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Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs
CHAIR (Mr Perrett)
Stone, Dr Sharman, MP
Georganas, Steve, MP
Moylan, Judi, MP
Neumann, Shayne, MP
Georganas, Steve, MP
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Content WindowStanding Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs - 23/08/2012
GEORGANAS, Mr Steve, Member for Hindmarsh, Commonwealth Parliament
Committee met at 09 : 33
CHAIR ( Mr Perrett ): We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, the traditional custodians of this land, and pay our respects to the elders, both past, present and future. The community also acknowledges the present Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who now reside in this area and thanks them for their continuing stewardship. Please note that these meetings are formal proceedings of parliament. Everything said should be factual and honest, and it can be considered a serious matter to attempt to mislead the committee. This hearing is open to the public and is being broadcast live, and a transcript of what is said will be placed on the committee's website. We welcome Mr Steve Georganas, the member for Hindmarsh, who introduced the Do Not Knock Register Bill 2012. Do you have any comment to make on the capacity in which you appear?
Mr Georganas : I appear before the committee as the federal member for Hindmarsh on behalf of the many, many constituents who have contacted me on this particular issue.
CHAIR: Would you like to make a statement?
Mr Georganas : The Do Not Knock Register Bill has been based on the same principles as the Do Not Call Bill. It is a scheme to opt out of unsolicited marketing calls at the residential address. The framework contained in the bill is aimed at regulating and minimising those unsolicited marketing calls to Australian residential addresses. The bill would prohibit the making of unsolicited marketing calls to addresses that are on the register of the 'do not knock' register. The remedies for breaches are infringements, notices, civil penalties and injunctions, exactly the same as the 'do not call' register. The framework of this bill, when we were drafting it with assistance from the clerks, was exactly like the 'do not call' register, which is already up and running and has been very successful for a number of years.
My seat of Hindmarsh has one of the oldest populations in the country. Twenty per cent are over the age of 65 and there are many elderly people, including many with dementia. I have lots of newly-arrived migrants as well, in the inner western suburbs—many people who have difficulty with speaking English as a second language—and some of the suburbs in my electorate have with the highest number of people with disabilities of any suburb in Australia. I was being contacted mainly by elderly people who had signed up to particular contracts at their door, whether it was energy companies, telcos and so on, only to discover after a period time, when they started receiving their bills, that it was not exactly what they were signing up to. You might say that there are state consumer laws that take effect—cooling-off periods et cetera. Sometimes with some of the long-term contracts with telcos and so on, you have to pay penalties to get out of the contract and you do not realise what the costs are until two, three or six months down the track—or even a year sometimes—when the small print says that everything is changing. So I found a lot of people, who are from a different era from you and I, who sometimes cannot say no to people or are very polite. Each and every one of us here in this room can deal with unsolicited telephone calls and people who knock on your door. We have the capability and the ability to do so.
Many of our newly-arrived migrants, when they see someone turn up at their door with a folder and looking very official, will sit there and participate in the discussion and, when someone says, 'This will be much cheaper for you and it will not cost you anything, just sign here,' we have seen many constituents do so. I will give you one example of a constituent who came to see us. She went to visit her mother, who has dementia but it was borderline. They were talking about putting her into a home at that period, only to find a salesman sitting next to her on the couch and her just signing away for a long-term contract. She intervened and prevented them. Another example was where an elderly woman was trying to ask a salesman to go away and they just would not go away. There are many stories involving the people who are the most vulnerable—the elderly, new arrivals and people with intellectual disabilities. We have seen each and every one of them in our office.
The other issue is choice: giving people that choice. It is not about banning doorknocking or stopping door-to-door sales people. They have been around for a million years and not all of them are bad people. Many make a living out of it and they do it ethically, with the right principles and everything else. This also gives the consumer the choice. In other words, as with the 'do not call' register where you have a choice not to have salespeople ringing you on your phone. This also give you a choice not to have people knocking on your door trying to sell you particular goods and items. There is an exemption for charities, religious groups and politicians of all tiers of government. You might say, "Why is that the case?' It is mainly targeted at people who will sign you up and hurt your hip pocket—in other words, contracts where they lock you in to long-term contracts.
