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Monday, 25 November 2019
Page: 4014

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (12:06): Today I also make a brief contribution to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill. I thank Senator Griff for his good intentions in bringing this legislation forward and for the fact that he seeks to act for the benefit of his constituents. I do completely understand the level of frustration that many Australians feel. It's acutely felt in my home state of Western Australia. I'm sure senators in this place will have received the same unrelenting phone calls that my office has. Coinciding with the rollout of the NBN, my office receives multiple calls per day from providers asking us to join with them to adopt the NBN. Leaving aside the complexities of the fact that we don't even manage our own contracts, and that there's no-one in the office to sell that particular product to, my office has resorted to simply saying: 'We've got the NBN. This is an office. Thank you for your call.' I've taken these calls myself, and they are indeed unrelenting, if you spend the day at home. I no longer have a home phone at home; I rely on my mobile. Is it any wonder that more and more Australians find themselves in this situation as the only way of truly opting out of telemarketing phone calls! So I do understand the purpose of the bill in providing consumers with control over the receiving of unsolicited communications.

The inflow of illegal calls from overseas scammers is appalling and has been ever-present in the lives of Australians. We have some particular cohorts of Australians who could be vulnerable, spending a greater proportion of their time at home and perhaps not being as exposed to the sense of caution that many people now have when it comes to these kinds of phone calls. The accumulation of these different issues, combined with the intensity of the election campaign, has truly exhausted the patience of many Australians, who have had not only the day-to-day calls but also the polling robocalls and the phone calls during the campaign. We understand that, in a world where there are concerns about privacy and the sharing of personal information, this is supercharged by the proliferation of digital platforms and social media.

It is key that this parliament remain responsive to such developments and concerns. We know that the Do Not Call Register is relied on by many Australians to reduce the volume of unsolicited communications they receive. It is in effect a secure database where individuals register their Australian telephone number. Once registered, the number will stay on the register indefinitely. Telemarketers need to 'wash' their calling lists against this register to ensure those numbers aren't contacted. We understand that, since that register was established, religious organisations, political parties, educational institutions and charities have had an exemption, with callers permitted to bypass the register. However, they are still expected to comply with the Telecommunications (Telemarketing and Research Calls) Industry Standard, which stipulates when a telemarketer or researcher can call you, what information they have to give you at the start of the call, the information they have to give if you request it and that they must terminate the call if you ask.

As Senator Brown highlighted, charities also provide valuable services to the community and rely on having various options to conduct fundraising activities. Many such charities have my mobile phone number and use it, and I like to give, as often as I am able, to those that call. Nearly half of the major charities are members of the Fundraising Institute Australia. It has its own code of conduct and it claims to set a higher bar than the industry standard. I'm very keen to understand what the impacts of any proposal for change would be on such charities and on their capacity to serve the community.

I have to say, as a member of a political party and as a candidate, that I value incredibly the conversations that I have had with voters during election campaigns—and, indeed, outside of election campaigns—to engage with them about the issues that are important to them. I can tell you that a great many of those calls are valued and welcomed. And if they're not, what do I do? I get off the phone quickly. That's what you do. It is very common and appreciated to spend half an hour on the phone talking through policy questions—be it climate change, be it tax, be it local education, infrastructure or pensions; you name it. It's incredibly valuable to many people to be able to have a conversation with their MP, with their local candidate, with someone who's simply interested in having a conversation with them about what they value and what they believe in.

As Senator Brown has also highlighted, it's important that we hear from the committee that's inquiring into the last election and that we hear what the committee's conclusions are about the nature of communication and the conduct of the election. I do note that electronic communication has been more and more dominant during election campaigns, and it is fair to say that, at times, it can be intrusive and disruptive—as the overall rough and tumble of democracy itself has proven to be. But many people find that electronic communication makes life easier and helps them stay in touch and stay informed.

In that context I welcome Senator Griff putting forward these proposals for attention and consideration. He has argued that these amendments strike a better balance between the needs of parties and charities while giving people more control to unsubscribe from updates that don't suit their interests. But I believe that it is important to get the balance right. We want quality information in the hands of Australians when it comes to election time. We don't want them subject to a vacuum of information or only information that suits their siloed, predetermined interests. That's not democratic debate. So it is indeed appropriate for the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to inquire into and report on this bill. I understand Labor is looking to move a second reading amendment to that effect.

The Minister for Finance asked the committee to inquire into and report on all aspects of the 2019 election and, as I understand it, it's scheduled to have its first public hearing in December this year. I would really like to encourage Australians, if they've got views about the conduct of the election—whether it be getting unsolicited text messages, whether it be polling at home, whether it be doorknocking or whether it be unsolicited phone calls or solicited phone calls—to please reach out to the committee and make sure that they get their voice heard.

We shouldn't be viewing debates on these issues out of the context of broader scam calls. We've seen incredible frustration, as I've highlighted already in my remarks. In April this year, the ACCC revealed the total combined losses reported to Scamwatch and other agencies exceeded $489 million for 2018, an increase of some $149 million since 2014. I've seen friends and family get sucked in by such calls, and it is a dire situation. So is it any wonder that people become more and more hesitant to answer the phone at home or that they simply let it ring out? All too often, it's not family calling, it's not someone calling to catch up, it's not something important—it's a scammer or it's someone trying to sell you something. There were 177,000 scams reported to Scamwatch in 2018, up from an incredible 91,000 in 2014. So it is no wonder that Australians don't believe that there's enough being done to protect them.

It is an assault on the integrity of our numbering system that there has been this massive growth in scams, that they are still getting through to households today and that scammers can even get hold of the telephone numbers of Australians to do this. It has been recognised around the world and in different jurisdictions that people are trying out ways to fix these issues. The US is implementing technical standards to verify caller ID integrity to improve safeguards against illegal number spoofing and, frankly, that would be fantastic. One of the very annoying things that are relevant to these kinds of debates that's been raised with me recently in the electorate of Canning is the fact that the local florist is competing with people who advertise themselves as being a local florist—they advertise a local phone number and you ring that local phone number and get put through to what could be a local number, but, in fact, you know—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Pratt, the time for this debate has now expired. You'll be in continuation when the debate is resumed.