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Thursday, 15 June 2006
Page: 52

Mr JOHNSON (12:40 PM) —I am pleased to speak in the parliament today on the Do Not Call Register Bill 2006 and the Do Not Call Register (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2006. These are important bills for every day Australians; they make a very direct and meaningful impact on their lives. They are also very popular bills. They are certainly very popular in the Ryan electorate, which I have the great privilege of representing in the Australian parliament. I can certainly advise the House that these bills will go down very well with the Ryan electorate’s mums and dads, elderly citizens and businesspeople. I have had many approaches from the Ryan constituency and they are very supportive of these bills.

Minister Coonan has predicted that, under the opt-out approach, the register would possibly total one million numbers within the first week alone rising to some four million numbers within 12 months. This is a staggering figure and is certainly reflective of the very popular nature of this legislation. At its heart, this legislation sets up what is called a national Do Not Call Register. The Howard government has allocated budget funding of some $33.1 million over four years to cover the register’s implementation and initial set-up costs. Numbers registered on the national Do Not Call Register will not be able to receive any telemarketing calls from Australian or overseas operators, subject to the limited exceptions that I will outline shortly. That goes to the reason behind this legislation: the receipt of unwanted telemarketing calls from call centres locally and internationally.

The telephone is a wonderful device; I do not think any of us could imagine our world without it. To Alexander Graham Bell, the man from Edinburgh, Scotland, who is regarded as having invented the telephone in the 19th century, we owe thanks for his creativity and innovation. However, even in today’s very busy modern world, respect needs to be given to people’s private time and their desire not to be abused or harassed with unwanted and unsolicited telephone calls. Australians value the telephone in their lives but, as I say, there comes a time and a place when they do not want to be harassed by it.

Any private Australian telephone number can be placed on the register, including those of landlines and mobile phones. Unless withdrawn earlier, a number shall remain on the register for a period of three years. If a telemarketing call is made to an Australian number listed on the register, enforcement provisions in the legislation provide for civil penalties against both the person who made the call and the person who caused the call to be made, if applicable. It is therefore a requirement that any contract to provide telemarketing services include a clause requiring compliance with this act. The prohibition also covers attempted calls—so even those that result in a silent call are covered by the penalty provisions, if they originated from a telemarketing company.

Penalties range depending on who made the call and any prior record they may have. Penalties for an individual with a prior record can be as much as $11,000 per offence and some $55,000 for a company. These are very stiff penalties and they are not to be taken lightly. I would encourage all who would contemplate breaching the provisions of this legislation to certainly consider the penalty provisions very seriously. If multiple offending calls are made in a day—professional telemarketers can make hundreds of calls a day—the maximum penalty per day is in excess of $200,000 for an individual and some $1.1 million for a company. There is also scope within the penalty provisions for ancillary orders, including payment of compensation to be made to the offended parties. The legislation also provides an effective means of handling complaints against telemarketers who breach these provisions. In addition, the operation of the Do Not Call Register will be reviewed after three years of operation. I certainly welcome these provisions in the legislation.

I want to touch on some examples from Ryan constituents. I think they are very instructive on how popular this bill is and on how directly meaningful it is to the lives of my constituents. No doubt like many of my colleagues, I have received overwhelming support from my constituents. The residents of Ryan are very keen for the measures in this bill to commence. Much of the correspondence I received occurred after the announcement of the discussion paper into a do not call register and related to suggestions and concerns about the operation of the register.

I want to take this opportunity in the House to give the example of the Jones family from Pullenvale, who contacted me about their experience with telemarketers. This family has been on the wrong end of a telemarketing company. They asked a phone company to divert calls from their home phone to their mobile phone when they were out. This service was vital during a short holiday in order that they did not miss important calls to their home, and of course each call diversion incurs a small fee. They recalled to me how repeated calls from telemarketers, even unanswered ones, racked up a significant amount in diversion fees on their telephone bill. While they were quite happy to pay the fees for legitimate calls, they were very unhappy that they had to pay for the extensive number of calls that they received from telemarketing companies during their short vacation. This is a very practical example of a family that will be very happy when this bill is passed. This legislation allows any private Australian telephone number to be placed on the register, including for landlines and mobile phones. So those who use mobile phones and do not use landlines will also have the benefit of the provisions in this bill.

