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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 1

Senator CHERRY (12:31 PM) —Yesterday I was talking about the differences between the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s powers and the Postal Industry Ombudsman’s powers proposed in the Postal Industry Ombudsman Bill 2004 [2005]. I thought they were quite significant. The second reading speech for this bill says:

In many respects, the PIO will be provided with similar powers to the Commonwealth Ombudsman. For example, the PIO will be able to require a person to provide information in writing or to attend before the PIO to answer questions. The PIO will also be required to provide procedural fairness to Australia Post, registered PPOs and their employees in the investigation of any actions they have taken.

However, whereas the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s powers are tailored to the investigation of public sector administrative actions, the PIO’s powers will be customised for the investigation of service delivery complaints in relation to both Australia Post and private operators. Moreover, as the PIO will have jurisdiction over non-government entities which have voluntarily registered with the PIO, the PIO will not have certain powers that are considered unnecessary or which would act as a deterrent to PPOs registering with the scheme. For example, it was not considered appropriate to provide the PIO with the power to enter premises or to override a person’s claim to legal professional privilege.

Senator Conroy also referred to the fact that the PIO will not have the powers, which are currently provided to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, to order compensation.

These changes obviously concern me to some extent in that it is also made clear that, in respect of Australia Post, the PIO will be expected to deal with delivery of mail matters whilst the Commonwealth Ombudsman will continue to deal with the administration activities of Australia Post. This does concern me, but we will have to see how it develops in practice—whether this difference of powers will impact on how Australia Post is dealt with by the Ombudsman or the PIO in the future. That is something we will consider later.

What did concern me in that particular section and in the bill is the fact that the government has chosen to give the PIO fewer powers than the Commonwealth Ombudsman to encourage private sector providers to sign up to the PIO and its scheme. I really think that is unnecessary. I think it is an unfortunate approach that the government has adopted. Given that the delivery of post is such an important matter in terms of communications in Australia, the matter of voluntarism should never have come into play. The government said that the PIO would apply to the private sector as the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman applies to the private sector—that is, to everybody. Not only is this scheme voluntary for private sector providers but, as an incentive to get private sector providers to sign up to the scheme, the powers of the PIO vis-a-vis the Commonwealth Ombudsman have been reduced.

I certainly express the Democrats’ concern with that approach. I notice the ALP are moving amendments on this, and we will certainly support those when we get to the committee stage. There is no benefit to this bill vis-a-vis current arrangements if we do not get the private sector providers into the PIO scheme. The scheme has been made voluntary and has been pared back to encourage private sector providers to come. This scheme is not going to be working effectively unless we get the benefit of the private sector coming in.

I hope the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Coonan, will address in her concluding comments what measures the government has taken to get private sector providers to sign up to the PIO scheme, whether the minister is confident that the major private sector providers will be signing up to this scheme and, if it ends up being a voluntary scheme, what measures she intends engaging in to get the private sector providers to sign up to it. If they do not sign up, this bill will be of no benefit and we will have wasted the public’s time. The Democrats will not oppose this bill, because it is revenue neutral, but we certainly think it is important that the benefits of this scheme be promoted further to bring the private sector on board and, if need be, that the scheme be based on the telecommunications precedent that requires they join up rather than simply leaving it to be voluntary.