25 November 2019

Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019

I join my colleagues in rising to speak on this private member's bill, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019. I'd like to start by thanking my South Australian colleague Senator Griff for bringing these issues to the Senate for debate through this bill today. The bill proposes to make some changes which would provide consumers with more control and transparency over the receipt of unsolicited electronic and telephone communications from political parties and charities by removing several longstanding exemptions.

The bill before us proposes to make several changes. It seeks to amend the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 to enable consumers who register on the Do Not Call Register to opt out of receiving phone calls from charities. It seeks to amend the Spam Act 2003 to require political parties to provide an 'unsubscribe' function for all unsolicited electronic communications containing political content. It seeks to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to require voice calls communicating an electoral matter to a person to identify the use of any actors at the beginning of the call. And it seeks to amend the Telecommunications Act 1997 to make other consequential amendments.

Labor acknowledge, as my colleagues Senators O'Neill and Kitching have already said, that Senator Griff has brought forward these proposals in good faith and that he is genuinely seeking to address issues of significant concern to the community. We acknowledge that. We, too, understand that there are many Australians out there who hold concerns about these issues, especially in regard to electronic communications containing political content. During political campaigns and debates, it is crucial that the Australian public are informed about who is trying to persuade them to think or to act in a certain way and that people authorising political matters are held accountable for the material broadcast in instances where proper attribution is absent or the source of political advertising and messaging is hidden and has the potential to compromise the contribution of political communications to the political and democratic process.

For the purposes of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, 'political matter' is defined very broadly in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to mean 'any political matter, including the policy launch of a political party'. Guidance as to the sort of material that may constitute political matter is provided primarily through the Australian Communications and Media Authority's decision-making, reflected in reports of political matter investigations. What constitutes political matter is an objective test and is determined on a case-by-case basis by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, but the balance that we find can often be a fine one.

In the lead-up to the 2019 election, we saw Clive Palmer and the United Australia Party unleash an unacceptable barrage of unsolicited text messages to unsuspecting voters, many of which contained false claims. Those messages contained geographically targeted slogans and campaign material, with the ABC reporting that, as of January 2019, more than 5.6 million Australian phones had received these text messages from Clive Palmer and the United Australia Party. As of March 2019, the population of Queensland was five million, so a population larger than the state of Queensland received these text messages.

This prompted over 3,000 complaints from consumers to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, who is the regulator that oversees spam and unsolicited communications. In responding to these concerns, they noted that under current laws political parties are free to send campaign material as long as that material is not commercial in its nature. As a spokesman from the Australian Communications and Media Authority at the time said:

Calls, emails or SMS that are not commercial — that is they do not have a commercial purpose — are generally allowed and not required to comply with the obligations under the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 and the Spam Act 2003. Communications about political matters do not usually include a commercial element.

There are clearly challenges here that require consideration given the sheer volume of messages involved. On 25 September 2019, the South Australian Liberal Party made robocalls to households across the Adelaide Hills over two consecutive mornings at 6 am, when these calls were supposed to be made at 6 pm. After the first round of calls went out, the Liberal government issued an apology over the very embarrassing and disruptive blunder which rudely woke so many South Australians early in the morning, and they promised to fix the problem. However, less than 24 hours after their apology, the Liberal state director had to apologise to listeners for a second time on ABC Radio ADELAIDE for sending out the same robocalls, again at 6 am.

Residents in South Australia were rightly frustrated by this. They were rightly frustrated. Then, they rightly called for a ban on these robocalls to vent their frustration. We heard reports from Karen from Adelaide, who's sleep was disrupted just after 6.30 in the morning. She described the incident on ABC Radio ADELAIDE:

My husband's mobile went off so he raced out of bed and sure enough, it was a robocall.

… I was dozing back to sleep and then my mobile went off so we scored it twice this morning and I actually did the survey.

Normally I wouldn't do it but I was so angry this morning that I decided to give Mr Marshall and the Liberal Party a bad rating.

I suggest it was a bad rating that, after those robocalls, they certainly deserved.

Many senior Liberal ministers were forced to admit to the blunder and apologise to the South Australians affected, with one senior minister stating, 'No sensible person would be commissioning polling or robocalling at 6 am.' Well, that's the public's expectation for sensibility as well, but it's an expectation that certainly wasn't met in this instance.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority formally warned the South Australian division of the Liberal Party for making these robocalls during prohibited calling times in the early hours of the morning—well before what is permitted by the telemarketing standard in this case. The Australian Communications and Media Authority states that penalties for telecommunications breaches range from formal warnings to fines of up to $250,000. I have to say, it seems that in this instance the South Australian Liberal Party probably got away with what could be called a slap on the wrist.

