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Thursday, 15 June 2006
Page: 36

Ms BIRD (11:35 AM) —I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Do Not Call Register Bill 2006 and the Do Not Call Register (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2006 and broadly endorse the statements made by members on both sides of the House on behalf of their constituents. As the previous speaker said, I am sure we have all received these telemarketing calls. The frail and elderly, in particular, feel harassed in their homes by these sorts of calls. I have had exactly the same sort of experience. I am glad to be able to speak on this bill, as I have been gagged on so many others. I have a pile of never delivered speeches in my office that I think would almost outnumber those that I have delivered. So I appreciate the opportunity today to speak on this bill.

The Do Not Call Register Bill 2006 sets up a scheme to enable individuals who have an Australian number to opt out of receiving unsolicited telemarketing calls. The bill aims to regulate and minimise calls made to Australian telephone numbers that originate from overseas or Australian numbers—something that will be welcomed by many in our communities. Labor has been calling for the establishment of a national do not call list since July 2004. Further to this, in October 2005 the member for Chisholm proposed a private member’s bill to this effect. The Howard government refused to allow a vote on this bill, instead releasing a discussion paper on this issue on the day before the bill was scheduled for debate in the House of Representatives. Now, almost two years after Labor’s original proposal in July 2004, the Howard government has put forward this legislation but it will mean that the national do not call list will not be up and running until 2007. So I think we will have missed an opportunity over the intervening 2½ years to provide some relief to many people. For two years Australian families have had to suffer through these annoying telemarketing calls and, unfortunately, they will be forced to endure them until the beginning of next year.

I have had hundreds of complaints from my constituents in Cunningham about these irritating calls. They are a nuisance and indeed often a harassment for many people, especially the elderly, infirm and disabled. These people are unnecessarily disturbed by nuisance calls, often causing them pain and confusion and indeed financial loss if they get caught up in something with which they had no intention of engaging. They are often disturbed by telemarketers numerous times each day, often—as the previous speaker outlined—while they are awaiting calls from family or awaiting medical results and the like. The phone rings and they then have to get up—and for some who are disabled or frail that can be quite onerous—and find the phone, only to discover it is simply another telemarketer. Many of these people suffer from arthritis or have mobility difficulties.

A telemarketing campaign was under way in Wollongong in July last year which resulted in a person’s telephone account being changed to another provider without the person’s permission. I think the member for Charlton also received complaints in her electorate at that time. The process is called ‘slamming’. Telemarketers phoned my constituents and said they were calling on behalf of their current telephone provider. They asked whether they were speaking to the authorised account holder. The account holder answered yes and the telemarketer then recorded this answer and used it as an ‘authorisation’ to transfer their current account to another phone provider. The only way my constituents found out that they had been ‘slammed’ was when they received their next telephone bill and it was from another provider.

Telemarketers are also a source of frustration for many families in the Illawarra. I know, as a working mother, exactly what that is like. You have picked the kids up from school or child care—or in many cases both—you have done the shopping, you get through the door and you are trying to put the shopping away, start dinner, bathe the kids and help with the homework when the phone rings. You are put on hold and then you hear a voice from overseas telling you that you have been selected as a lucky winner of a mobile phone or accommodation—but only if you sign up to their ‘special’ offer. They can be very persistent, aggressive and indeed deceitful.

During the past two years of government inaction, I have heard arguments about how a do not call register will affect charities and Australian jobs. It is not the charities or the companies who use Australian call centres that my electorate office receives complaints about. The complaints that I have had are about companies who set up or contract overseas call centres. I receive the most complaints about repeated and aggressive telemarketing calls. My constituents advise me these calls are generally from India and are often from Australian companies who have gone offshore to set up call centres, to the detriment in fact of employment opportunities here in Australia.

This type of aggressive telemarketing impacts significantly on the hardworking Australians employed legitimately by good companies with good telemarketing practices. The companies that operate offshore use autodialing machines to automatically dial numbers in any numerical sequence. The calls are made from the call centre and then bank up until an operator is available. People are left waiting for a few seconds or up to a minute until one of their operators becomes available. The autodialing method also means that even if you have an unlisted number, as other speakers have identified, you are still susceptible to these calls.

