Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 30 June 1994
Page: 2498


Senator BOLKUS (Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Multicultural Affairs) (5.41 p.m.) —I table the explanatory memoranda relating to the bills, and move:

  That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

  Leave granted.

  The speeches read as follows

AUSTRALIAN POSTAL CORPORATION AMENDMENT BILL 1994

This Bill provides the basis for a more competitive mail system in Australia. It also sets the ground for continued improvements in Australia Post's services to customers,—for greater flexibility to offer customers choice of price and service quality options.

A key objective of the Government's micro-economic reform strategy is the efficient and cost-effective delivery of services by its business enterprises. The Bill takes these objectives forward by:

reaffirming the Government's social objectives to make a letter service available to all Australians at a uniform postage rate. This service is to continue to be provided by Australia Post;

providing greater opportunities for private mail operators to develop value-added services and niche markets in express mail, time-sensitive and higher value bulk business markets;

furthering the commercialisation and corporatisation of Australia Post; and

reaffirming that Australia Post will remain in public ownership to operate a national postal network.

Before outlining the detail of the legislation, it is useful to look at the reforms in perspective.

The Government's reforms recognise the importance of the uniform postage rate as the principle that allows for universal access to a postal service. This objective is shared by all countries, regardless of their different regulatory arrangements.

In recent years, Australia Post has successfully changed from a public service entity with a poor industrial record, to an efficient, profitable enterprise that operates at the forefront of world's best practice and delivery service. As a result, Australia Post enjoys strong community support, particularly in rural areas, which rely heavily on the post as a community service.

The benefits achieved so far are evident not only to the Government, but also to Australia Post workers and consumers.

It is time to build on this solid base, while setting in place some changes to the regulatory framework to provide a competitive discipline to ensure that services are provided efficiently and economically to Australian businesses and households.

The Industry Commission's 1992 review of the Mail, Courier and Parcel industries found that entry barriers to the market were low and that vigorous competition already existed in the courier and parcels markets.

In addition to this direct competition, new technology options for telecommunications and electronic data interchange provide significant indirect competition to the written message market. With these substitute services developing, the current restrictions on competition based on the physical size, weight and the means of carrying a mail message are unduly limiting businesses that wish to access a range of communications networks.

Further reform is now needed to recognise these changes.

The Bill amends the Australian Postal Corporation Act 1989 which provides the base for Australia Post's operations. Australia Post will remain in full public ownership, but will face competition in some new areas.

In the domestic market, some greater competition will be permitted in the letter market.

Competitors will be able to carry letters that are charged at four times the standard letter rate. This is a reduction from ten times.

Competitors will also be able to carry letters weighing more than 250 grams. This is a reduction from a 500 gram weight limit.

These changes are expected to open up greater opportunities for consumers and service providers in the large letter and express mail markets.

The operation of document exchange networks will be recognised in the legislation, by allowing the movement of documents within an exchange service. The collection and delivery of letters from a member's address to the document exchange service centre, will continue to be subject to the exceptions to the reserved service.

The carriage of letters by a third party from one location to another location of the same organisation will also be permitted. This will give businesses greater flexibility to determine the best and cheapest arrangements for their organisation's mail deliveries.

Amendments will clarify the position on directed advertising material, such as catalogues and leaflets. Advertisers will be able to direct identical material to individual addresses by enclosing the material in transparent wrappers, which allows the contents to be easily visible and to distinguish them from letters.

These changes to Australia Post's reserved services will be achieved by amending section 30 of the Act.

The Bill also establishes new arrangements for bulk mail interconnection. Letters that are lodged in bulk at specified mail centres that are equipped to accept bulk mail, will receive discounts based on the transport costs avoided by Australia Post where an operator has undertaken part of the carriage. Discounts for interconnection will be subject to independent scrutiny by the Prices Surveillance Authority as part of the Authority's review of standard letter prices.

