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Thursday, 15 June 2006
Page: 48

Mr GEORGANAS (12:27 PM) —Labor has been intent on the creation of a Do Not Call Register to give relief to thousands upon thousands of Australians frustrated at receiving annoying telephone calls from marketing companies, so of course I am speaking in favour of this concept. I will vote for anything that protects people from nuisance calls. We must do what we can to help people achieve some peace.

Within the electorate of Hindmarsh, an enormous number of constituents have responded to a newsletter story I put out about this problem. We had many people writing to us about the issues of cold-calling and telemarketers. I have been told of examples such as one where a fully automated system with voice recordings announces: ‘Congratulations. Your number has been selected to enter a draw for a new car.’ The person is supposed to be convinced of this and be led through a series of prompts. The constituent who relayed this to me said that, when they received this call, they simply hung up prior to the recorded message’s completion. What happened from there on? The constituent’s number apparently went back onto the list. A couple of hours later, there was the same nuisance call—the same phone call with recorded messages: ‘Congratulations. Your number has been selected to enter a draw for a new car.’ I have heard of similar recorded messages that encourage people to register their entry for one prize or another by telephoning a particular number. The catch with this is that most of these numbers are 1900 numbers. They vary in expense depending on the arrangements the company has made, ranging from 50c or 55c per minute to $5 per minute.

It is disgusting that grubby parasites are bamboozling, intimidating and exploiting the good-natured people around the country who are still decent and up front enough to take people at face value, to take people at their word. It is very sad that the people—many from a previous generation—who lack cynicism, who have learned to concentrate on the positive elements of their perceptions of people, can be treated so callously.

Evidence of this problem exists in the creation of the Australian Direct Marketing Association’s very own do not call list. This do not call list is observed on a voluntary basis by the association’s members. It is of particular interest that even the association representing direct marketers acknowledges through the existence of the do not call list that many people simply do not want to be bothered with such activity and that the association is prepared to take matters into its own hands and act to prevent as best it can nuisance calls being made to people who have gone out of their way to discourage this form of intrusion. It may well be in the best interests of the direct marketer to exclude from their contact list people who, for whatever reason, are clearly out of their potential market. Such people can exist in relative peace, and the direct marketers can focus on those who may be more open to receiving offers. Whether or to what extent the ADMA service is effective in reducing the numbers of annoying calls, people continue to be desperate for relief from the barrage of companies flogging their wares and are prepared to do what they can to limit their exposure.

Government members may or may not have been listening to what their constituents have been saying—I do not believe that constituents only in Labor electorates are frustrated and annoyed with cold-calling to the point of despair—but the government has failed to take the lead and do something about this issue. The member for Chisholm introduced a private member’s bill last year. She did what the government had failed to do—to show adequate interest in this matter. While the issue may not have been of interest to the government, the media’s interest in the member for Chisholm’s private member’s bill must have gained their attention. Whether it is a belated response to the needs of ordinary Australians desperate for assistance or a more cynical attempt to avoid being seen as out of touch on this issue, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts eventually intervened and took charge of the legislative agenda.

The explanatory memorandum of the Do Not Call Register Bill 2006 identifies that this government is out of step on this issue with comparable countries. For example, the do not call list has existed in the United Kingdom since 1999 and in the United States since 2003. Canada introduced its legislation in 2004. Here in Australia the minister released a discussion paper in late 2005 and received submissions from both industry and community groups.

Beyond that opportunity to contribute it was not the intention of the minister to enter the public debate prior to the bill being presented to this parliament. The Australian Direct Marketing Association is reported as being told by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts officials that the government would not ask for further industry input until the bill passed through both houses of parliament and was referred to a Senate committee. I would hope that, if this is correct, limitations will not be put on the people to whom this government is directly responsible—the Australians who cop the brunt of this method of marketing and whose interests the bill has notionally been written to protect. If, over time, the public is able to highlight potential problems with the bill, its implementation and its effectiveness, I certainly hope that the concerns of the public do not fall on deaf ears and that the government is prepared to work collaboratively with both the public and MPs or senators who can improve the bill to eventually see millions of Australians relieved of this affliction.