It's no secret that South Australians and Australians are not impressed by, and indeed get frustrated with, these occurrences—not just in my state, with the Liberal Party's robocalls at 6 am, but nationally, and not just in politics but generally with unsolicited calls. The influx of unsolicited calls from overseas scammers only serves to compound this frustration further. Research by CHOICE last year found that 89 per cent of Australians received at least one unsolicited call in a six-month period and 25 per cent of people receive unwanted calls from charities on a weekly basis. Of those Australians surveyed, five per cent said they received unwanted and unsolicited calls on a daily occurrence. On top of these statistics, it is not surprising that seven in 10 Australians do not believe enough is being done to tackle nuisance and scam calls.

As some of my colleagues have said during the debate, it's often senior Australians who are particularly vulnerable to the barrage of calls. Seniors are often more reliant on landlines and are more likely to be home during the day. They may also feel reluctant to hang up on or abruptly fob off a caller collecting charity donations. The chief executive officer of National Seniors recently stated: 'We are hearing from our members that the calls are making them anxious and that they are reluctant to answer the phone.' National Seniors collected stories from older Australians affected by unwanted calls, especially from charities, and found that people are avoiding answering their phones or considering disconnecting their landlines and that in some instances, shockingly, family members are moving in with elderly relatives in order to protect them from these unwanted—and, at times, aggressive—unsolicited phone calls seeking donations. I've witnessed my own parents-in-law take these calls and the frustration and sometimes worry that they can cause.

Labor acknowledges the importance of Australians having better control over what unsolicited communications they receive and from whom, especially for more vulnerable groups in our community. In a world where concerns about privacy and the sharing of personal information receive almost daily attention, supercharged by the rapid proliferation of digital platforms and social media, it is important that the parliament remains responsive to developments and concerns. When technology is moving especially fast and personal data is becoming more and more valuable, responsive, well-researched and strong policies are necessary. However, it is also important to note that political parties and candidates provide voters with information they use to inform their voting behaviour. Electronic communication is one of the key channels through which they do so. This is important communication.

The Do Not Call Register Act was established in 2006 and prohibits making unsolicited telemarketing calls or sending unsolicited marketing faxes to members on the register. It sets out the main remedies for breaches of the act and requires the Australian Communications and Media Authority to establish and oversee the Do Not Call Register and to investigate breaches. When the Do Not Call Register Act was established it contained exemptions for charities, religious organisations, educational institutions and political parties. These types of callers were permitted to bypass the register, but they still need to comply with the Telecommunications (Telemarketing and Research Calls) Industry Standard 2017, 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 you if you request it and that they must terminate the call if you ask.

Our charities provide hugely valuable services to our community and rely on having various options to conduct their fundraising activities. The value of our charity sector is demonstrated by the five in six Australians who give to not-for-profits and the $143 billion given in the last year, most of it through the generosity of the Australian community. The esteem in which this sector is held is demonstrated by the size of the charity workforce, which employs one in every 10 Australian workers. The not-for-profit sector and charities, social enterprises and community organisations also provide so much of Australia's social infrastructure. As of March 2018 there are more than 50,000 registered charities in Australia competing for donations from the Australian community. Nearly half the major charities are members of the Fundraising Institute of Australia, which has its own code of conduct and claims to set a higher bar than the industry standards.

However, Australians, who are certainly generous and generally hugely supportive of the charity sector, aren't immune to frustration from the telephone calls that they receive canvassing donations. As Jim from Perth described on ABC talkback radio:

When they ring me, I tell them that they are invading my privacy and that I do not respond to these phone calls. I also ask them to take my name off their lists.

We in this place need to work with the charity sector to understand and ensure that any proposals for change do not undermine their viability to serve their community. It is absolutely essential and important that we support the charity sector in Australia and that we encourage the generosity and giving nature embedded in our Australian values and culture, but we also need to support Australians who feel frustrated by the status quo.

More broadly, the driver of complaints about unsolicited communications to consumers both in terms of volume and in terms of harm is illegal telephone scams. In April this year the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission revealed that the total combined losses reported to Scamwatch and other agencies exceeded $489 million for 2018, an increase of $149 million on 2017. There were 177,000 scams reported to Scamwatch in 2018, up from over 91,000 in 2014. Scamwatch statistics now show that in this year alone nearly $30 million has been lost to illegal telephone scams, with over 60,000 reports made to Scamwatch. Of those 60,000 reports, approximately 10,000 have been made from residents within my home state of South Australia.

The age group most vulnerable to illegal telephone scams is those aged between 55 and 64. Whilst the issue of illegal telephone scams is not an issue for the objective of this particular bill, it is something that we need to see the government focus on as an immediate priority to better protect Australians, especially those most vulnerable to these types of telephone scams.