In the case of a dispute between Australia Post and a bulk mailer on the interconnection discount, the Trade Practices Commission will have a role in investigating the dispute and providing advice to the Minister on the rate reduction. Regulations will provide a power for the Minister to direct Australia Post, if he or she thinks fit, to act in accordance with the Trade Practices Commission recommendation.

Turning to international mail, the Government's intention is that charges are set commercially to reflect the costs of delivery.

Currently, charges for mail exchanged between countries are set under treaty arrangements by the Universal Postal Union—a United Nations agency of which Australia is a member country.

Rates are based on world average costs and bear little relation to the actual costs of delivery in Australia. The arrangements have meant that Australian postal users have been subsidising the users of higher cost countries.

The amendments will allow Australian companies to capitalise on growing international mail competition. The new arrangements are structured in such a way to ensure that:

the Government continues to meet its treaty obligations to provide universal access for letters; and

that private international mail operators are treated on the same basis as domestic customers, once mail enters Australia.

The Bill provides for the following changes:

Outgoing international letters will be deregulated. This means that consumers will be able to use any service provider to transport mail for delivery outside Australia.

Incoming international letters will be deregulated subject to a requirement that only Universal Postal Union member countries are able to lodge with Australia Post's network at treaty rates and other international operators interconnect on the same basis as domestic operators.

To ensure that Australia Post is not unfairly disadvantaged by the requirement to meet the Government's treaty obligations, the Bill provides that Australia Post may return incoming international mail that tries to by-pass the domestic delivery network or take advantage of low-cost treaty rates. I will be asking Australia Post to establish internal policy guidelines governing the exercise of these treaty provisions and to report to Government on its compliance with these policies.

The benefits of competition are balanced by the Government's ongoing commitment to provide for its community service obligations to make a standard letter service reasonably available to all Australians at a uniform charge, wherever they reside.

Community service obligations will continue to be funded by a cross-subsidy on the letter service. This is an efficient and equitable approach that shares the cost of providing the service among all postal users.

It is important that all Australians have a say in what they want from a postal service. Australia Post's services to rural and remote communities will be subject to a Parliamentary review, conducted once during the life of each Parliament. I will be asking the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport Communications and Infrastructure to complete the review by 1996-97. Representatives of rural and remote communities will be invited to work with the Committee.

Australia Post is also to be made more accountable for its discharge of these obligations through an amendment that will require Australia Post to report at least annually on how it complies with its community service obligation.

To ensure that the reforms deliver benefits to consumers in choice of price, services and quality, the Government has established a number of competitive safeguards that include the following:

remedies against any infringement of Australia Post's remaining reserved services will continue to be provided through the Federal Court;

other operators will be able to take remedial action under the Trade Practices Act 1974 against any misuse of market power by Australia Post or other operators;

Australia Post will be required to publish annually aggregated financial data on reserved and non-reserved services, to demonstrate that there is no unfair cross-subsidisation of services;

Price restraint for the standard letter will be formalised by amendments allowing the Minister to consider movements in the consumer price index as one of the relevant matters, when considering whether to disallow price increases for standard letters;

the Prices Surveillance Authority will continue to monitor Australia Post's service prices on those areas of the letter market that are opened to competition, until price competition is achieved in any particular segment. Australia Post will need to establish a case that it is no longer dominant in a particular market.

The effect of these changes will be monitored closely and a further review of the remaining restrictions on competition will be undertaken in 1996-97. The Terms of Reference for the 1996-97 review will be consistent with the Government's determinations on the findings of the National Competition Policy Review (the Hilmer Report). This approach reflects the Government's view that a public monopoly must justify the continuation of its monopoly position.

In addition to these competitive reforms, the Government is also introducing changes to further refine accountability and reporting provisions already in the Act.

These changes were announced by the Minister for Finance last year. These amendments are best seen as running adjustments to the accountability relationship between the Government as the "shareholder" and owner, and Australia Post.

