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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 993

Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) (1:05 PM) —in reply—I thank all those who have contributed to the debate. The government is committed to doing whatever it can to respond to emergencies and natural disasters. The recent tragedy in my home state of Victoria, the floods in Queensland and even the close call we seem to have had with Cyclone Hamish off Australia’s north-east coast remind us that there is always more that we can do. It is in this context that the Telecommunications Amendment (Integrated Public Number Database) Bill 2009 has come forward today. I thank the senators who have spoken on the bill and I am encouraged by the support for the bill going forward.

The overall management of emergencies and disasters is a matter for the Attorney-General; however, my portfolio has worked with the Attorney-General’s Department to facilitate access to a database of all Australian telephone numbers and associated address information for emergency warning purposes. The database is the Integrated Public Number Database, or IPND, and it represents one of the most comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date listings of people in Australia. However, we need to use this database with care because it obviously contains large amounts of sensitive, personal information. For example, it contains information on all unlisted telephone numbers in Australia. There are people who, for professional and personal reasons, need to retain anonymity. I do not need to go into details about how important it is that this data be protected.

The bill will allow information contained in the IPND to be disclosed for emergency warning purposes. However, this bill does not provide a silver bullet. A range of mechanisms will continue to be needed to alert and inform people caught up in emergency situations. There are a range of measures that already exist through the actions of the front-line state and territory government emergency agencies and in coordination with the Commonwealth government’s Emergency Management Agency. These agencies currently use a range of mechanisms—most commonly door-knocking, sirens, and TV and radio broadcast alerts—to warn the public of impending emergencies. The capacity to provide telephony based alerts would be a valuable addition to the state and territory arsenal of warning mechanisms and would help affected communities prepare for and respond to an emergency.

To address potential privacy concerns, the bill includes a number of safeguards. For example, subscriber names will not be disclosed for emergency warning purposes. In addition, there are penalties of up to two years imprisonment for misuse of the data sourced from the Integrated Public Number Database. There are also requirements for incident-by-incident reports to be sent to the Attorney-General and the Australian Communications and Media Authority following an emergency warning. Agencies responsible for issuing alerts will also be required to report annually to ACMA and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. It is my understanding that there is nothing in this bill precluding ACMA from publicly reporting on the use of data from the Integrated Public Number Database for emergency-warning purposes. In fact, ACMA has advised that it will include this information in its annual report—subject to its statutory reporting requirements and relevant privacy obligations. The government amendment that I introduced into the Senate will increase certainty and confidence when IPND information is disclosed by requiring specified emergency management persons to give a written notice to the IPND manager, stating that they will only use or disclose the information for emergency-warning purposes.

The past weeks have been an extraordinary time in the history of Australia and, particularly, Victoria. Bushfires have wrought unprecedented damage in Victoria while, at the same time, northern areas of the country have been visited by flood and cyclone. Our thoughts remain with those who have lost possessions and, tragically, loved ones. Those figuring at the front line—fire services, police and others—should once again be commended. Their work has been outstanding. However, it is also important to impress the need for continued vigilance from all in the community.

The passage of this bill will allow the portfolio of the Attorney-General, in consultation with state and territory governments, to proceed to develop the mechanism to deliver a telephone based emergency warning system. In a joint press release issued by me and the Attorney on 23 February 2009, the government announced that it would allocate $11.3 million for this purpose. The bill will also clarify that limited information from the Integrated Public Number Database can be disclosed for the provision of location dependent carriage services. Location dependent carriage services are for the delivery of services such as pizza delivery. These amendments provide greater certainty for existing service. It was very pleasing that our colleagues in the other place gave such strong bipartisan support to this bill. In addition to that unanimous support, there was also recognition that passage of this bill is a priority. I commend this bill, as amended by the government, to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.