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Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Page: 3255

Mr ANTHONY SMITH (1:10 PM) —We are here today to deal with amendments moved by the government to its own Do Not Call Register Legislation Amendment Bill 2009, introduced last year. There are a number of aspects to the amendment bill, and I will deal with them sequentially.

Last year the government introduced legislation to extend the Do Not Call Register to business, government, fax and emergency service numbers. The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy had announced with great fanfare what a reform it would be to extend the current register—which, as we all know, was introduced by the previous government and has been an enormous success: more than four million people have registered their residential home numbers. At the time of its introduction, the register was restricted to residential home numbers. There was not, quite deliberately, an extension to business in particular.

We have made it clear throughout this year that extending the register at this point to fax and emergency service numbers is something we would support. However, we shouted loudly from the rooftops that the extension of the register to government and business, and particularly to business, whilst simplistically well intentioned—as so many things from the government are—was unworkable in a policy implementation sense. The simple reason it was unworkable is that the legislation did not and could not adequately distinguish between a telemarketing call and a normal, day-to-day, commercial business telephone call. I made that very clear earlier this year with my friend and colleague the member for Dunkley, the shadow minister for small business. You would have had a situation where small businesses in particular, before they made a commercial call, would have had to check whether the business they were calling was on the Do Not Call Register if they did not have a pre-existing relationship.

The Senate Environment, Communications and the Arts Legislation Committee conducted an inquiry into this bill—and I want to pay tribute to my coalition colleagues on that Senate inquiry—and the evidence they heard from business groups, small businesses and big businesses was that this extension was utterly unworkable, and the committee reported to that effect. For many weeks the minister’s response was silence. Clearly, what has occurred is that there was belated recognition that this policy, this announcement in last year’s budget, this promise from the Labor Party, was not workable but no-one was prepared to admit it straightaway.

Then, on Friday, 30 April, the minister made an announcement with respect to the registration period for the Do Not Call Register as it currently applies to residential phone numbers. He announced that he would be introducing amendments to his Do Not Call Register amendment bill to extend the registration period, by regulation, from three years out to five years, initially.

Provided the House and the Senate deal with this matter in the next couple of days, the effect of this will be that the registration period of three years—which, for many people, expires naturally on the third anniversary of the introduction of the register at the end of May—will be extended and everyone will have a five-year period.

In that press release, the minister also, as quietly as he could, announced that at this stage the government was not intending to proceed with the extension of the Do Not Call Register to business—a belated recognition of the foolhardiness of his original announcement. They are still proposing to extend the register to government. We make the point that that will still harm small businesses in a very commercial sense, not in a telemarketing sense, in seeking to get contracts from government and the like. Obviously, we support extending the register to five years and we have made that point in the public arena. We welcome the fact that the minister has backed down on his extension to business telephone numbers. We note that he says he is going to keep consulting to try to work out how to introduce it, or words to that effect. We would encourage him simply to admit failure on this and to move on.

When the minister announced that the government would not proceed with the proposal to extend the register to include business numbers, like so many announcements it was made on a Friday, on 30 April. There are some cynics in the press gallery who claim that the government likes to make announcements when they do not think they will get attention if there are going to be backdowns or admissions of failure. That was the immediate suspicion on this Friday and it was confirmed to many people when they went to the departmental website to look at the fact sheets because they noted immediately that the backflip and the date of the announcement was actually one week earlier, 23 April. Clearly, the Friday backdown had been planned for a week earlier, not proceeded with, but delayed an entire week just to try to avoid the scrutiny and humiliation of admitting failure on the extension to business.

Our approach is to seek to facilitate, as fast as possible, the amendment to extend that registration period, as the minister has announced. He has announced that he intends to make this five years by disallowable instrument. I say here in this House that, as a matter of principle, the five-year extension should be part of the legislation so that the parliament decides. Last time, the parliament decided on an initial three-year period and the extension could be very easily and sensibly part of the legislation. The minister has said that he is going to do that by legislative instrument, which will mean that future ministers will have the discretion on how long the registration period should be. We think this legislation should contain an amendment and that the parliament can examine it in the future. Because we want to facilitate the quick passage of this legislation, we will do two things. Firstly, we will  take the minister at his word that he is going to bring in a regulation for five years.

Having made the point about it being a matter of principle, it would be preferable that the legislation was amended and that this was done in the legislation rather than by regulation. We will not seek here today to try to force that amendment. I call on the minister to make it part of the legislation but, at the end of the day, we will support the provisions of this amendment which, of course, take away the government’s unworkable extension to business and extend the registration period for residential numbers.

We have had good discussions among the whips in terms of the practicalities at what is a very busy time for the House and the Senate. On that basis, I have agreed to restrict my remarks and I am very grateful to those members of the coalition who have also agreed to restrict their remarks so that we can deal with this matter today. I call on the minister to consider what has been said and for him to back down entirely on his extension to business, which, he knows and the government know, will never see the light of day. The consultation for an extra few months is really just a mirage to try to deflect attention from the fact that this is unworkable, that it will not be proceeded with and that, if it were proceeded with, it would cause huge chaos in the business community.