What came to light prior to the bill’s presentation to parliament came from the minister herself. I understand that on Tuesday, 4 April the minister spoke with Adelaide radio station 5AA, and the program host, Leon Byner, asked the minister: what would happen if a call centre rings you and you are registered as ‘do not call’? The minister told people to report the call centre, which could be fined up to $200,000. The host of the 5AA program immediately identified a potential problem. He said that for this to work and to be worth more than the paper it is written on, you have to know which company has called and who they are.

A member of the state parliament within South Australia, Mr John Rau, the member for Enfield, received a complaint from a woman with a number of young children who had been harassed by a stalker. She adopted a silent telephone number, but phone calls started coming through. Some of the calls would simply stop before there was an opportunity to answer them, some would go through her answering machine and her answering machine would record nothing, and others would be picked up by her only to find there was no-one on the other end. She drew the conclusion that she was being harassed by somebody, as you would in those circumstances, and contacted her state MP, the member for Enfield, John Rau, to see what he could do. His office got in touch with Telstra, who advised that the constituent should keep a log of the time of the call and ring them back the next day. She did this and, upon calling Telstra, she was informed that they knew the number. She asked for the number but was told it was confidential and they could not give it to her. All they could say was that it was a telemarketer.

In trying to help this person, Telstra concluded that if the caller kept calling and she kept noting the calls and telling Telstra, and if Telstra kept logging the caller, Telstra could contact the caller and ask them to stop calling. This they may or may not do. The problem here is that the telecommunications companies protect the call centre’s privacy whilst the call centre invades our privacy. Clearly, even silent numbers do not save people. Many companies use prescriptive dialling to telephone you—a computer generated list of numbers which includes silent numbers and recorded messages. If a person is not able to identify who is responsible for a call, how can a complaint be made? This bill provides for the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA, in policing the bill, to investigate complaints that are lodged without the identity of the cold-caller. This is well and good, as ACMA is responsible for establishing rules applicable to direct marketing, minimum standards such as the permitted hours within which calls can be made, standards regarding the termination of calls and the minimum information that must be provided for recipients of calls.

I fully expect the cold-callers will be obliged by ACMA to identify themselves, their telemarketing company and the client on whose behalf they are making the call—all with such clarity and at such a pace that anyone would be able to take down the details. Without such information, and while ACMA will have the powers to investigate anonymous or silent calls, the number of such investigations and the stress they could notionally put on the organisation’s resources could well be such that many complaints go unresolved. It is stated within the explanatory memorandum that ACMA has discretion to not inform complainants of the progress of any investigation or even, as I read it, whether an investigation has been undertaken. I acknowledge that the volume of complaints in the short term will probably be acute, but I would ask ACMA to pay maximum respect to the complainants and offer what information and follow-up it can. Naturally, people concerned with the calls they receive want to know that something is happening, that the situation can reasonably be expected to improve and that this legislation is not just a toothless tiger, as we have seen with many other regulatory bodies—that is, it really does have some sort of bite and can get to the bottom of a problem and ensure that prosecutions will take place.

It has been suggested that a company should be able to telephone you in the interests of serving a client with whom they have a business relationship. According to this argument, if you purchase a product with a particular brand name or company ownership structure, presumably that company should be able to telephone you with any information or offers directly related to the original purchase and not be restricted in its cold-calling activities. This is ridiculous. If a private citizen purchases a product on their credit card that is manufactured by Nestle, for example, no-one would expect this to establish a company-client relationship and legitimise ongoing communication between that company and the client.

How this might relate to small businesses—or any businesses, for that matter—may well be a different thing. Obviously, companies need their products distributed; they need them on shelves, in catalogues and the like. Cold-calling by distributors and shop owners in expanding their products’ exposure to the public may be the best method of promoting the movement of their stock. Any Do Not Call Register will limit the lists that are bought and sold from company to company for almost indiscriminate saturation calling and, as I mentioned a little earlier, often using automation. I would not expect an average business looking to expand its product market penetration to rely on such lists and such technology. It is totally impersonal, disrespectful, inflexible and tacky—just like the government’s 2004 election stunt. We all remember the Prime Minister’s recorded message. I encourage the government to ensure that the public can be protected from the excesses of direct marketing and that the system put into place will truly be effective. I look forward to hearing how many $200,000 fines are issued.