There was a report that came out from the ACCC. We know, for example, that there were about 1.3 million door-to-door sales this year, and one million of these were by energy companies. There is massive competition taking place amongst the energy companies. In fact, some of the bigger energy companies who have been in the market for some time are saying to me that they want to see this come to fruition. Competition is all about having lots of choices, but we have to ensure that we protect vulnerable people from those door-to-door salespeople. There were 138,000 sales from telcos, 52,000 solar panel sales, 34,000 pay TV sales, 24,000 media subscription sales and 60,000 sales of insulation and other appliances. We get an average of 6.5 visits per household each year.
Some areas, I notice, are targeted more than others in my electorate. I seem to get more queries about the inner western suburbs, where there are big migrant populations and lots of Africans, and from the elderly. You might say they are not targeted, but they do not have the ability to say no or to close the door on someone, and it is confronting. There was a survey done which showed that the highest pressure sales are the door-to-door sales. If you are elderly and you are not quite sure but someone tells you it is going to be cheaper, you may feel pressured to buy something you would not otherwise have bought into.
Again I go back to choice—giving the consumer that choice of not having someone knock on their door. I would certainly sign up to it, because if I need something I go out and buy it and I know what I want. I do not need someone coming to my door telling me what I need. That is me. There are other people who enjoy having people canvassing products at their door. For those people, the option will always be there for them.
CHAIR: Could you just tease that out a bit more? You touched on the vulnerable people in your electorate. Do you have specific examples where you think people were targeted, like the elderly or people from non-English-speaking backgrounds?
Mr Georganas: I find this a lot from my constituents from the inner west who come to see me—migrants from the African community, the Indian community and a whole range of people. I find the inner western suburbs being targeted a lot in my electorate.
CHAIR: Are they high SES, wealthy suburbs?
Mr Georganas: No, huge pockets of lower socioeconomic status and income, and the elderly as well.
CHAIR: Are there examples of Africans selling to Africans or Greeks selling to Greeks? I am sorry—I do not know Hindmarsh.
Mr Georganas: I have not heard that. A lot of the door-to-door salespeople, from what I hear from my constituents, and yesterday from the inquiry as well, are overseas students, transient people, people who are doing it for a short time. I do not have any evidence of particular ethnic groups themselves targeting other ethnic groups.
CHAIR: We had some evidence yesterday that people were targeting a group but they were using people who speak the same language.
Mr Georganas: This was the Indigenous community?
CHAIR: No, this was the Chinese community, where language was a way to conduct the enterprise. They might have felt more relaxed than they did at the shop, where English was a barrier.
Dr STONE: Did many of these households that are being targeted and often being given a poor deal, as you have just described, have the 'do not knock' sticker on their box, do you know?
Mr Georganas: No, not many. We have come across people who have had 'do not knock' stickers. On one or two occasions they have been ignored. But no, the constituents that we have seen did not have 'do not knock' stickers.
Dr STONE: We had some evidence about this yesterday. People will perhaps put their name on a register, but these salespeople, who are on commission only in many cases, we heard, are under pressure to make a sale no matter what, and their own supervisors are also on commission. Are you confident that having your name on a register will work, that these agents are going to look at those names? What will be the consequences or the penalties, do you suggest, if the doorknock still occurs? They may not even have a sticker out the front but they are on the register.
Mr Georganas: It will work exactly like the Do Not Call Register. There will be a register of addresses, so when they are out doorknocking a particular postcode they will have a list in front of them of those addresses that are on the register. It is just like the Do Not Call Register. When they decide to market a particular product to a whole group of suburbs they get the telephone numbers and they can see the ones that they are not meant to call.
Dr STONE: So they will have a register of names and addresses.
Mr Georganas: No, no names; addresses.
Dr STONE: Just addresses of who has registered.
Mr Georganas: It will work exactly like the Do Not Call Register. That has been very successful. I think it was brought in in 2006 by the former government. That has been very successful and it is up and running. This would operate in exactly the same way; it will have the same penalties and the same fines as those that exist in the Do Not Call Register. As I said, we copied nearly word for word what was on the Do Not Call Register in order to come up with a framework for this bill. So it would operate in exactly the same way.
Dr STONE: Given that we already have in place a fairly new regime with the ACL and the stickers—and apparently a campaign is to be cranked up to educate the public about those—do you feel that it might be worthwhile giving that regime a little longer to see if it makes a difference, or do you see the evidence being compelling that your register needs to happen right now?