Ministerial powers of direction that are exercised in relation to Community Service Obligations, financial targets and dividends will be amended to require the direction to be laid before both Houses of Parliament within 15 sitting days. This amendment provides greater transparency for ministerial powers of direction.

As reflects the commercial relationship between a shareholder and board, an amendment will require the Minister to consult with the Chairman on the appointment of Directors to the Board. An amendment will also clarify the Board's power to recommend an interim dividend, which reflects general commercial practice.

Secrecy of mail provisions have been revised substantially. Regulations dealing with the opening and examination of mail by authorised Australia Post employees have been brought into the Act. This honours a commitment by the former Minister for Land Transport to the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances.

Prohibitions on disclosure have been expanded to cover a broad range of postal information. A new provision will make it an offence for unauthorised disclosure of postal information. It will also be an offence to use or further disclose information, if the purpose of the disclosure is different to the original purpose for which it was disclosed. A penalty of two years imprisonment will apply for a breach of these provisions.

The Bill also sets out the limited range of circumstances where access to postal information may be disclosed for law enforcement and national security purposes by Australia Post employees and former employees.

Access to the actual contents of mail is not permitted under this Act, except to enable Australia Post to fulfil its obligations to deliver mail and comply with Commonwealth, State or Territory warrants.

The Bill sets out the circumstances where an Australia Post employee may open or examine mail. For example, these purposes include repairing mail, to obtain sufficient information to deliver the mail or to destroy dangerous articles to protect public safety.

Australia Post will also be required to report annually on the number of enquiries it receives from agencies seeking access to postal information.

A number of other amendments reflect changes to Australia Post's operations, recognising that Australia Post has been made subject to state and territory laws. Other changes update references to the Companies Act 1989 to refer to Corporations law, and clarify the Board's power to set terms and conditions covering the retail sale of postage stamps by post office agents and licensees. The latter amendment is needed to support the uniform pricing policy for standard letters.

Consequential amendments are proposed to Part VIIA of the Crimes Act 1914—Postal Offences provisions to proscribe the carriage of certain dangerous goods. These changes are needed for public safety requirements to bring Australia Post into line with international aviation security standards.

Consumers and businesses have received substantial benefits from Government reforms in telecommunications, aviation and the waterfront. This Bill extends the industry reform process in the postal sector and sets the framework for further improvements to customer service, choice and service quality, while safeguarding the basic letter service.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

COMPLAINTS (AUSTRALIAN FEDERAL POLICE) AMENDMENT BILL

In 1989 the then Minister for Justice, Senator Tate, was approached by the Australian Federal Police Association with their suggestions for some changes to be made to the Complaints (Australian Federal Police) Act 1981. In response, he undertook to have a review of the Act conducted by a Working Group composed of representatives of the Attorney-General's Department, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Australian Federal Police. The Australian Federal Police Association was also closely involved in the development of the proposal, although it was not a formal member of the Working Group.

That Working Group was established in mid-1991. In consultation with the AFPA, it considered proposals from all interested parties, as well as the reports of both the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration's Review of the Ombudsman's Office. Agreement was reached on a number of proposals and the resulting amendments are presented in this Bill.

This has been the first review of the Complaints Act since its commencement over a decade ago, and many of the amendments before you are intended only to make minor adjustments to its operation which will smooth out some of the practical difficulties which have emerged over that time. However, there are some more substantial changes.

The first major amendment concerns the coverage of AFP staff members by the Complaints Act. The Australian Federal Police Legislation Amendment Act (No. 2) 1989 established a unified AFP workforce in which all AFP employees are able to undertake duties which would previously have been allocated according to whether the employee was a member of the AFP (that is, a sworn police officer) or a member of the Australian Public Service. The resulting trend towards use of staff members rather than members in situations where police powers are not required increases the likelihood of staff members being the subject of complaints (which would be dealt with in accordance with Public Service procedures). This Bill will provide for all employees to be covered by the same complaints regime.

