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Wednesday, 21 June 2006
Page: 34

Senator WORTLEY (11:44 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Do Not Call Register Bill 2006 and the Do Not Call Register (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2006. Labor welcome this legislation and hope that its outcomes will reduce the burdens on Australian phone subscribers and prevent unwelcome and unwarranted solicitation. While we support this bill and subsequent amendments, I would like to recognise, as some of my colleagues have already, Labor’s pressure on the government in bringing this issue into legislative consideration. I wish simply to say that we on this side did campaign heavily on this during the last federal election, and Kim Beazley has been pushing this issue for some time now, as has my colleague Senator Conroy. I also acknowledge the member for Chisholm, Anna Burke, for her very strong work in this area. She introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Representatives which was very similar to this bill, and she should feel some satisfaction in the outcome, knowing the very positive role that she as a Labor member has played.

I do, however, question the actions of the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Coonan, in that the public has been forced to wait six months for this debate just so that we could allow a bit of water to run under the bridge before adopting Labor’s policy. As a result, the Do Not Call Register will effectively not be in place now until 2007. It is interesting to note that the United States implemented this type of law in 2003, and the United Kingdom in 1995.

As recently as this year, Telstra released some figures from its unwelcome calls unit. These figures were a confronting insight into how big a problem this is in the community. They said that, of the 1,500 unwelcome calls each day, no fewer than 700 related to telemarketing. I am not sure what the figures were in 2004, but they could well be slightly higher, as it was in 2004 that the Liberal Party made pre-recorded unsolicited calls to citizens as they were sitting down to have dinner. As the member for Cunningham said, at least they employed Australian workers, including some notable ones! I would simply say that this bill is long overdue and, to the many constituents who have contacted my office over the past 12 months, will be most welcome.

The real winners here, as they should be, are the people of Australia. In looking at my own encounters with telemarketers over the years, I have considered all of the aspects, including the fact that the poor person working for the telemarketing company must endure a fairly tough working life. One would no doubt need a very thick skin to absorb some of the verbal abuse that they are prone to receive in that industry. Unfortunately, the majority of these calls are very annoying and occur at the most inopportune times. So the fact that these people are only following a company directive cannot be considered before privacy and respect and, for those who desire it, the right to live in what is essentially a telemarketing-free household.

There are some, I know, who believe that advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century. Whether or not you subscribe to this view, I would argue that we live in a world that is inundated by commercial advertising. Although it plays an important role in the economy, Australian home life already involves a great deal of exposure to it via electronic and print media, and it is the view of many that they do not need any more.

Yet it is not all bad for those involved in the telemarketing industry, and in many ways this bill will make their procedures more structured and organised. Perhaps the most positive aspect that comes to mind is that the workers—in this case, the call operators—will be able to expect far less abuse as a result of knowing in advance that they are calling a person who has not registered to be exempt from such calls. Let me also say that some in the industry have also endeavoured to address this problem of intrusion and, over the years, there have been attempts to develop a code of conduct. Unfortunately, however, there has not been enough effort or commitment across the board to stem the problem and hence this legislation that is about to be put in place.

This bill is about giving power back to consumers. It is about giving citizens the legal right to prevent the intrusion of unwanted and unsolicited telephone calls into their homes. I know the bill is eagerly awaited by many people in the community, particularly the elderly and disadvantaged. It can be very confronting for the elderly to have a person propose the sale of a product or service and then require them to hand over their personal details. Through my constituents, I have heard of cases where people have become confused by the confrontation of the telemarketing process and have ended up saying yes and signing up for products and services without really knowing the full consequences of their actions.

The nuts and bolts of this bill are to significantly curb the number of unsolicited phone calls from telemarketing companies to people’s homes, should those people wish. It is important to note this: people must request registration on the Do Not Call Register. It will not be automatic. There are of course some exemptions, such as certain charity groups and a number of other public interest organisations, which I will touch on shortly. The request to be put on the register can apply to home phones and mobile phones, which is important considering that many people today have their mobile phone as their main point of contact.

The bill allows for civil sanctions for any breach of the provisions and outlines the potential for substantial monetary penalties for such breaches. As the explanatory memorandum states, the enforcement and oversight related to this bill will be carried out by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA. ACMA will have the power to formally caution those in breach and will have the ultimate power to apply to the Federal Court for an injunction if it is required. The bill also allows for the victims of a breach to be eligible for compensation. This legislation essentially strengthens the position of ACMA, enabling it to carry out its enforcement role more effectively. The parameters of this include a requirement for ACMA to develop an industry standard setting out various minimum contract standards. This will provide times during which telemarketers are permitted to call and state what information they must provide in relation to their organisation.

The Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee report on this bill, tabled on Monday, made several recommendations. I encourage senators to view these recommendations. They are not suggestions by the committee that seek to change this bill’s structure, the way it has been drafted, yet they do have strong validity in the overall debate.

The first recommendation of the committee suggests that the government examine options to ensure that telephone account holders receive an effective reminder prior to the expiry of their registration to the register. The rationale behind this is due to the register not being a permanent request. A reminder would serve to prevent any conflict with individuals suddenly finding themselves back on the radar of telemarketers. The committee also recommends that, in order to ensure appropriate and legally certain authorisation, consent to register should only be given by means of written consent. The reason for this recommendation is essentially due to the bill not actually saying that the nomination to register has to be made to the body administering the register. The written aspect of a request would allow the telemarketing companies to request a copy to distinguish in black and white from whom and from where the request came.

This bill does not restrict all organisations from making calls to people’s homes. The rationale behind this is that some organisations require access to people in their homes to further benefit the general community. These include charities, registered political parties, independent members of parliament and candidates, religious organisations, educational institutions and government bodies. The exemptions are important. As we have noted, the submissions from charities stated that this method of encouraging people to give generally is the most effective method. The work of charities is something that is valued and should be encouraged. I am sure that it is the unanimous feeling of senators on both sides of the chamber.

Financially, the bill’s implementation was covered in the 2006-07 budget, which sets aside $33.1 million that will be applied over four years. Approximately $15.9 million will be recovered from the telemarketing industry. This recovery will essentially occur through payment of fees to access the register, so the balance left is an investment by the taxpayers to rid themselves of this problem.

As a member of the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee that conducted the inquiry, I would like to place on record my thanks to the 33 organisations and individuals who made submissions to the committee. Some were very good submissions, and they proved valuable to those serving on the committee. Finally, we support the bill and we are glad to see the coalition listening to the Labor Party on policy. Along with thousands of Australians, I too look forward to the first day of the implementation of the Do Not Call Register.