Mr GEORGANAS: What we heard yesterday was that they wanted to see it enshrined in legislation. There is a lot of controversy around the stickers. They are great; I think the stickers are good. There are a couple of cases in court at the moment that are waiting on a decision to see whether it actually stands up in court and the legalities of it. This would be enshrined in law and, as I said, it would be no different from the Do Not Call Register. We know it works. We know it would be legal and we know there would be penalties and fines. It is quite clear, black and white, what the law is and what the requirements of salespeople are. There are some grey areas with the stickers. I do not have a legal background but I believe that the consumer law advocates who appeared yesterday and the ones whom I have had meetings with are quite keen to see this go through. It actually enshrines it in law, and it can work hand in hand with the stickers as well. Once you register you can put up a sticker.
Dr STONE: Are you aware of any other countries that have this register?
Mr GEORGANAS: I could not answer that. I would not know.
Mrs MOYLAN: I do understand the issues, particularly in relation to the elderly and others who may be vulnerable in the community, it is just that I note that the Australian Consumer Law has at the urging of the state governments put some measures in place. There is a voluntary register. I think you have actually been very supportive of the way that the voluntary register has worked to date. I wonder whether you think it is a good idea, given that these new provisions under Australian Consumer Law have not had long to be tested and whether it is not a good idea to wait and see how that pans out. There is the unsolicited calls provision; there are the restricted hours; people are required to leave when they are asked to leave the premises; there is the cooling-off period, which is good in those cases; there is the voluntary register; and then there are the do-not-knock stickers, which may be tested at law to see whether or not they have legal force. Would you like to make a comment on that?
Mr GEORGANAS: They are all good things that you have just mentioned and they are all positive things. The cooling-off period and asking someone to leave and their having to accept the notice that you give them to leave are all very good things. But, again, I go back to this one thing: this bill would enshrine it in law and it would give the consumer the option not to have to go through the cooling-off period and not to have to face someone and tell them to leave. It just means that they will not have door-to-door salespeople knocking on their door. It gives the consumer that choice.
Mrs MOYLAN: Do you think the penalties under the Australian Consumer Law provisions are tough enough to perhaps prevent—
Mr GEORGANAS: I would make them tougher, but I am not making the law.
Mrs MOYLAN: The other issue—
Mr Georganas: We are still seeing incidents continuously, and I gave an example. Yesterday you had other witnesses who gave lots of examples. I think each and every one of you would have had examples from constituents in seats that you represent.
Mrs MOYLAN: Do we know whether there have been breaches of the Do Not Call Register and whether those breaches have continued to escalate or decline?
Mr Georganas: They have declined quite a bit.
CHAIR: We can definitely say there are breaches because we still get calls. I think it is an overseas company.
Mrs MOYLAN: Do we know the quantum?
Mr Georganas: I do not know the quantum, but everyone is saying it has been very successful, including the people we spoke with in the minister's office.
Mrs MOYLAN: People who have limited capacity to enter into a contract are covered by contract law. Would you like to make a comment on that? Would somebody who is perhaps in the early stages of dementia or somebody who has some intellectual incapacity be covered under contract law provisions?
Mr Georganas: They certainly would be. Australia has some of the best consumer laws in the world and they would be covered. But again I go back to the question: why have someone who is suffering from dementia go through all the legalities to prove that they do not have the intellectual capacity to deal with the contract? They could register and we could give them the choice of not having to go through that hassle, if that occurred. This gives the consumer the choice of not having someone turn up knocking at their door, giving them the sales spiel. That is the gist of it.
Mrs MOYLAN: How difficult would it be to bring a case, to prove that these people did not have the capacity to enter into a contract?
Mr Georganas: It depends on each individual case and we have all seen cases. I have had one. It was not a door-to-door sale but a particular bank that kept on increasing the credit card limit of a person with a severe intellectual disability. In the end it was waived, but we helped him and worked with him for nearly 12 months. This person went through hell for those 12 months, not knowing what the future held for him. So, even though laws are in place and they are very good, there was a lot of suffering that this person with an intellectual disability went through to prove that he did not have the capacity to deal with the offers that were being made by this particular bank to increase his credit card limit. This is a different situation, but it is an example. You would have to go through the same process, I suspect.
