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Wednesday, 21 June 2006
Page: 36

Senator WEBBER (11:54 AM) —The Do Not Call Register Bill 2006 and Do Not Call Register (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2006 are long overdue. Unsolicited telemarketing calls are like that other intrusive element of the electronic age, spam—that is, neither desired nor desirable. I am yet to meet an Australian who thinks that having someone ring you up to offer you aluminium cladding is a good thing, and I am yet to discover an Australian who wants to swap their telephone company each time that someone contacts them with some unbeatable deal. From personal experience, I have seen the same telemarketing company ring day after day offering the exact same deal to swap telephone companies. What is it about the people running these operations that they think that the answer is going to change from yesterday, two days ago, last week, last month or, in fact, anytime in the last year? The one thing they do have going for them, however, is persistence. They persist even after you hang up on them. They persist even if you are rude to them. They persist even if you do not answer the phone. That is the essential problem with unwanted phone calls.

Where once most of us saw the telephone as a means of keeping in contact with friends and family, as a means of requesting assistance in the event of an emergency and as a means of doing business, we are increasingly seeing it as a necessary evil. Of course we still want to keep in touch with friends and family, and having that ability to reach out for assistance when required is vital. However, we balance that now with the risk that, each time we pick up the phone to answer it—especially around meal time—there is a very good chance that it will be some faceless person trying to flog us some product that we do not want.

Where once it was limited to your home phone, you cannot even escape it in the workplace now. My office is often rung by telemarketers trying to sell us some product or other, usually mobile phones. Even after they are informed that they have contacted the office of an Australian parliamentarian they still attempt to sell us something. In fact, it got to the point that I raised the issue with Senator Abetz when he was Special Minister of State. At that point, he informed me that the only thing we could do to get rid of these calls was change our phone number. I do not know any parliamentarian—particularly those who like to espouse the fact that they are constantly available and in touch—who would want to constantly change their phone number to avoid phone calls from India. I understand that the people who work in these organisations have quotas to meet. I understand that they are under pressure to perform. However, that does not grant them the right to intrude on the private lives of our fellow Australians and to disrupt places of work and family homes to flog products that no-one wants.

It used to be relatively easy to avoid spruikers and snake-oil salesmen. If you were walking down the street and saw someone flogging off something, you could avoid them. Most of us cannot take that approach to a phone ringing in our home. We are not sure who is on the other end so we answer it, often to our regret and only to be frustrated time and time again by telemarketers. It has become like logging onto email. Again, something that was designed as an efficient way to communicate with people and to do business is swamped by offers of products and services that no-one wants. How much time that we could be putting to better use are we wasting dealing with unsolicited phone calls and emails?

The proposition is straightforward. As we become time poor both as individuals and as a society, of course we are frustrated more and more by having to waste our time on unwanted promotional material. One of the problems is that it is like junk mail: you can put as many signs as you like on your letterbox, but you cannot always be guaranteed that someone will not put something unsolicited into your letterbox. And of course they do, because the stuff they are trying to give you is not junk. Yes, they accept that all the other stuff is junk, just not theirs.

I do not think I am alone in this. In many households, sorting the mail is now done over the garbage bin. Eighty per cent or more of what is put into my letterbox goes straight into the bin, and the figure is probably the same for telemarketing calls and spam. About 80 per cent of the intrusions into our lives are from unsolicited sources, and all of them waste our time. The reason why spruikers are doing this is because they think that we are missing out on the benefits of what they are offering.

Let us be clear on this. We are bombarded with messages from advertisers. They are on our televisions, on our radios, in newspapers, in brochures, on billboards, on neon signs, in our emails, on the internet and on our telephones. Enough, surely, is enough. When will all this spruiking come to an end? I understand that one of the latest versions is to embed advertising within computer games. So now, even if you choose to avoid mainstream media, it cannot be guaranteed that you will avoid the spruikers.

Let me say this to the spruikers: we are actually getting your messages. We hear them and we see them. They bombard us constantly—so constantly that they are no doubt in our subconscious. The reason we do not want your product is not that your message is not getting through; rather, it is because we do not want your product—full stop, end of argument. Make no mistake about it, the reason that we are flooded with spam and telemarketing calls is because it is cheap. It is cheap to make phone calls when trying to flog a product or service—much cheaper than any other form of communication except spam. The reason it is preferred is that some fool has convinced companies that we respond better to a human voice than we do to printed material. Somewhere, some marketing genius has peddled the line to company executives that we like talking to people. So they take it too far. They take to ringing us up to suit themselves in order to flog their products.

