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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 2

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (12:36 PM) —I thank the senators who have contributed to the debate on the Postal Industry Ombudsman Bill 2004 [2005]. The bill implements a government election commitment and will establish a dedicated Postal Industry Ombudsman within the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman and provide consumers with a recognisable, dedicated and independent entity to deal with complaints about the provision of postal services. The Postal Industry Ombudsman will have responsibility for investigating postal delivery services, including the receipt, processing and delivery of postal articles and the provision of courier services. The Postal Industry Ombudsman’s powers will complement the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s existing powers. The Commonwealth Ombudsman, for example, will retain existing powers to investigate actions by Australia Post that do not relate to the provision of postal services, such as employment matters.

Provisions in the bill will mean that most, if not all, service delivery complaints against Australia Post will be dealt with by the Postal Industry Ombudsman in a similar way to those against registered private postal operators. However, complaints against Australia Post can still be dealt with by the Commonwealth Ombudsman where it is more appropriate to do so.

I am heartened to hear senators in their contributions to this debate say that they support the establishment of a postal industry ombudsman. The legislation has been drafted after an extensive process and with historical evidence following consultation with the state and territory offices of fair trading. I have to say that there have only ever been 37 recorded complaints about the delivery of postal services by postal service providers other than Australia Post. I think that that really puts it in perspective.

It is disappointing to see that there are foreshadowed amendments proposing to take what is an almost non-existent problem and create a compliance burden by requiring everyone to participate in the scheme. The opposition have foreshadowed an amendment that in my view is unnecessary for this bill.

In developing the scheme, it is important to balance the rights of consumers—of course, that is always a critical factor—with the level of complaints. We always have to look at the cost and complexity of implementing the scheme for business and, indeed, for government. After an exhaustive consultation process, we do believe—and I must say that I personally believe—that the provisions in the legislation strike the appropriate balance.

During the course of the debate—although unfortunately I was not able to listen to all of it—there was a comparison of the volume of complaints in the postal industry with that of the telecommunications industry, which is entirely a gross exaggeration. To give an example: in 2003-04 the TIO—that is, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman—handled 75,904 complaints, of which it investigated 59,850. The TIO has an annual budget in excess of $6.5 million and has over 1,000 members. In very stark contrast, the Commonwealth Ombudsman handles only 900 to 1,000 complaints every year for Australia Post. As I said earlier, the state and territory offices of fair trading have advised that there have been only 37 recorded complaints about the delivery of postal services by postal service providers other than Australia Post. Quite simply, the reality is that this industry receives an entirely different level and nature of complaints compared to the telecommunications industry.

I can only suspect that homework has not been done on this issue and that serious thought has not been given to what a waste of resources it would be to impose the expensive TIO model on the entire postal industry. Rather, establishing the PIO as a dedicated office within the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office will ensure that the correct balance is achieved between the protection of the rights of consumers and the cost and complexity of administering the scheme. It will offer many of the same benefits as the TIO but with a lower cost and the advantage of using existing expertise in the field.

In summary, the government believes that this bill, as it is currently being considered, will be beneficial for Australian consumers, small business and private postal operators. It will provide consumers and all postal operators, including Australia Post, with an avenue to more effectively resolve service disputes and difficulties. I commend the bill.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.