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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 989


Senator MINCHIN (12:50 PM) —I indicate at the outset that the opposition does support the Telecommunications Amendment (Integrated Public Number Database) Bill 2009. This bill was appropriately introduced by the government in February in the wake of the devastating bushfires in Victoria and is, I assume, the first response from the government in relation to this matter and does reflect the concern about the absence of a national emergency warning system. From our perspective, this is a very important move and we want to cooperate fully with the government in ensuring passage of this legislation, and I record here my thanks to Senator Conroy for his cooperation in ensuring that the opposition has been appropriately briefed by his department on this bill.

I do, of course, take the opportunity in the context of this bill and the purpose it seeks to serve to again record our sympathies for those who lost loved ones during the Victorian bushfires. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families of those victims. This is about trying to ensure that in future we do what we can to reduce the loss of life from natural disasters of this kind. That is the sentiment behind this bill and that is the sentiment that we obviously strongly support. As I mentioned, there is widespread community concern about the need for a national early warning system for natural disasters of this kind. It is a matter that has been the subject of some discussion for some time.

This bill is the first step in ensuring that state and territory emergency service providers have access to the information to develop a telephony based early warning system in order to send out a mass warning using telephones. We have to acknowledge that a lot of work still needs to be done before a foolproof national system can be developed, but this is an important first step. The bill itself amends the Telecommunications Act 1997 to broaden access to the Integrated Public Number Database in emergency situations. There is probably not widespread knowledge of the existence of the Integrated Public Number Database but it is a very important asset whose management is critical and access to which must be governed very carefully and closely, given the data it holds. This is an important step in ensuring access to the database in emergency circumstances. The bill allows access by what is described as an emergency management person—that is a very bureaucratic term, but I guess we all understand what that means—as authorised by the Attorney-General, who will have administration of this at the Commonwealth level, because the Attorney-General is responsible for emergencies, to allow access to information contained in the IPND, the Integrated Public Number Database. Of course, we hope that doing so will assist in emergency situations with the communication of warnings—about the location of bushfires, in the case of the recent disaster—via both fixed line and mobile phone services.

As I mentioned, the IPND is the master telephone database for every telephone device that is both fixed or mobile in Australia, both listed and unlisted and irrespective of carrier. It is a very important national aspect. It was established during the time of our government in 1998 in order that we can have a centralised, comprehensive database for use by the telecommunications industry and a limited number of other organisations with community protection functions. It is updated on a regular and often daily basis and it is managed by Telstra—and I commend that company on its management of this database—as the designated IPND manager. The effect of this bill will broaden access to the IPND beyond the current scope for state and territory initiated telephony based emergency warning systems so that they can make mass outbound calls.

Emergency management is a responsibility of state and territory governments. We note that under this bill the Attorney-General will rely on the definition of ‘emergency’ that is provided for in state and territory legislation to give effect to the powers provided for in this legislation. There has of course been, as I mentioned, previous discussion about the deployment of a national warning system. Our government put the issue on the COAG agenda in 2007, but to this point there has not been agreement at COAG level on the best way forward for the deployment of a national system and on exactly how it will be paid for. Various state based trials have tested opt-in solutions, but national agreement has only to this point been achieved in principle. Appropriate avenues should be pursued to ensure there are no barriers to the establishment of an early warning system, be it at state or national level, that will assist authorities in reducing risk to the population in an emergency situation. There are a number of steps that need to be undertaken to develop a national warning system, and we would of course encourage COAG to continue to consider what is required to deploy a fully effective and comprehensive national system as soon as possible.

Further, we continue to support efforts to improve the technology available so that such a warning system can be fully effective and as far as possible minimise confusion of those receiving messages who may not be in a designated emergency area at the time of the communication. The government has properly acknowledged that at this stage the technology is still restricted to using the IPND to communicate with fixed lines and mobiles based on their billing address and not on the actual roaming location, which I think we all acknowledge is a limitation on the system, but that is all that we have to work with at the moment and we must proceed on that basis. Obviously it would be desirable to be able to warn and communicate with people who do not have a billing address in an area that is threatened. That is obviously desirable but not yet possible.

We are particularly concerned about ensuring all efforts are made to continue to protect the integrity of the database. That is critical and that is why access to it has been appropriately restricted to this point. We seek that particularly through the existing safeguards in the Telecommunications Act and their application to these amendments. The bill includes measures to protect the personal information contained in the database, including that subscriber names are not disclosed by the authorised user or by secondary disclosure, with appropriate penalties applying. We support these measures to secure personal information contained in the database, particularly as it pertains to some 50 million phone numbers and the personal and business details corresponding to those numbers. As I said, it is an extraordinary and valuable database. Criminal penalties of up to two years imprisonment will apply for misuse of the data on the IPND, consistent with the existing provisions of the Telecommunications Act for misuse of the database. The bill makes it an offence for IPND information to be disclosed if not for the provision of telephone based warning emergency systems. Proposed section 295X includes that reasonable steps be taken to ensure that the use of the IPND information does not adversely affect the normal operations of a telecommunications network, that any agency using the IPND for an emergency warning must provide a report of each activation of a telephony based emergency warning to the Attorney-General and the Australian Communications and Media Authority, and, further, that agencies responsible for issuing warnings will have to report annually to ACMA and the Privacy Commissioner. We strongly support those safeguards and the accountability mechanisms contained therein.

Further, the bill includes amendments to clarify the use of the IPND information for location dependent carriage services—something that, again, the community generally is probably not all that familiar with. This amendment stems from a discussion paper that was issued in 2007 under our government, and we support this amendment. Overall, we support this bill and the interim arrangements that have been put in place—and already acted upon—until the bill finally receives royal assent. As the government has noted, and which I think is important to emphasise, any use of the IPND for warnings cannot replace other measures already used by state and territory authorities to provide communities with warning about dangerous conditions, particularly given that, as I have previously indicated, telephony based warnings are not perfect due to the reliance on billing addresses to identify those to be warned. This is not a silver bullet, and I do not think the government pretends that it is, but it is an important first stage of our response as a parliament to the devastation in Victoria and it is one that we fully support.