Another Ryan constituent, a Mr Tait of Indooroopilly, told me of his experiences of being harassed by international telemarketers calling on behalf of Australian companies. He recalled the experience of one friend who received some seven calls from a telemarketing company every day, until it got to the point where, to ensure that their small child could sleep uninterrupted, the family had to disconnect their phone. That is a horrendous example that none of us would want to experience, particularly if we had a small child in our family. I am happy to advise Mr Tait and his friend that, once this register is in place, it will stop these types of abusive and harassing calls.

While Australian law cannot be enforced on overseas companies or on individuals directly, this bill sets out penalties not only for the individual or company that makes a telemarketing call to a number on the register but also for the authors of the call. Other residents from Ryan report to me, among other things, middle of the night phone calls, repeated calling over a very short space of time and, worst of all, abusive telemarketers. One resident, having hung up on an overseas telemarketer—as many of us have done—was shocked to find out that this particular telemarketer decided to take out their vengeance upon that constituent by calling repeatedly and leaving abusive telephone messages on their answering machine, something that would not have been expected by my Ryan constituent.

I want to turn to exceptions in the bill. A new resident to the Ryan electorate, Mr Reynolds of Paddington, contacted me via my website not only to introduce himself but also to inquire about the exceptions to the register. Let me advise Mr Reynolds of Paddington that, once a number is registered on the national Do Not Call Register, it will not be able to receive any telemarketing calls from Australian or overseas operators, subject to limited exceptions.

There are three categories of exceptions that I want to elaborate on. They are calls made by government bodies, religious organisations and charities; calls made by registered political parties, independents or political candidates; and, calls made by legitimate educational institutions. These exceptions are aimed at exempting calls which have a public interest perspective. These include calls such as soliciting funds for charities. Calls from government departments are also exempt because of their public interest in the sense of relaying important government or departmental information. The bill also contains a measure for restricting the possible abuse of these exemptions. For example, while educational institutions are an exception, they are limited to contacting current students or their legal guardians or alumni from that particular educational institution. So we will not have a case of the University of Queensland, in my electorate, having the authority to call graduates or alumni of the Queensland University of Technology or Griffith University. That would not be deemed to be a legitimate use of the provisions in the bill.

Why do we need these exceptions? Those calls which are exempted from the register are those calls which, as I have said, have a public or a social purpose to them. Mr Rob Andrews, the Chief Executive of the Australian Direct Marketing Association, in an article in the Weekend Australian in late April, commented about recent research commissioned by the University of New South Wales that showed people initially viewed all telemarketers in the same way, no matter what their purpose. Regrettably, despite a degree of self-regulation by the industry itself, the telemarketing industry seems unable to shake this negative perception. Once the register contained in this bill is in operation, registered Australians can be sure that any telemarketing calls that they do receive are subject to stringent industry standards and are from legitimate charities, from government bodies or, as I alluded to, from legitimate research or educational institutions.

I understand that Senator Fielding, the Family First senator, has criticised the exemption of members of parliament under this bill. I want to express my disappointment at his view. His view diminishes the standing of members of parliament. It is a view that discourages us from seeking contact with our constituency from time to time in a spontaneous fashion. As the member for Ryan I have taken it upon myself to contact my constituents when I am in the car or when I am walking in the park. I make phone calls to my constituents on a spontaneous basis to connect with them and talk to them and get their feedback about issues of concern and issues currently on the national agenda. I find they are very welcoming. The calls are well received by Ryan residents. They are received in the right spirit. They are received in the spirit of a constituent being contacted and consulted by their local member. I will continue to do that. I express my disappointment here with the senator’s views. In conclusion, I want to again commend this bill to the House and to my Ryan constituents. This is important bill. It is a meaningful bill that puts very practical mechanisms in place, and Ryan residents will welcome it.