House debates

Monday, 29 May 2017


Communications Fees

11:31 am

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I would like to thank the member for Perth for that stroll down nostalgia lane and his discussions about fax machines. I can beat that: I still remember a time of telex machines and a time when you had to ring the operator to make an international call. Also, I would advise the member for Perth to update his viewing lists on Netflix from such violent films like House of Cards and Game of Thronesmaybe a good rom-com would help him get in touch with his feminine side!

As the member for Perth points out, the advancements in electronic communications have fundamentally shifted the way in which we communicate. Eighty-four per cent of Australians own smartphones. Between reading the news on Facebook, uploading our food and travel snaps on Instagram, and group chatting on WhatsApp, that is 16 million people who have seen their ability to communicate become faster, cheaper and continuously available. Money can be transferred with quick swipe of one's fingerprint, and medical information can be saved in an app for emergency services. We can argue the merits of giving teens access to an app that automatically deletes the content of messages once they have been received or of our stress levels rising from an inability to disconnect from our work lives when we should be focusing on our families. But, overwhelmingly, I believe these advancements have been of great benefit to us. Never before has information been so readily available to so many people. Never before has consumer choice been greater. I recognise, however, that these advancements have not benefited all equally. Our world is changing at an increasingly rapid rate, which can leave some people behind. Older Australians, who have not grown up with a computer or with the internet, let alone a smartphone, can be forgotten.

When it comes to handling our affairs, paying our bills and generally interacting with businesses, competition in the market is what gives us as consumers the choice to decide which company we buy from, whose product is better, whose customer service is better and who has the best payment conditions. Companies that used to send paper bills to their customers now give them the option to receive them via email, a change that many of us would welcome. It is quicker, more convenient, saves paper and is often cheaper. This change can be frustrating for some Australians—those who live in remote areas and do not have ready access to the internet, or the older among us who do not use a computer but want to keep handling their affairs themselves. Receiving a bill that tracks our consumption and being able to pay that bill are part of the essential services we purchase. It is our duty as a community to make sure that these consumers are allowed to conduct their interactions with businesses, and especially essential services, without being penalised.

The Minister for Small Business, the member for Riverina, has responsibility for consumer affairs in this place. As such, he met with the Keep Me Posted organisation a number of times to discuss how to address their concerns around the availability and cost of paper billing. While some of the issues may be covered by existing provisions of the Australian Consumer Law, the concerns raised must be taken seriously. The Minister for Small Business has informed me that he has asked the Treasury to look into these issues. As we speak, Treasury is reviewing how current laws, like Australian Consumer Law and the Electronic Transaction Regulations, are operating. They will report back to him soon on the extent of the problem, what improvements can be made and whether additional specific legislation is ultimately required.

Many of the Australians we are talking about are elderly and vulnerable. Money is tight, and they may not have the capacity to pay additional fees for numerous paper bills, as the member for Perth pointed out. It is important for businesses that make a commercial decision to change processing and postage fees for paper bills to make sure that this change is a true reflection of the cost borne by that business and not an inflated fee or serving as a deterrent. I am pleased to note that many businesses, particularly those that provide essential services, already provide exemptions for individuals who cannot access bills digitally or who cannot afford to pay an additional fee. Whether or not these exemptions are readily accessible or promoted to customers is something that the Minster for Small Business will look into as part of his consideration of this issue. I encourage all businesses to follow this lead and consider the needs and rights of those consumers who have no access to the internet and who rely on receiving bills in paper form. Consumers and everyday Australians who feel cost of living pressures every day are and always will be the key focus of this Liberal government.


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