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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7868


Mr SIDEBOTTOM (4:35 PM) —Today I would like to mention a matter which has caused concern to many in my community, particularly low-income older citizens. I refer specifically to the move by Telstra to charge people to pay their bill in person—or charge people for the privilege of giving Telstra money. Just think about that: a charge for paying for a service for which you are already paying quite handsomely now. I said this has caused great concern. That may be putting it a little lightly, as some of my constituents have expressed great anger and astonishment at such a move, hence the visits to my office, phone calls, letters and emails—and I would not be surprised, of course, if my colleagues in this House were receiving them as well.

In a move to appease some of the venom which followed the announcement, Telstra will not charge pensioners and others on benefit cards. But even some of those who will receive this concession are still telling us that they think it is unfair to force this on their friends and family who may not fall into that category. My region has one of the lowest average incomes in the country—


Mr Price interjecting


Mr SIDEBOTTOM —and, as my colleague the Chief Government Whip mentions, this is a tax on poverty. While some may be exempt because of concessions, many will be just over the threshold but still have to cope with this cost if they do not have the option to pay electronically and/or over the internet. The $2.20 charge may not seem much, but it is more the principle that you will be charged for paying your bill in the way that you may have done for decades—in short, an objection to Telstra trying to herd customers online by charging $2.20 for over-the-counter payments.

Now Telstra tell us that they are seeking to encourage people to move to newer, more efficient ways to pay one’s bills, but this is under the guise of offsetting what Telstra say are ‘payment options which incur higher administration costs’. I put it to Telstra: why not give people a discount for going down this track, as I understand some other utilities in other states do? Some may defend the move by telling us that the major telco competitors like Optus, Vodafone and 3 also charge the same or similar amount for paying a ‘paper bill’. But that does not make it right.

For my home state of Tasmania, Telstra is by far the predominant provider of communications services, so even if this were offered by a competitor many would have little option to change. Quite surprisingly to me the move has been defended, in part, by consumer group Choice, which says it is a way of migrating people to the new ways of payment. They do note that it must come with scope for people to change. Alas for some in my electorate they are happy with their lot in life and do not want to move to these new ways from something that works fine for them and has for many years.

Telstra say the changes are aimed at recouping massive losses in administration costs. But perhaps for a few of us we think that this might be something Telstra could just manage, when they are forecast to announce today a profit of some $4 billion. On top of this, they have in recent years paid their top executives what many would consider obscene salaries and bonuses such as $9 million to recently departed Sol Trujillo for his final year in the job. In addition, Telstra are not sparing those who already choose to use an electronic form of payment either—lifting the rate for those who use a credit card to pay their bills. Surcharges for those using credit cards will rise to one or two per cent of the total bill.

Choice spokesman Christopher Zinn—whom I must say I admire very much for his attack on bank fees—speaks about the move as being part of a broader technological and environmental change among major companies. But why not provide encouragement to change, rather than penalising people for paying something essential like their phone bill. A telephone is today an essential part of life for most people, particularly poorer people. The people who will be most hurt by this charge are those who indeed can least afford it.