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Wednesday, 21 June 2006
Page: 21


Senator WONG (10:51 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Do Not Call Register Bill 2006 and the Do Not Call Register (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2006. The purpose of the bills is to establish a list upon which Australians can register their details and opt out of receiving unwanted telemarketing calls. Telemarketing calls made to the telephone numbers of Australians who have registered their details on the Do Not Call Register will be prohibited. For those Australians who do not choose to register their details on the Do Not Call List, protections will be introduced governing a range of issues, including the permitted calling times for telemarketing calls. Labor supports the introduction of these bills and the government’s belated recognition of the need for action to put an end to the scourge of unwanted telemarketing.

Under the bills before the chamber, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA, will be entrusted with the operation and oversight of the Do Not Call List. ACMA will also be given a range of enforcement powers to ensure that the Do Not Call List is respected, with breaches of the provisions associated with the list ranging from formal warnings and infringement notices to court imposed fines, ranging from $1,100 to $1.1 million.

Unwanted telemarketing calls have been a growing problem in Australia for a number of years. Falling international call charges and the proliferation of low-cost offshore call centres have combined to create a business case for large-scale, indiscriminate international telemarketing campaigns. Unfortunately, Australians have been popular targets for those campaigns. In 2005, Australians received more than one billion unwanted telemarketing calls, a six per cent increase on the previous year. That is around 53 calls per person per year, or 2.7 calls per household per week. It is easy to understand why Australians have become sick and tired of this kind of marketing. For every one of those billion telemarketing calls, an Australian family was interrupted by an unwanted intrusion into their family home. That is one billion occasions in this time-poor era when middle Australia’s ever-shrinking family time was eaten into by unwelcome strangers trying to flog their products.

Australian families already have enough on their plates juggling work and family, and trying to find a balance between earning enough to keep up the mortgage repayments and still having some time to spend with the children. They do not need their precious time wasted by unwanted telemarketing calls. They do not need to try to juggle the phone while they are trying to bath the kids. They do not need to be sold mobile phone plans while they are trying to spend some quality time with one another. And they do not need to be constantly disturbed while they are trying to relax together. Middle Australia deserves a break; they do not deserve to be hassled in this way.

Telemarketing can go beyond being a mere annoyance. When telemarketers go beyond simply being rude and also become unscrupulous, the more vulnerable members of our community are at risk. Many telemarketers are not satisfied with merely intruding on the family home, but also employ aggressive, high-pressure sales techniques. The most vulnerable in our community, such as the elderly and the disadvantaged, are especially at risk from those tactics. There have been many reports in recent times of elderly Australians being pressured into sales by telemarketers who will not take no for an answer.

Unwanted telemarketing calls were the biggest source of complaints to the New South Wales Office of Fair Trading in 2005. Victoria and my state of South Australia also experienced significant surges in the number of complaints received by their fair-trading regulators about unscrupulous telemarketing practices. Labor MPs and senators have received many letters from Australians who tell us they have felt threatened by receiving aggressive phone calls at their homes from people they do not know. Many elderly Australians are understandably uncomfortable rebuffing the aggressive advances of unknown telemarketers who know their names and contact details.

In summary, unwanted telemarketing calls are a nuisance, an invasion of privacy and a threat to the most vulnerable in our community. To its credit, the Australian telemarketing industry recognised that the industry had an obligation to try to curb the excesses of telemarketing in this country. To that end, the Australian Direct Marketing Association developed a self-regulatory Do Not Call List that was signed on to by more than 300,000 Australians. The enthusiasm of Australians to participate in that self-regulatory Do Not Call List is a clear indicator of how fed up middle Australia has become with this issue. However, despite good intentions, this attempt at self-regulation has been almost entirely ineffectual. The self-regulatory list applies only to members of the ADMA and does not include sanctions for breaches of its provisions. The explosion in the volume of telemarketing calls experienced by Australians in recent times is a testament to the failure of the self-regulatory approach.

Given the size of the problem posed by unwanted telemarketing and the failure of the industry to effectively ameliorate these issues itself, it has been clear for a long time that government action was needed to hang up on telemarketers. However, unfortunately it has taken more than two years for the Howard government to be dragged kicking and screaming to the floor of the Senate today to put a stop to these practices.

