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Friday, 5 May 1989
Page: 1898


Senator LEWIS(10.50) —I shall be addressing myself to two parts of the Transport and Communications Legislation Amendment Bill 1989 which the Senate is currently debating. I shall be dealing with part 5, which relates to amendments to the Broadcasting Act 1942, and part 7, which deals with amendments to the Telecommunications Act 1975.

The amendments to the Broadcasting Act 1942 purport to correct an oversight in the scheme for limited licences, which was introduced by the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Act 1988. It is claimed that the provisions will enable the grant of limited broadcasting licences which involve transmissions from transponders on an Aussat satellite. Limited licences allow streamlined licensing of a range of broadcasting services which, because of restrictions on duration, purpose, content or other aspects, do not raise the same public interest concerns as conventional broadcasting licences. For example, teletext services will be authorised under limited licences. The provisions in this Bill will allow existing remote commercial television service licensees to seek limited licences to broadcast teletext services to remote area homesteads which have satellite receivers. It will also allow licensing, if and when appropriate, of other limited broadcasting services by satellite to remote homesteads. The coalition parties will not be opposing this part of the Bill.

I wish to raise with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Senator Gareth Evans)-I will be doing so in detail during the committee stage of the Bill-what I believe to be a drafting error. I wonder whether anyone in the Department of Transport and Communications or in the office of the Minister for Transport and Communications (Mr Willis) ever reads the legislation to see what it actually says. The Government, Ministers and departmental officers ought to realise that the legislation means what it says; not what the Ministers or the departmental officers want it to mean.

This Bill amends the Broadcasting Act 1942. We last dealt with that in Bill No. 146 of 1988-the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 1988. I do not know whether the Government meant it but it has not been corrected. The Government has remained silent on the matter. At the time, I pointed out that that legislation, by a back door method, allowed the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to have sponsorship broadcast-in other words, advertisements by way of sponsorship-on its channels. There was also a means by which the amendments to the legislation could have enabled, and can still enable, the ABC to have advertisements on its programs. At the time the Government had not told the ABC that as a result of the legislation that would be the case. Clearly, the Government did not realise that that was the purpose of some of the amendments.

I now draw attention to what is being proposed in this legislation. In Bill No. 146 of 1988 we had two schedules of amendments. In schedule 3 we dealt with paragraph 89d (3) (a). That amendment to the Bill inserted `limited licence' after `public licence'. It is almost unbelievable, but in schedule 4 of the same Bill there was another reference to the same paragraph. It said:

Omit `, limited licence or re-transmission', substitute `or limited'.

That complex arrangement meant that the words `limited licence' were inserted by schedule 3 and the words `limited licence or re-transmission' were deleted by schedule 4. That seems to me to be an extremely clever piece of legislation for the Parliament to have passed. What was then substituted in schedule 4 were the words `or limited'. It is my view that the consequence of those proposals is that the Act will now read, in paragraph 89d (3) (a), `in the case of a licence other than a remote licence, public licence or limited licence-authorises the operation, in accordance with the warrant and by a person or persons specified in the warrant'. By that complex set of amendments in schedule 3 and schedule 4 of Act No. 146 of 1988, the words `limited licence' were inserted. When we look at this Bill before us today we see that subclause 12 (a) inserts in paragraph (3) (a) of section 89d `a limited licence' after the words `a public licence'. I say to the Minister that in my view-and I would appreciate some advice as to whether it is right-that amendment is totally unnecessary because the words proposed to be inserted were in fact inserted when we dealt with this legislation, I think, in December of last year. I will raise that again in due course during the committee stage of the Bill. I mention it now to enable the Minister's officers to apply their minds to whether or not that is correct.

I turn now to the amendments to the Telecommunications Act 1975, which is part 7 of this Bill. The amendments in this part propose to validate retrospectively charging arrangements undertaken by Telecom Australia for which currently it does not have by-law coverage. In other words, Telecom is making charging arrangements which it has no legal right to make. The Minister in his second reading speech acknowledged the errors which `generally reflect inadequate administrative controls and inappropriate reporting procedures within Telecom's organisation'. In other words, the Minister is slating Telecom for its inadequate administrative controls and inadequate reporting procedures within its organisation. As at September of last year there were 1,997 telephone charging zones and 5,227 telephone exchanges in the Commonwealth. In some cases as new exchanges have been opened network changes have been made in advance of by-law operation. In other words, Telecom changed the network, changed the charging arrangements, but did not have any legal right to make the changes. The network changes affected charging. Some were increased; some were reduced. But these altered charges were not authorised in advance by the by-laws and have still not been authorised-and will not be until the passage of this legislation.

Telecom claims that it is impossible to determine the net effect of the errors on individual customers. The effect would depend on the individual customer's calling pattern. The existing arrangements for which validation is proposed to be provided would have resulted in higher charges for calls in particular directions and lower charges for calls in other directions. The point is that when a network is relocated, if people have a normal pattern of calling some of their calls result in higher charges and some result in lower charges. However, it may very well be that there are people out there in the community who perhaps make calls in the one direction all the time. I could imagine some elderly people who perhaps never ring anyone other than their daughters or sons, daughters-in-law, or some member of their family. If those people were able to establish that, in my mind they would be able to establish satisfactorily that Telecom has increased, or maybe reduced, their charges as a result of its change to the network. It is possible that there are people out there who, as a result of the passage of this legislation, will retrospectively lose their right to claim from Telecom a refund of charges which Telecom was not authorised to make.

I appreciate it is unlikely that Telecom or individual customers possess the detailed records or information to enable accounts to be recalculated retrospectively if the amendments are not passed but it may very well be that there are people who are able to do it. It is proposed in this legislation to give Telecom protection from attempts by customers to challenge prior accounts on the basis of the legality of the zonal and other charging arrangements. Once again Telecom's actions are being given legislative protection. Telecom is the largest business operating in Australia. It is larger than the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd, larger than the Coles-Myer group. Its revenues and expenditure are larger than the amount of money the Government of this country spends on the defence budget. Yet this poor body desperately needs the protection of Parliament to cover up for the mistakes it has made.

Let me assure the Senate that the Liberal and National parties will not be authorising Telecom to make retrospective charges or to correct retrospectively its charging arrangements by passing part 7 of this Bill. We will be voting against it during the committee stage. Under the existing charging arrangements if someone is able to establish a claim against Telecom, Telecom may have to suffer that and may have to refund moneys to customers. Telecom's ineptitude in this regard totally ignores the legislation. Telecom does not worry about its responsibility to the Parliament or to the people. It says, `Let's get the networks running and worry about the legality of our charging arrangements afterwards'.

Even now, as I understand, when Telecom became aware of this it could have immediately made by-laws which prospectively would have rectified the problems as they exist at the present moment. I gather that Telecom has chosen not to do that but to say, `Oh, well, we'll let the Parliament fix that up. We'll wait until the Parliament has passed this piece of legislation and then that will validate both retrospectively and prospectively our charging arrangements'. As far as the coalition parties are concerned, Telecom is just going to have to wear the fact that the legislation will not be passed by us and that it may have to make refunds to some of its customers.