For these reasons, Labor considers it would be appropriate for the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to consider and report on this bill. We absolutely understand and agree that the issues raised in this bill by Senator Griff deserve due attention and consideration. We also believe that there is a more robust process in which we can better capture the wider issues that a bill like this should ultimately consider.

On 29 July 2019, the Minister for Finance asked the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to inquire into and report on all aspects of the conduct of the 2019 federal election. In a media release in September, the committee stated:

Political advertising on social and traditional media is being investigated by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters as part of its inquiry into the 2019 Federal election.

The changes in social media, traditional media and smart phones have significantly changed the way we're exposed to information, the way we access information and the way we publish information. Digital media has become our most active source of media, yet the regulatory framework hasn't kept up with the significant and rapid changes we are seeing in this area. The 2019 election made these gaps especially poignant. The committee has opened and invited submissions, and the first public hearing is scheduled for 6 December 2019. As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I will be keeping a close eye on the submissions and ideas which come out of our hearings as we listen to feedback from Australians. I expect that there will be many different ideas on the avenues and approaches we can explore in order to move forward in protecting our democracy from these new changes.

The growth in scams and the unsolicited telephone calls which often precede them is a very serious issue. This illegal practice is also an incursion on the privacy every Australian has the right to enjoy in their own home. This has been recognised around the world, and different jurisdictions are trying out their own ideas—ideas which we should be giving consideration to in a debate like this and in the consideration of legislation like this. For example, in the US, they are implementing technical standards to verify caller ID integrity, to improve safeguards against illegal number spoofing. In the UK, British Telecom recently introduced Call Protect, which is a free opt-in service which combines network intelligence and user feedback to prevent calls from numbers on a scam blacklist from reaching households. This service was reported to reduce the volume of nuisance calls by 65 per cent, with over two million UK households signing up in the first three months. The UK has also trialled handset technology in the homes of some of the most vulnerable people across the UK, such as dementia sufferers, who have been identified by doctors as being the most at risk from nuisance calls. In New Zealand, the telecommunications industry has established a scam prevention code. There are many options like these and others which the Australian parliament could also explore. Each of these options, of course, will have its own advantages and difficulties in design and implementation, but that's what we should be considering in detail and in depth.

What perplexes many Australians indeed is that they see the government acting forcefully to rush through poorly drafted encryption legislation, and yet, when we have nearly half a billion dollars being robbed from citizens every year, especially senior Australians, and vulnerable people being harassed in their homes nearly every day, the same government, this government, is not acting with the same level of urgency. And, despite being in power for over six years, the Liberals have only just begun to put together a plan—despite repeated warnings that the problem was getting worse.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has singled out combating scam calls as a top consumer priority for the commission. We, on our side of the chamber—Labor senators—are calling on the government to show the same level of seriousness to this issue here. We look forward to the Australian Communications and Media Authority outlining in December how it plans to tackle the issue as part of its report from the scam technology project.

As our interaction with and exposure to online digital media changes and changes rapidly, we must make sure that the parliament continues to protect our electoral and democratic processes from digital and social media manipulation and disinformation. Our dependence on digital media platforms has come to the forefront of debates across the globe, especially its effects on elections and democracies. Although of course this is a global problem that needs to be addressed on a global scale, we too in Australia need to be inquiring and looking into ways in which we can effectively tackle this problem at home through our own legislative framework and through our own public policies.

It is true that mass digital technology provides platforms for greater political engagement than has ever been possible before. This not only creates a platform for both greater voter engagement and policy discussion but also poses significant threats. So I urge everyone—senators, members of parliament, everyday Australian citizens or anyone concerned with the legislative framework around new-age media, digital platforms and old policies that need updating in this industry—to make a submission to the electoral matters committee inquiry into the federal election.

Again, I would like to note and fully acknowledge that Senator Griff's proposals are serious and have been well considered by him in their substance. They deserve our consideration, debate and discussion in the Senate. I thank senators from all sides of this chamber for contributing to that debate and having this discussion. I know Centre Alliance has taken a special interest because of what happened in South Australia with the Liberals' robocalls. I acknowledge that, but it is important for legislative frameworks to strike the always challenging balance between the rights of consumers and the ability of political parties and charities to communicate with the public. To do this properly, the bill and the measures within it must be properly scrutinised and consulted upon. Labor senators would like to see the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters examine the proposals contained in Senator Griff's bill, as we believe that is the appropriate forum for these matters to be considered in depth. I note my colleague Senator Kitching has distributed amendments to that effect, and they are amendments that I will be supporting.