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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7877

Dr JENSEN (9:36 AM) —Bank bashing has been a time-honoured and often justified tradition in this place, but every now and again the banks get it right. We have recently seen major banks either removing or reducing overdraft charges. There are still many areas in which banks can reduce fees and would attract new clients and help keep existing ones. This improved business practice would benefit the shareholders and offset the loss of fees. However, there is one company which continues to make life difficult for many of its customers, and that is Telstra. I have had quite a few complaints from my constituents about the new penalty for those Telstra customers who have had the temerity to expect that they should receive a bill and be permitted to pay it in person. One constituent enunciated the general concerns very well. He does not own a computer and even if he did he does not want to give his personal financial details to a system which is vulnerable to hacking, identity theft and other privacy issues. He says he does not trust the internet and should not be forced to do business online. He is absolutely right. This is cost shifting at its most cynical. There is also the simple fact that people stick their bills on fridges as a reminder to pay their account and, afterwards, as a record of payment. Business related letters, many of them bills, also account for about 4.2 billion of the 5.6 billion mail items carried in 2007-08 by Australia Post. So any reduction in postage accounts will impact on Australia Post and drive up the cost of postage.

A far bigger issue has been raised by former New South Wales Auditor-General, Tony Harris, in the Financial Review of 4 August. He said that such a penalty may be unlawful under the Currency Act. He adds:

Telstra and others must believe it is legal to penalise cash customers. This is a brave interpretation of the law.

This is a grey area and needs clarifying immediately. Tony Harris puts the vital question:

Who can allow or stop companies from levying these fees?

The answer, of course, is the Treasurer, who is not the slightest bit interested in protecting the rights of Australians to pay bills legally without penalties. Harris finishes:

Perhaps Swan and his officers don’t care. But consumers should.

Will the Treasurer sit idly by and let Telstra rip people off or will he actually start doing his job?