In fact, in July 2005 I advertised in my regular electorate newsletter the Australian Direct Marketing Association’s voluntary Do Not Call Register. The response from my constituents in Wollongong was explosive, and it is one of the issues that my office has had the most contact on. We received hundreds of calls, all detailing individual experiences and frustration with these particular calls. I was constantly advised that these calls caused even the most normally charming people to become angry and aggressive—such is the extent of the complaints and the emotion that these calls conjure up.

All this was met with a great deal of understanding on my behalf. I was certainly brought up to always be polite. I have found in the past with many telemarketers from Australian based companies that, when I had politely listened to their introduction and politely said, ‘Thanks very much for calling but I am not in the least bit interested,’ they generally said, ‘Thank you,’ and that was the end of the conversation. So, while getting up to answer the phone while I was in the middle of trying to feed the family was a bit annoying, at least I had a polite exchange. In more recent times my experience, like many of my constituents’ experiences, is that the person on the other end of the line is particularly rude and particularly persistent. Having politely listened to their introduction and politely told them you are not in the least bit interested, you will get a very aggressive response: ‘Well, I’ve got this offer. As I’ve been able to contact you in order to give you an opportunity, I want to tell you about it.’ I say, ‘Thank you but I am not interested,’ but they persist.

On all the occasions that I have had these calls, without exception I have had to simply hang up in the middle of their comments. This is not something that I normally do in my day-to-day exchanges. As politicians, we have some fairly heated exchanges on occasion but I always manage to feel that I can continue the conversation and that there is a bit of dialogue on both sides. But these calls are not like that. They are aggressive and they are rude. Indeed, on one occasion when a company rang me for the third time that night to sell me some educational products, I again politely explained that I did not have primary school age children and was not interested. When I said, ‘In fact, you have already rung me twice tonight,’ the man said, ‘No, we haven’t’. I said, ‘Yes, you have,’ and he said: ‘No, you’re wrong. We haven’t rung you before.’ When I said, ‘Yes, you have rung me before,’ he hung up on me.

The outcome may have been pretty good in terms of shortening the call but it left me feeling fairly agitated. I thought that if I were a fairly elderly person and had that exchange it would have been very distressing. These are the sorts of calls that all our electorate offices are getting complaints about. The persistent and aggressive telemarketers make it even more difficult for those that most would consider to be genuine and legitimate call centre workers and charities. What happens is that we develop a hard shell and give an abrupt response when we get these calls, so genuine people who try to do their job with some professionalism often end up bearing the brunt of a fairly aggressive response from the receiver.

In 2006 Telstra reported that its unwelcome calls unit received 1,500 calls each day, with between 700 and 800 related to telemarketing. Most complaints reflected the failure of telemarketers to adhere to industry codes of practice and conduct, such as privacy codes and the ADMA’s do not call arrangements. These calls are impacting on family time. Many families have advised me that they can be called up to five times in the same evening by the same company. We all lead very busy lives. Many of my constituents commute to Sydney for work; they have very long days and are constantly under pressure to manage their travel to work, child care, after school care and other commitments. The very last thing they want is to be constantly interrupted during the short time they spend with their families in the evening.

I really do not think the Howard government understands how intrusive these calls can be. Indeed, during the 2004 election campaign the Liberal Party employed pre-recorded telemarketing technology to make unsolicited calls to thousands of Australians before voting day. I must acknowledge the fact that at least the company providing this service to the Liberal Party did employ Australian workers. As I recall, one of the Australians employed by this company was indeed the Prime Minister’s son.

I fully support the national do not call list, but it should be set up now—in fact, it should have been set up quite a while ago. Australian families and the elderly should not have to wait until 2007 for the list to be set up. Research conducted last year estimated that more than one billion telemarketing calls were made in Australia last year. That is 53 calls per person or 2.7 calls per household per week.

The United States of America has had a do not call register scheme since 2003. I was recently speaking to a renowned paediatric pathologist, Dr Edith Schmidt, who is a resident of Las Vegas, the advertising capital of the USA. Dr Schmidt advised me that, prior to the register being set up, she was inundated with unsolicited telemarketing calls to her home every evening. Since registering with the scheme she now receives very few marketing calls and most are misdialled numbers. Schemes in the UK and Canada have been in place since 2004.

