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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 77

Senator LUNDY (2:46 PM) —My question is to Senator Coonan, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Has the minister seen this month's report by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman which stated that consumer complaints about poor services increased by eight per cent to 59,850 last year? Is the minister aware that complaints about landline faults increased by 21 per cent, mobile phone connections by 80 per cent and Internet connections by 158 per cent? Given these disappointing statistics, why has the government remained obsessed with the full privatisation of Telstra? In fact, can the minister explain how the sale of Telstra will improve services for consumers? Minister, given that in question time today we have already heard how useless the consumer service guarantee is, what action will the government take to address these falling service standards in the telecommunications industry?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I am really glad that somebody on the other side has got around—the report has been out for quite a while—to asking a question about this report. Some of the findings in the TIO's annual report about the performance of the industry in 2003-04 are not surprising. The number of complaints for the previous financial year was higher than for the year earlier, but complaints remained considerably lower than they were three years ago because complaints fell substantially. Complaints in 2003-04 were in fact 15.7 per cent lower than in 2000-01.

The number of complaints would also be expected to increase with the recent improvements in the level of consumer awareness of the TIO following the recent government information campaign. The government are serious about dealing with consumers and about consumers having access to the telecommunications ombudsman, and so we undertook an information campaign. It would be important for consumers to be able to take up their concerns with the industry ombudsman and important that they know their rights. I understand that a survey by the TIO in April 2004 revealed that the level of awareness of the TIO among residential or household telecommunications consumers increased from 47 per cent to 52 per cent since the previous survey. This is a 10.6 per cent increase in the awareness of the TIO and it may of itself be expected to cause a similar increase in the level of complaints, regardless of any change in consumer concern.

There are a number of issues that were identified in the TIO report that are being addressed. For example, the government has been actively involved in the contracts issue, advocating the development of a code of practice under telecommunications legislation to address the particular issues that have arisen in telecommunications contracts. The government has written, for example, to the CEOs of all the major carriers seeking their commitment to the code of development process and to timely and effective outcomes. This followed a formal request by the ACA for the telecommunications industry to develop a code of practice for consumer contracts and to submit it to the ACA for registration.

Another issue dealt with by the ombudsman was credit management. These are issues that were identified as of most concern to consumers and they are matters to which the government is responding. In relation to credit management, the government directed the ACA in April to investigate industry arrangements to protect telecommunications consumers from Internet dumping and unexpected high bills. The ACA gave its report to me recently and I am currently considering these recommendations. So the point of the issue is that the ombudsman is there to deal with legitimate issues with telecommunications affecting consumers. The government has in fact undertaken a campaign to ensure that consumers are aware of the ombudsman and aware of their rights, and I am very pleased to see that increased awareness reflected in the annual report.

Senator LUNDY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Does the minister accept that the ombudsman's report demonstrates once again that the light touch regulation in the telecommunications industry has not delivered good outcomes for consumers? The minister mentioned, or at least paid lip-service to, unfair contracts, so I ask: will the government now act to direct the Australian Communications Authority to review all consumer codes and develop tougher regulatory standards to improve service levels?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —As I have said, what the government have done is to develop a robust consumer framework. We have built these consumer frameworks in the absence of the Labor Party doing anything in 13 years to look after telco consumers. I think it is interesting that in Senator Lundy's earlier question she asked about privatising Telstra. One thing I do know is that these consumer safeguards exist independently of government ownership of or interest in Telstra.

Unfortunately for the Labor Party, they do not seem to be able to understand the difference between competition and consumer protection. They want to advocate telecommunication competition on one hand while demanding that Telstra deliver services at any cost on the other. Under Labor, all you would get with Telstra is an old-style, monopolistic public utility incapable of delivering anything for consumers. This government cares about consumers. We have built the framework to look after them and we will maintain it.