Mrs MOYLAN: If these companies have signed up someone who does not have the intellectual capacity they are not contrite, or they do not withdraw if they are threatened with a court case?
Mr Georganas: Some may; some may not. Some would not want to say that they had actually done the wrong thing and argue. But, again, it puts that person in the position of arguing their case—
Mrs MOYLAN: Dragging them through the courts and the costs.
Mr Georganas: whereas he or she could register on a do not knock register and have that choice of not having someone turn up to their door, just like we do with our Do Not Call Register. It is no different.
CHAIR: Yesterday, I think you were there for—
Mr Georganas: For parts of it. I could not stay for all of it, unfortunately.
CHAIR: We certainly heard industry groups commenting on the admin costs and the implementation costs. From memory telecommunications groups suggested there would be a cost of up to $100 million to their industry.
Mr Georganas: I do not think so.
CHAIR: There were also other groups. Would you like to comment on the costs?
Mr Georganas: As I said, I suspect 99.9 per cent of all door-to-door salesmen are good, ethical people.
CHAIR: You are being very generous.
Mr Georganas: Okay, 98 per cent! The issue here, again, is that there is a register that already exists, so there is a program that exists. You could quite easily add it on to that particular program, where the infrastructure and the structure is already up and running. I have had discussions with certain people saying that that can happen. So I do not know where this $100 million comes from.
CHAIR: That was just one industry, the telecommunications industry.
Mr Georganas: Of course, the industries would not want to see this go ahead. I do not know what they have to fear because it will affect people who do not wish to have people knocking on the doors.
CHAIR: So you are saving the salespeople from wasting their time?
Mr Georganas: Saving them the trouble, yes. I find it hard to understand why they are so anti this register. The reality is it gives consumers the choice. I go back to that again: the choice. I think as consumers all of us should have the choice of where we shop, when we make our decisions and what products we buy. When you are a little bit vulnerable, you could make the wrong choice at that door and then have to go through the entire process of the courts, of writing letters to managers, of proving you were not in the right frame of mind to make that decision at that point in time. Many of these people do not have the capacity to do that. The ones that we have seen, as I said, are very elderly people from non-English-speaking backgrounds and people with disabilities. As I said, again, it just gives the consumer that choice to opt out if they wish to.
CHAIR: We touched on the effectiveness of the Do Not Call Register. What about the suggestion that the Do Not Knock Register will not in any way deter rogues who are not worried about industry standards or codes of practice or even the law?
Mr Georganas : That is a criminal matter. As we have seen, there will always be rogues around the place that doorknock. When you are talking about rogues, are you are talking about people defrauding people at their front door? Because this is not about that. This is about people signing contracts. There will always be criminals. There is nothing we can do about that.
CHAIR: People who will ignore the 'do not knock' sticker and ignore the Do Not Knock Register and just knock on the door irrespective.
Mr Georganas : I am sure there would be, as we have seen with the Do Not Call Register. With the Do Not Call Register, the proof is that the unsolicited calls have decreased dramatically from people who have put their names on that list.
CHAIR: I know this is a different inquiry, but the evidence was that it was very effective.
Mr Georganas : Yes, there is evidence there from the ACCC and others.
CHAIR: I was just wondering if you could comment. You have been a member since 2004. Over that time have you had any comments or complaints about door-to-door salespeople? Are they on the rise? We had evidence yesterday saying that in the future there will be more door-to-door salespeople than currently. Would you like to make comment on the Hindmarsh experience?
CHAIR: Yes, there has been an increase. I have noticed an increase from the constituents that come to see me. I live in my electorate, obviously. I live in those inner western suburbs which are the lower socioeconomic areas. I get doorknocked regularly. I am very polite. I just say, 'No, thank you.' I have just made a choice to not buy anything at the door. We say: 'Thank you very much. No, thank you.' I can see the pushiness sometimes. They say, 'But just let me show you.'
Mr NEUMANN: Can you tease out their antics and tactics there? I am interested. You mentioned before the vulnerable, people from migrant backgrounds and the elderly. What are they saying to you?
Mr Georganas : Many of you would have seen the footage on Channel 9 where they had gone into a particular energy company that was training door-to-door salespeople. Did anyone here see that? I have copies of it if anyone wants to see it.