The main elements of the bill before us are: firstly, a prohibition on making telemarketing calls to an Australian number that is registered on the Do Not Call Register, penalties applying for calls made from an Australian number or from overseas to an Australian number; secondly, a requirement that agreements for the making of telemarketing calls must comply with the act—this is aimed at organisations that may contract with another party to provide their telemarketing services; thirdly, a requirement for a Do Not Call Register to be established, enabling individuals to register their private or domestic number—the register would be kept by the Australian Communications and Media Authority or outsourced to a third party, which would operate the register on its behalf; fourthly, civil penalty provisions, not criminal offences, for a breach of a provision—breaches may attract significant financial penalties; and, fifthly, a tiered enforcement regime that provides for a range of enforcement measures to be initiated by the ACMA. The enforcement measures include formal warnings, acceptance of an enforceable undertaking or the issuing of an infringement notice. The ACMA may also institute proceedings in the Federal Court or the Federal Magistrates Court for breach of a civil penalty provision. The court may order action that could include the payment of compensation to a victim who has suffered loss or damage as a result of a breach of the act.

While I am supporting the bill before us—it is crucial that a Do Not Call Register is established—I do feel that the government’s efforts in seeking to delay its introduction and in seeking not to have the register fully operational prior to 2007 reflects a lack of understanding of the level of frustration faced by many Australian families and the elderly.

In the brief time left I want to also address my disappointment with the gag having the effect of not allowing the amendment of the member for Hunter to be given proper consideration and, I would have hoped, support. I speak to many small business operators in my electorate. Many of them are as frustrated and annoyed by these calls as those of us who have private phone numbers are. If you run a small business—a corner shop, a small florist, a chemist—and you have two or three staff working, and you constantly have someone having to answer the phone because you are getting these sorts of telemarketing calls, it is as annoying and disruptive to your business as it is to many of us in our home lives. I see no reason, to be honest, why we could not have extended the Do Not Call Register to small business. If they want to take the initiative to list on it, they should have the capacity to do that. In particular, that would recognise the modern reality of many small businesses. If plumbers, builders and those sorts of people are out and about on the job all day, generally their business phone is their mobile phone—they are carrying it around with them—and they obviously have to be able to take a call in case it is a business related call.

I had the plumber at my place a couple of weeks ago, out the back digging up the pipes, and his phone rang quite a number of times. He complained to me about the fact that these were often telemarketers. He had his hand, shall we say, well and truly in the muck, and it is a fairly intensive job that he needs to concentrate on. He said there is nothing more annoying than having to climb out of the trench, wipe your hands off, get the phone and then discover it is somebody trying to sell you encyclopaedias or something like that. For him, and for many small business people like him, the ability to register on this list would have been a great asset. I think it is extraordinarily disappointing that, because of the gag on this debate, the amendment that the member for Hunter indicated in his speech he would have liked to have moved as a technical amendment will not be considered. On behalf of the small businesses in my area—and I suspect that many on the other side would feel the same and support it—I will continue to urge the government to review this issue and to look at future amendments to this bill to give some relief to those small business operators.

In summary, I know that we are all in a mass-marketing world. I get home from work at the end of the day and I can barely get my letterbox open for the amount of junk mail that is in there. It is annoying. But at the end of the day it is my decision as to whether or not I engage in those sorts of interactions. If I want to take that whole bundle of stuff out of the letterbox and dump it straight in the recycling bin, which I frequently do, I am able to do that. It is the same with my internet access and pop-ups, emails or whatever. I am choosing to sit at the computer at that time so, while they are annoying, they are manageable. The difference with phone telemarketing is that you are not choosing to engage; they are interrupting you at a time of their convenience and often it is of great inconvenience to you. For the many people in my area who have indicated that this has become the absolute bane of their lives, particularly in the evenings, I think this bill will be very welcome. Their only disappointment in it will be these two aspects: firstly, that they have to wait until the beginning of next year and, secondly, those small businesses affected will not have the opportunity to take advantage of it.