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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 34

Senator CHERRY (11:38 AM) —by leave—I move Democrat amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 4543:

(1)    Clause 8, page 7 (after line 10), after paragraph 1(b), insert:

            (ba)    to promote competition as a legitimate means to advance objectives of consumer protection;

(2)    Clause 8, page 7 (after line 10), after paragraph 1(b), insert:

            (bb)    to develop, promote and enforce adequate consumer protection;

These two amendments seek to include two new subclauses in clause 8 of the bill, which relates to ACMA’s proposed telecommunications functions. Both of them are about making it abundantly clear from day one that ACMA has to be about the promotion of consumer protection. The minister commented in the second reading debate that these are unnecessary. I am very disappointed by that. I am disappointed because there is no express requirement to promote consumer protection in the Telecommunications Act, the Broadcasting Services Act or the ACMA Bill. The only mention of consumers in the ACMA Bill is in 8(1)(d), which requires ACMA to report to and advise the minister in relation to matters affecting consumers or proposed consumers of carriage services. This falls very much short of actually integrating the notion of consumer protection into all that ACMA does. It is only a very small aspect; it is simply telling the minister about it. To me that falls well short of what you would expect from a modern new telecommunications authority.

These two amendments follow recommendation 16 of the Senate committee, which was endorsed in full by the Democrat and Labor members and also endorsed in principle by the government members of the committee. The reason for that was that it was quite clear from all of the consumer groups who came before our committee—the Australian Consumers Association, the Communications Law Centre and the Australian Telecommunications Users Group—that there was real concern that the ACA and the ABA were letting consumer issues fall off the edge of their workload. Indeed, the acting chair of the ACA, Dr Bob Horton, acknowledged that point and said, ‘We probably left them off the table for the first five years of our work but we are sort of starting to address that now.’

I think the new authority has to be told from day one by this parliament that it is there for the interests of consumers. That is not there in any of the current legislation. That is why the ABA does not do anything about consumers; that is why the ACA has left consumer interests down at the bottom of its agenda for the vast bulk of its lifetime. That is why, even in setting up this authority, without changing the responsibilities, the powers, the duties or anything else, we should simply send a clear message from the parliament to ACMA from day one: ‘You are there for the consumers.’ I think that is a reasonable change. It is not a change which affects the fundamental structure of the minister’s legislative proposal. It is not something that risks serious delay to the bill. It simply says to the new board: ‘You are there to promote consumer outcomes.’

That would be a very positive thing, and I cannot see how the minister, given her activism in talking about telecommunications and regulation, and the government can oppose such a principle. It is very hard to see how the government can oppose such a principle. I look forward to hearing what arguments are being put up. I presume they will be that it is already in the act, but I have read the three acts involved and it is not mentioned anywhere. That is why we are moving these amendments. That is why the consumer organisations have asked us to raise this issue, that is why Dr Horton acknowledged that consumers have been falling off the edge and that is why I think these amendments are necessary. They give a clear instruction from parliament to the new authority to do better than the previous two authorities on this core issue of promoting consumer protection. I commend the amendments to the chamber.