The Labor Party can claim a significant amount of credit for finally forcing the government’s hand on this issue. It has been our policy to establish a national Do Not Call List since 2004; that is Labor listening to middle Australia and developing a sensible response to a rapidly worsening problem. Our policy was based on the highly successful national Do Not Call List administered by the Federal Communications Commission in the United States that has been signed on to by more than one hundred million households. Labor campaigned on the establishment of the list at the last federal election and has continued to campaign on this issue for the past two years; however, it appeared that the Howard government was not interested in what Australian families want.

The Howard government refused to adopt this policy even after the last election; in fact, it refused to even reconsider it. Last year, the member for Chisholm, Anna Burke, introduced a private member’s bill reflecting Labor’s policy to establish a Do Not Call Register to be administered by the ACCC. The bill was designed to make it illegal for telemarketers to contact Australians who had registered their telephone number with a Do Not Call List. Under Labor’s private member’s bill, telemarketers who contacted numbers on the list would be subject to fines of up to $10,000. In addition, Labor’s bill also banned telemarketing calls to people who chose not to register on the Do Not Call List on public holidays, on Sundays and on any other day between midnight and 9 am or 8 pm and midnight.

When you examine the provisions of Labor’s private member’s bill and the Do Not Call Register Bill before the chamber today, it is clear there is very little substantive difference between the two. Given this, one might ask why the government did not simply support Labor’s private member’s bill in 2005 or enter into discussions with the opposition with an eye to amending provisions in the bill that the government did not support. The government chose not to do that. Instead, the government put cheap political points and cheap political point scoring ahead of the interests of middle Australia.

The Prime Minister and Senator Coonan were happy to play nuisance politics on nuisance calls for more than six months, consigning Australian families to hundreds of millions of unnecessary telemarketing calls. Instead of simply supporting or seeking to amend Labor’s sensible private member’s bill when it was introduced, the government refused to even allow a vote on it. Then, in an arrogant and cynical stunt of the kind that has come to characterise the Howard government, the minister released a discussion paper canvassing the introduction of a Do Not Call Register on the day before Labor’s bill was scheduled to be debated. So we had a bill to be debated in the House on one day. The minister obviously thought, ‘I had better put something out there, because this is probably an issue people care about, so I will put a discussion paper out the day before.’

Sacrificing the interests of middle Australia for a cheap stunt like that is surely the hallmark of a government that has grown arrogant and out of touch. Australian families did not want political game playing on this; they wanted action. That is more than clear from the response to the government’s discussion paper. There were almost 500 submissions, the vast majority being from ordinary Australians, begging for the government to take action to put an end to these calls. However, even this overwhelming support for the introduction of a Do Not Call list appeared to not be enough to spur the complacent and out of touch Howard government into action. Even after the flood of responses to its Do Not Call discussion paper, the government still wasted more than six months before it formed an official response to the issue.

If you compare that to the speed at which this chamber was required to consider—well, barely consider—and at which the government rammed through legislation such as the sale of Telstra, the industrial relations changes and the Welfare to Work changes, the priority—or the lack of priority—afforded to this issue by the government is patent. As a final testament to the government’s inaction, even today, when the government finally appears to be belatedly responding to this problem, we are told by the minister that the list will not be operational until 2007. After two years of dilly-dallying, it will still take the Howard government more than six months to actually establish the register. Meanwhile, phones keep ringing, causing completely unnecessary aggravation for middle Australia.

Why didn’t the government simply support Labor’s private member’s bill last year? Why didn’t the government adopt Labor’s policy for a national Do Not Call list earlier? If it had done so, middle Australia could have been spared at least a year’s worth of telemarketing calls. But instead of playing a constructive game and listening to these people, the Howard government chose to play a childish political game. Instead of taking action in the best interests of middle Australia, the government tried to create a hall of mirrors through which it could claim credit for this policy. Frankly, this kind of behaviour is not good enough. Perhaps the minister and the rest of the Howard government should explain to Australian families why it has delayed on this issue for so long.

