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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 45


Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (12:19 PM) —In saying that the government does not support this amendment, it is important that I develop the reasons why, at least in some small detail. It is very important to realise that, whilst Ofcom provides a good model in some respects, you cannot just assume that everything that Ofcom does applies in our setting. The proposed review is enormous in scope and includes all of the relevant subordinate instruments. It is simply impractical for such a review to be conducted within 18 months—it seriously could not be achieved. I also note that the proposed review goes beyond the scope of the committee’s report, which recommended that ACMA conduct a review, not that the minister cause the review to be conducted.

The government is already conducting extensive reviews into broadcasting regulation, including through the series of digital television regulatory reviews currently under way. These reviews build on a number of independent inquiries over the past few years, including the ACCC’s report titled Emerging market structures in the communications sector and the Productivity Commission’s report titled Broadcasting. The government is also in the process of completing the implementation of a number of recommendations from the Productivity Commission’s report titled Radiocommunications review. The government is also undertaking a range of activities and considerations in the first half of 2005 to progress telecommunications service and regulatory improvements. I refer, for example, to the full implementation of the Estens recommendations; introducing legislation into parliament to require regular reviews of regional telecommunications; further consideration of the adequacy of consumer protection measures; establishment of a new retail price control regime for Telstra by 1 July 2005; a scoping study for the possible sale of the remainder of the government shareholdings in Telstra; and consideration of the appropriate policy and regulatory settings for next-generation networks and emerging voice services in a privatised environment. That represents quite a suite of reviews.

The government is also currently examining current telecommunications competition regulatory settings. The government will shortly commence an industry consultation process about whether it would be appropriate or desirable to make further changes to the telecommunications competition regime at the present time. So to initiate yet another series of reviews covering many of the same issues will create an unacceptable degree of uncertainty in the industry and for consumers.

ACMA may not always be the appropriate body to conduct regulatory reviews, especially when those reviews consider the operations of ACMA itself. ACMA would regularly review its own activities to ensure its efficiency and effective functioning as a matter of course.

With regard to complaints handling, which is proposed to be covered by the review, this responsibility is currently divided between a number of bodies in the communication sector. The Telecommunications Ombudsman handles complaints about telecommunications carriage services, while the Australian Broadcasting Authority, state and territory fair trading agencies and the Telephone Information Services Standards Council handle various types of complaints about content services, such as pay TV content, internet content and content on premium rate telecommunications services. This reflects the fact that the type and nature of the complaints vary substantially across the different communication sectors. It is important that the complaints-handling mechanisms adequately address the different types of complaints.

The government does not consider that arguments for a one-stop shop for the handling of complaints in the telecommunications sector are supported or can be supported by the available evidence at this time. There is simply no evidence that existing arrangements are not operating effectively. It is not clear that a centralised organisation could retain the detailed expertise across the board or in the complex range of legal, technical and market issues that would be involved in addressing complaints across the different communications industries.

Finally, I should point out that this particular amendment is misconceived for two reasons. Firstly, the Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1979 is administered by the Attorney-General, therefore it is not appropriate for the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts to review it. There is simply no capacity to do so. Similarly, the minister only administers parts XIB and XIC of the Trade Practices Act and certainly not the whole act. For those reasons it is not appropriate for the review to be couched in the way it is. Not only would it be complex and difficult to implement, there is doubtful power as far as the injunctions to the minister are concerned.

Question agreed to.