CHAIR: I would like a copy.
Mr Georganas : They went into an energy company training session. The trainer was giving them, step-by-step, very hard sales tactics—to the extreme, I would say, and unethical, in my view. One of the lines was, 'Once you get your foot in the door and you're inside, you've got them.' That is not word for word, but that was the type of terminology they were using. We have got the footage. I am quite happy for you guys to see it. There are tactics that are used. What I found with a lot of the elderly people is, because they are on Centrelink pensions and aged pensions, every cent counts, of course. These people live on a budget, and they budget very carefully. They look at their budget very closely. When someone turns up at their door, as I hear, and they say, 'We will get you a cheaper electricity company. You'll be paying less,' well, that is one of the tactics that gets them thinking immediately. Then they find in the fine print that that 'less' is only for a month or two, and then the costs are far higher than their previous energy company. So that is one of the tactics that is used with elderly people.
CHAIR: I just wanted to go to how it would function. We had evidence yesterday from the Australian Consumer Law Group that they thought once a property was on the register it would stay on the register until the three-year lapsing time. In my electorate there is a one-in-three churn every three years.
Mr Georganas : Mine is a lot lower.
CHAIR: Because it is more stable and older. But what are your thoughts on that?
Mr Georganas : There are issues with that. It would be modelled exactly like the do-not-call register, where they remain for three years and then drop off. The onus would be on the resident to renew that or for the new person coming in to take themselves off if they wished to. That is an area that needs to be explored a bit more, I suspect. It is very similar to the do-not-call, where they drop off after a few years. That is a bit different because you can take your number with you. I am not saying there are no difficulties in that. There would have to be some thought put into it, but I would suggest a period time—three years, like the do-not-call register—and then dropping off, with the onus to be on the new resident moving in to either put their name on or take it off. You would have an education program of some sort, just as we did with the do-not-call register. The ACCC and other groups were out there giving people information about the do-not-call register.
Dr STONE: Do you have a do-not-knock sticker on your front door?
Mr Georganas : No.
Dr STONE: When people come to your office with complaints—
Mr Georganas : We have do-not-knock stickers and we give them to them.
Dr STONE: That was what I was wondering. When people have done that, you are not observing that it makes much difference?
Mr Georganas : I do not know. The do-not-knock sticker is not that huge in South Australia. We have been trying to promote it quite a bit and we hope it does make a difference. You would hope when someone sees a sticker on your front door they would not knock, but the evidence we heard yesterday is that it does not make a difference. Then you have that grey area of the legal side of it, which has not been tested yet. We are waiting to see what happens with that.
Mrs MOYLAN: Where are the stickers available from?
Mr Georganas : They are available from—
CHAIR: The ACCC.
Mr Georganas : ACCC. The consumer group appeared yesterday—
CHAIR: Probably state governments, certainly Queensland state government.
Mr Georganas : Some state governments. The consumer office in South Australia has them. We seem to run out of them all the time. This is what it looks like. In the last few days these are the petitions I have had from—
CHAIR: How many people have you had?
Mr Georganas : Just this week, 460 since Monday.
CHAIR: Signed up?
Mr Georganas : Yes. The petitions are not for tabling. I thought I would bring them to show you. This is what the sticker looks like—it is bright red.
Dr STONE: It is a sticky label you stick on your front door.
Mr NEUMANN: On your door?
Mr Georganas : Your door or window—somewhere that is very visible.
CHAIR: I am taking one home to put on my door. I have one on my mailbox, but that has not been effective.
Mr Georganas : They confuse that with the no-junk-mail sticker.
Mr Georganas : Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to appear. If I can just say one thing: this is not a political issue. It is just something that strengthens consumers' ability to choose if they want someone coming to the door without having to go through legal steps et cetera.
CHAIR: I can certainly say that the evidence we heard yesterday of people targeting the vulnerable is something that no parliamentarian would be in favour of. Those stories about people traipsing through Aboriginal communities, deliberately targeting the poor and people who are not as informed as they should be, are quite disturbing. Then we had your evidence today about the elderly and ethnic communities. Thank you very much, Mr Georganas.
Resolved (on motion by Mr Neumann):
That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.
Committee adjourned at 10:04