Given the Labor Party’s long-term support for the establishment of a national Do Not Call Register, and the fact that the government has almost wholesale adopted our policy on this issue, we will be supporting this bill today. However, that is not to say that this bill is perfect. Unfortunately, despite the time the Howard government has taken to act on this issue, it has still failed to fully address all of the issues posed by unwanted telemarketing. Whilst Senator Coonan noted in the government’s response to the stunt discussion paper that the register would be ‘open to individuals and small business’, in the time between the release of that response and the introduction of this bill, the government has performed yet another backflip. In fact, it was a double backflip.

Backflip No. 1 came when the government recognised the need for a national Do Not Call Register and adopted Labor’s policy on this issue. Backflip No. 2 has come now. Despite the minister promising small business respite from unwanted telemarketing just a few months ago, the minister is today putting before the chamber a bill that offers no protection for small business. Under the terms of this bill, small business owners will be prevented from being able to register their details with the Do Not Call list and protect themselves from unwanted telemarketing. We believe exempting small business from the operation of this register is the wrong decision from government. Small business owners are currently under just as much pressure as Australian families.

Small businesses, whose limited resources are already pushed to the maximum by their core business, do not need the added burden of constantly fending off telemarketing calls. As the deputy chair of COSBOA, the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia, Tony Steven, said: ‘Constant calls from telemarketers are a time imposition for small businesses. We don’t want to restrict business-to-business marketing, but we should be protected from mass market telemarketing campaigns run by call centres in India.’ Labor believes that participation in the Do Not Call Register should be an issue of choice for small business. If a small business decides they want protection from mass market telemarketing campaigns, they should have the right to turn to the Do Not Call Register for assistance.

However, when it comes to the fight to lift the burden of unwanted telemarketing calls from the shoulders of small business, it appears that this government is in the telemarketers’ corner. That much is clear from the minister’s statement, in which she indicated that rights of small business to protection from harassment by telemarketers must be balanced against ‘the needs for businesses to promote their products and services’. In Labor’s view, the government’s defence of call centre telemarketers in this context is both misguided and unnecessary. The government should not be putting the business interests of an industry that is engaged, at least in part, in undesirable practices ahead of the interests of Australian small businesses. We do not oppose the need for businesses to promote their products and services. However, this promotion must occur in a way that is not offensive to the community.

It is not uncommon for governments to place restrictions on the marketing practices that we permit within our society. Governments do not permit unrestricted advertising in public places and they restrict the content that can be included in advertising. Those restrictions have not prevented businesses from promoting their products or services—far from it. Instead, these public interest restrictions have redirected business’s marketing efforts towards more socially acceptable methods. One would think that the same results could be expected from the introduction of a national Do Not Call Register of which small business can be a part. Instead of being the end of businesses marketing their products, companies will have to stop engaging in annoying telemarketing and find new and hopefully more customer friendly ways to market their services and products.

It is instructive in this regard to examine the outcome of industry predictions of large-scale job losses resulting from the introduction of a national do not call list in the United States. An article in Advertising Age on the US experience after the introduction of the list in the United States said:

Early indications are that the industry is evolving, rather than facing extinction: Many telemarketers appear to have survived by broadening their businesses ...

Similarly, Manpower Inc, a major employer in the US telemarketing sector noted:

... the ‘Do Not Call’ registry didn’t decrease the demand for personnel; it just shifted the work employees had to do.

For these reasons, a Beazley Labor government would not afford the telemarketing industry this kind of misguided and unnecessary protection, and we would ensure that small businesses had the right to register on the Do Not Call List and obtain protection, if they so wished, from unwanted telemarketing calls.

In the final analysis, Labor supports the bills before the chamber and welcomes the introduction of the Do Not Call Register. It is better late than never. After two years of campaigning on this issue on behalf of middle Australia, it is heartening to see that there is some relief in sight. We can only hope that it will not take the minister two years to perform another backflip on her opposition to Labor’s Cleanfeed policy to protect Australian children from internet pornography. Such a backflip would be warmly welcomed by Labor, as I am sure it would be welcomed by those sitting on the government benches. Labor is relieved that, after two years, the government has finally seen the light on the Do Not Call Register Bill 2006. I commend the bill to the chamber.