are able to continue to do their normal business-to-business activity on any given day. That is a ridiculous proposition. I smell a rat. I do not know what it is, but I just cannot understand why the government would carve small business out. That is why Labor wanted to move an amendment to carve them back in.

The minister needs to come back in this place and articulate to us very clearly why it is that small business is going to be denied the opportunity to be protected from telemarketers in the same way that we at home are to be protected. I remind the House again that there is a very blurry line between what is a private phone and what is a business phone, particularly for tradesmen. We know the statistics on the ever-increasing reliance of small business on mobile phones to undertake their business. Of course, that extends now to wireless technology on the internet et cetera. It is becoming increasingly popular. This is a time when the government should be working harder to assist small business, not making things more difficult for it. So, in the absence of an opportunity to move the amendment, I invite the government to consider my amendment between now and the closure of the debate on this bill. If they want to have a rethink and embrace my amendment as their own, they would be more than welcome to do so.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Kelvin Thomson —I second the amendment.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Hunter has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.