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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 991

Senator LUDLAM (1:00 PM) —The Greens broadly support the Telecommunications Amendment (Integrated Public Number Database) Bill 2009. As the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate has indicated, this is the very first step on the long road to a nationally integrated early-warning system. I would also like to add my thanks to Senator Conroy and his hardworking staff for keeping us informed as to the process and the reasoning behind the bill.

I am very pleased to be here this afternoon speaking in support of the bill. The first step that we are undertaking is to provide state and territory emergency service personnel, with due precautions, access to the IPND, the Integrated Public Number Database. This database contains all of the phone numbers in the country and is held by Telstra. As has been acknowledged by everybody, this is very much a first, small step. There is a great deal of detail to be worked out to actually deliver what this bill promises to do. For example, the new secure database that state and territory emergency services will access has not been created. It is not clear where it will sit, whether it will be one centralised database or a number of databases, or, therefore, who will manage it. The government will provide $11.3 million for the purpose of creating it and for ancillary purposes. Our understanding is that the tender will go out ‘shortly’. The states will develop the emergency warning systems and the protocols et cetera ‘as soon as possible’, but obviously that could still be some time. It is my understanding that COAG have been in discussions about this since the fires that ravaged Canberra and have only just been able to come to an agreement on how the states will access this database.

We are certainly supportive of measures that could have any impact at all the next time Australian communities are faced with the kinds of horrors that they faced in Victoria or, before that, in Canberra. But this is to not minimise the difficulties that are faced. After all, each state and territory defines ‘emergency’ differently. The scope for what can be warned against is fairly broad: it is not only floods, cyclones and fires; chemical leaks, criminal events and even terrorist activities could also potentially be covered. There are different rules and procedures in each state relating to the definition of ‘emergency’. Other issues that will need to be addressed carefully include the need for consistent processes about who makes the decision and when to send out a warning, and expectations need to be managed about the level of detail and recommendations provided through these warnings. It is very tricky, particularly in an SMS, to convey meaning clearly to people so as to not cause panic and trauma. Technically it is very important that an early-warning mechanism like this should not interfere with, overload or disable people’s ability to access outgoing services, such as 000 services. There is a very real potential that dumping such a high volume of calls into a particular area of the network may congest that network at a time when it will already be under considerable strain.

The bill authorises the Attorney-General to specify by legislative instrument which state and territory emergency management personnel can have access to the IPND for warnings of a specified emergency event. I foreshadow now that the Greens support the technical amendments that have been circulated this morning, which require the Attorney-General to give written notice to Telstra, which holds the IPND, as to who is authorised to access it. We believe that this not only provides greater legal certainty and protection to Telstra but also is an additional transparency mechanism. Those amendments are supported.

Each time the database is disclosed, reports are required to be sent as soon as is practicable to the minister—in this case, the Attorney-General—and to ACMA describing the emergency or likely emergency and its location, the number of telephone numbers that were disclosed, the date, the number of persons to whom the information was disclosed and the purpose of each disclosure. In addition, annual reports are required to be made to ACMA and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

That brings me to the key point on which the Greens are seeking some clarification from the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy: whether these reports should be made public. The minister has advised that, consistent with the Telecommunications Act, there is nothing in the bill to prevent these reports from being made public. You would expect this to be so, but it is not explicit. That is the only key issue we are seeking clarification of this afternoon. I do not believe that there is any reason to not make this information public, and that reporting would be an additional transparency and privacy protection. The parliament and the public have the right to know when these phone numbers have been accessed, even for very worthy reasons such as this. Of course, an emergency is a very public event, and a message going out to thousands of people is also a very public event. If ACMA is to be provided with annual reports as to who accessed the database and why, these reports could easily be made public. We are just seeking clarification from the minister as to his expectation of how that is to be handled. As I said in my opening remarks, the Greens are very happy to be here this afternoon supporting the bill.