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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 138

Senator CHERRY (9:46 PM) —I rise to speak on the Postal Industry Ombudsman Bill 2004, which aims to establish an external dispute resolution scheme in the form of an ombudsman regime for the postal industry. In May last year, the government introduced legislation which sought to shift to the Australian Communications Authority responsibility for monitoring and reporting on the supply of postal services, including the establishment of a consumer complaints mechanism. At the time of debating that bill last year, I pointed out that a consumer complaints mechanism already exists through the Commonwealth Ombudsman and Australia Post. As I pointed out then in my speech in the second reading debate the Postal Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2004, the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman noted that the number of complaints received by the Ombudsman in relation to post is quite small.

In their 2002-03 annual report, the Commonwealth Ombudsman said:

The total number of complaints received this year was 1,082, compared to 1,060 in 2000-01 and the 2001-02 total of 896 ...

To put some perspective to these figures, every day of the year, Australia Post moves in excess of 18 million articles (this figure reaches 50 million in the days prior to Christmas). The proportion of complaints received by the Ombudsman is therefore a small percentage of the total number of transactions undertaken by Australia Post.

Much of the reason for this can be attributed to the generally high level of service that Australia Post provides to its customers and its own effective handling of complaints by its Customer Contact Centres in each State.

The Ombudsman also praised the Australian Post complaint mechanism in its 2001-02 annual report. The report said that not only does the Ombudsman’s office believe that the number of complaints is small but it also believes that Australia Post has an effective complaints handling procedure. As a result, the Democrats could not see any particular reason to argue for the Australian Communications Authority to have an additional complaints mechanism for Australia Post and therefore rejected the bill last year.

The Postal Industry Ombudsman Bill 2004 currently before us is a very different kettle of fish. It is about ensuring that the postal services industry in its broader sense comes under the context of the ombudsman. One of the unique aspects of the bill—and I note the comments from the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Professor John McMillan—is that this bill will apply the jurisdiction of the ombudsman to the private sector for the first time. Yet, unfortunately, as Senator Conroy has pointed out, in this bill only Australia Post is required to participate. Private postal operators will only register on a voluntary basis in the scheme. In addition, the postal industry ombudsman’s powers will not be as extensive as the powers of the Commonwealth Ombudsman. As a result, the Commonwealth Ombudsman will retain jurisdiction over Australia Post.

However, it is still a bit unclear—and it will develop over time—as to when and how complaints are to be dealt with by the Commonwealth Ombudsman or by the postal industry ombudsman’s office. I note the comment in the explanatory memorandum that the PIO’s powers have been customised for the investigation of service delivery complaints in relation to Australia Post but that it would be expected that over time the Commonwealth Ombudsman would end up using those powers primarily to investigate actions that were not related to the provision of postal services, which would come under the PIO. This concerns me a bit.

Debate interrupted.