House debates

Monday, 29 May 2017


Communications Fees

11:25 am

Photo of Tim HammondTim Hammond (Perth, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes:

(a) the rapid increase in the use of electronic communication technology in recent decades, including in commerce;

(b) that access to electronic communication technology differs between Australians, and is often related to income, age, education level and remoteness;

(c) that not all Australians have the skills and infrastructure to communicate effectively via electronic channels;

(d) that many businesses, including banks, telecommunications companies and utilities, charge consumers an extra fee to receive communications via post; and

(e) that often the fee charged by companies to receive communications by post are intended as a disincentive, and do not represent the actual cost incurred by the company; and

(2) calls on the Government to bring forward legislation that will give consumers the right to receive communications from companies by post for no extra fee.

No member of this House will be unfamiliar with the current state of affairs that exists where many companies now charge a fee to send an invoice, bill or statement by post in a circumstance where that customer, quite rightly, could have expected that invoice to arrive for free, as being all part of the service. Those on this side of the House are concerned that some of our nation's most vulnerable consumers—pensioners, low-income families and people with disabilities, who are least engaged in the digital and who have little meaningful choice about how they receive information—are now being asked to pay extra to receive information in a way that used to be free.

Information communication technology evolves very rapidly. The iPhone is only 10 years old; iPads have only been around for seven years. It feels like a new smart phone is released every month and its obsolescence is simply par for the course. Discmans, MiniDisc players, Walkmans, CDs, DVDs, good old-fashioned tapes all went out of fashion years ago. Now, even iTunes-style digital downloading has been displaced in favour of content streaming services like Spotify or Netflix. I do not know how many honourable members still keep a fax machine in their electorate offices. When I entered the workforce, I still remember, the fax machine was an essential piece of office kit. It got a daily workout, with the thermal paper rolling off the fax machine and under the desk. But these days, the fax machine that still sits proudly in the electorate office is very silent and is growing cobwebs by the day.

All of this technical evolution leaves people behind. Those left behind are often, very sadly, defined by age, income level, educational attainment and remoteness. Those who left the workforce before the widespread adoption of modern ICT infrastructure and those whose employment did not involve interfacing with technology are, typically, lower-paid, lower-skilled manual workers. They are families with low incomes that do not have the money to spend on ICT infrastructure for their personal use. For people with intellectual or other disabilities, it can be difficult for them to become accustomed to engaging meaningfully in the digital world. They are, also, citizens in remote communities, including Indigenous communities, who do not have ready access to digitally connected consumer goods or reliable internet services. For these people, this digital divide means so much more than simply missing out on the most recent season of House of Cards or Game of Thrones. It actually means having to pay extra to receive information, including statutorily mandated information, from utilities, financial service providers, telcos and other companies. It means paying extra to receive information that they can barely afford to pay for.

The idea is that it saves money for a corporate to email a document, so they seek to incentivise consumers to elect to receive documents electronically. This can take several forms. Some companies charge a fee to receive documents through the post—invariably, a higher fee than the actual cost of posting the document. Some companies create incentives to electing electronic communication, such as discounts and special offers. Some companies have special discount pricing structures, one of the criteria of which includes only having the option of receiving communications electronically. The obvious problem to all of this is that it leaves those vulnerable consumers on the wrong side of the digital divide with, simply, higher bills to pay. The cost of those bills all adds up.

We have reached a stage where those more vulnerable in our community are now having to pay precious dollars that they can ill afford to spend on receiving statements in the mail that, quite rightly, they should reasonably expect to receive as they previously did—that is, is free of charge. Quite frankly, the current state of affairs is misleading. At the point of sale, consumers are not informed of the entire cost of the service that is being provided to them, and it is also disproportionate. While companies charge an average of $2.50 to send documents by post, the average cost of doing so, including printing, staffing and postage, is somewhere between 94c and $1.11. Whilst some companies have exemption programs around the fee for paper billing, the process of applying for those is rarely communicated to consumers.

What is most concerning is that this sets a very dangerous precedent. Only a legislative solution can fix this problem. Only by enshrining in law a citizen's right to receive communications from a company by post for no extra fee can we deliver justice to vulnerable consumers and ensure that no-one is left behind. I commend the motion.


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