The second major amendment involves the creation of two new offences. The first of these consists of making false statements or giving false information about action taken by an AFP appointee. The corresponding penalty is equivalent to the penalty for misleading the Ombudsman under section 44 of the Complaints Act.

The reason for the creation of this offence is that there have been situations where persons charged with an offence have made extremely serious allegations against innocent appointees in an attempt to draw attention away from themselves or to hinder an investigation. In other cases, people might make false complaints for vindictive or vexatious reasons. This needs to be discouraged, as such complaints have a real impact on the officers concerned, as well as wasting the AFP's limited financial and other resources.

The government is aware that there is some risk inherent in the creation of this offence. Genuine complainants might be deterred through fear of prosecution, or worse, an officer about whom a legitimate complaint has been made might be tempted to retaliate by bringing a charge against the complainant. To prevent this, a second offence is created whereby anyone who threatens or harms another person because of that person's involvement—or someone else's involvement—in an investigation under the Act can be prosecuted for victimisation. It is expected that the simultaneous introduction of these two offences will provide adequate protection for innocent persons while minimising the risk of abuse. Consultation with the Ombudsman is required before proceeding, to ensure that the complainant is given a fair hearing.

The third major amendment proposed by this Bill concerns investigations initiated by the Ombudsman of his or her own motion. From time to time the Ombudsman will become aware of a matter which could justify a complaint but which has not been the subject of one. Under the Act as it stands, the Ombudsman has no power to initiate an investigation unless a complaint has been made. This amendment is designed to allow own-motion investigations under the Complaints Act when they are necessary.

A fourth significant change, which entails a number of minor amendments, relates to the admissibility of evidence obtained by the Ombudsman. At present, such evidence is not admissible in disciplinary proceedings. Although this is consistent with the Ombudsman's wider role, it is inconsistent with the role of independent investigator which the Ombudsman fills under the Complaints Act, and will bring the Ombudsman's provisions into line with the admissibility of evidence obtained by the internal Investigation Division of the AFP. Investigation by the Ombudsman under the Act is a last resort and if it is to have real credibility it is necessary that evidence obtained in the course of such investigations be made admissible.

The final major amendment focuses on the procedure for the hearing of minor disciplinary charges to which the officer charged pleads guilty. At present, a member who recognises that he or she has made a (relatively minor) mistake may be subjected to the penalty of prolonged uncertainty, because often the Disciplinary Tribunal will not be convened until a more serious case arises. The proposed amendment allows such cases to be dealt with by the Commissioner, where the Ombudsman agrees, instead of the Tribunal. It is designed to eliminate unnecessary delays under the present procedure while providing guarantees that the procedure adopted does not improperly protect the police. The matter can be referred to the Tribunal for penalty by the Commissioner if the Ombudsman agrees.

This opportunity has also been taken to make a number of minor amendments, including changes to the conciliation procedure to reflect the consolidation of ranks in the AFP, extension of the Ombudsman's discretion not to investigate trivial complaints to ensure that limited resources are concentrated on more serious matters, and the removal of sexist terminology in those parts of the Act where gender-neutral language has not already been introduced. Other small adjustments are designed simply to replace procedures which have turned out to be practically inconvenient with more efficient methods.

It is hoped that the amendments contained in this Bill will bring about a significant improvement in the day-to-day operation of the Complaints Act while removing or replacing those provisions which, because of changes in the structure of the AFP workforce over the past decade, no longer have a policy basis. The Bill demonstrates the government's continuing commitment to the implementation, wherever possible, of recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and more generally to ensuring the accountability of public officials, including the police.

The amendments have no financial impact.

I commend the Bill to the Senate and present the Explanatory Memorandum.

  Debate (on motion by Senator Reid) adjourned.

  Motion (by Senator Bolkus) agreed to:

  That the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.