The other strong selling point—excuse the pathetic pun!—is that there is an immediate pay-off for the company. If someone buys a product or signs up for a service, they know immediately. It is much easier for them to track their dollar spend on marketing—in this case the cost of the call—to the return on that spend. They can see in one no doubt easy-to-read computer print-out how many calls to sales were made. It is simpler than trying to track down how much return you get from a newspaper ad, for example. So, for the telemarketer, it is simple. They have a low-cost method of attracting sales, they can measure the success at the end of each phone call, and they do not care how many of the rest of us they intrude upon.

I have seen figures that suggest the take-up rate from spam. Something like one in 40,000 people opens the spam email. Of those, fewer than four in every 1,000 go to the website. Fewer than one in every 100 who goes to the website buys the product. It sounds like lousy odds to the rest of us, but if you send out tens of millions of spam emails, it is worth it. They are cheap to send, and obviously there is money in it. I have not seen comparable figures for telemarketing, but I am sure they cannot be too dissimilar.

That brings me to the great scandal of this bill and the consequential amendments. That scandal is why it took until 2006 to introduce this legislation into the parliament. It is completely unacceptable that the government and successive ministers for communications have taken so long to do something about this ridiculous situation. In 2004, the Australian Labor Party had a policy for a Do Not Call Register run by the ACCC. The then Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts accused the ALP of a knee-jerk, populist reaction. He claimed that thousands of people would lose their jobs, that we had not consulted with stakeholders, and that it was unreasonable to allow our fellow Australians to opt out of receiving telemarketing calls.

The current minister said that we needed a review—and we have heard that all too frequently in this portfolio—and consultation to ensure that we understood all the issues. Even while the current minister dithered while the phone lines burned with lots of unsolicited phone calls, the ALP would not give up on an issue that was important to the overwhelming majority of our fellow Australians. As recently as last year, this government would not even allow a private member’s bill on this to be debated in the other place.

In a piece of myth making of Oliver Stone proportions, the government will run the line that they are the best friends that Australians who want protection from unsolicited phone calls ever had. Contrary to their self-praise, the reality is that they have subjected the rest of us to years of phone calls we did not want. It is estimated that each Australian household receives, on average, 53 unsolicited phone calls from telemarketing companies each week. That means that in one year we are each copping nearly 2,800 calls. In the time since Labor first called for a Do Not Call Register, the Australian people have put up with about 5,600 phone calls they did not want. Given that we are told that, even after the passage of this bill, it will be next year before the register will be set up, we can add another 2,800 calls courtesy of the inaction of this government.

I say to the Australian people: the next time, and the next time, and the time after that that your life is interrupted by an unsolicited phone call, consider writing to Minister Coonan and telling her how much you appreciate the inaction of her government. Just to keep the costs down, send an email. There is no justification for the amount of time that it has taken to get this Do Not Call Register legislation into this place. It is clear that it would have been supported by all parties and would have been assured a relatively quick passage.

The failure here is not a failure of the parliament or of the Senate; it is a failure of the government. It is a failure to appreciate that, no matter how prosperous some in the community have become, time has become our greatest asset. To have our time stripped away dealing with unsolicited phone calls is something that must be laid fairly and squarely at the door of this minister and this government. In the United States, more than 90 million Americans registered with the Federal Trade Commission’s National Do Not Call Registry by 2005. I will watch with interest to see how many Australians choose to do the same thing. I think that we will all be surprised by how many Australians sign up for the Do Not Call Register.

Upon reflection, I believe that one of the main issues that is highlighted by unsolicited phone calls, and also by spam, is the failure of companies to self-regulate. When it is cheap and easy to do something, when they do not care how many people they have to offend to get a sale, and in the absence of decent regulation, we are asking for what we have currently got. If you have the task of selling a product and you have a cheap and simple means of doing it then you will push it as far as you possibly can. Each time you make a call you are only one call away from making your next sale. You do not care that you have already rung that person each day for a week. You do not care that the person may be just sitting down to read to their children or to share a family dinner. All you care about is your next sale. Without regulation from government, who is going to stop you? It does not bother you that a person knocked you back in the past; you just keeping making the calls.

The best hope that the Australian people had to fix this problem—that is, the Australian government—has been missing for years on this issue. There have been years of pretending that it was not a problem, years of conducting reviews to determine that it was a problem, and time spent on drafting these laws. Now there is the final cruel blow: an acknowledgment that we are still going to have to wait yet another year. The first person who should be on the Do Not Call Register, in my view, is the minister. Do not call the minister if you want something fixed.